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For Spectators, Day Starts Early

September 18, 1997|RICHARD WARCHOL and TRACY WILSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The two retired sisters sat patiently on a bench outside Courtroom 45.

They were watching, scanning the papers, chatting.

In all their years, Nell Hughes and Mary Sears had never been to a murder trial before.

But the slaying of Sherri Dally hit close to home, they said.

Tales of love triangles and adultery, witchcraft and human sacrifice happen on Sunday night movies and the TV news, they said, not in Ventura.

As they had done four or five times before, Hughes and Sears traveled to the county courthouse Wednesday from the Ventura home they share. They came to catch closing arguments in the murder trial of Diana Haun.

But they were shut out, their 8:30 a.m. arrival time far too late to win a seat in the packed courtroom.

There are 56 seats in Judge Frederick A. Jones' courtroom.

All but 16 were reserved Wednesday for family, friends, media and others.

The line for those 16 seats started forming at 6:15 a.m. and stretched 35 to 40 people long down the fourth-floor hallway.

For every person who got in, someone else was left out.

It's OK, the sisters decided. They are retired. They have time. They would wait out the lunch break and try to snag another court watcher's seat.

"I don't like retirement," Hughes said. "You can come here every day and stay busy. I should have thought of this years ago."

Haun is guilty, the sisters had concluded, but she obviously had help.

Will they be back for the trial of Michael Dally?

"Oh yeah, sure," Sears said.

"I want to see him," her sister quickly added.

"He seems like he's cocky, doesn't he?" Sears responded.

"Smartass," said her sister. "Oh yeah, that I have to see. I would imagine he's shaking in his boots."

Lois Maxwell was the first in line Wednesday morning.

*

For 45 minutes she stood waiting at the metal detector outside the fourth-floor elevator for the deputies, who arrived at 7. She was one of the lucky 16. She got a seat.

"My children are so happy I'm doing this rather than sitting home," said Maxwell, a semi-retired, part-time medical office secretary who has attended the trial about three times each week since it began.

"To me it is really intriguing," she said. "It has a lot of bizarre twists and turns. And it is also my interest in the justice system. I've really been getting an education."

Regular trial watcher Ed Bigler of Thousand Oaks couldn't believe he didn't get in. He had attended court almost every day since the trial began in August. He tried to get there by 8 a.m., but arrived 20 minutes later.

"I've never been here this early the whole trial," he said. "I am a little disappointed. I got through the whole trial and wanted to be there for the closing arguments."

*

Bigler stood in line behind Oxnard resident Kristina Murr, who became hooked on the trial after agreeing to attend some of the early court sessions with her daughter, a psychology major at UC Santa Barbara.

The story touched her, Murr said, because it revolved around the people and places that make up her world. The testimony placed Michael Dally and Diana Haun at the local park she walks and at her favorite movie theater. A clerk at her neighborhood grocery store was a witness. Ditto for the bank teller.

"I think when I saw people I knew, it kind of brought it close to home," she said. "Hey, that's the woman I do my bank deposits with. That's who I buy my groceries from. It just made it seem like it could happen anywhere."

Still, she said, she isn't so sure the jury will be convinced that Haun is guilty.

Attorneys on both sides have done a good job, she said. The verdict, in her mind, is a tossup.

"The defense has admitted [Haun] was involved, but whether or not she actually committed the physical act of murder, I don't know how the jury is going to decide that," she said. "If I was one of the jurors, I don't know what I would decide, either."

Pam Snyder of Ventura once worked at a Ventura craft store where Sherri Dally used to shop. She never met or talked to the 35-year-old murder victim.

*

But Snyder feels as if she knew her. She came to watch the trial to see that justice is done, she says.

"We all could have bumped into her in the store," Snyder said of Dally. "I'm sure we did."

The whole trial rings of something out of "Peyton Place," said retiree Marilyn Crothers of Camarillo. She had been telling her husband she was going to come watch the trial since it began. She finally made it for closing arguments--albeit too late.

Amid the thicket of Los Angeles television reporters and their cameras that are banned from the proceedings, Crothers waited in the hallway for her chance to get inside.

"Are you coming tomorrow?" Sears asked Crothers from across the hallway.

"Yes, I think so," Crothers answered.

"Are you getting here at 6?" Crothers asked.

"Maybe we'll just stay here till tomorrow morning," Sears joked with a quick, but knowing glance at her sister.

"I've got to get better at this if I'm going to be a professional jury watcher," Crothers quipped.

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