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Sex, lies, violence, all from a court seat

At Scott Peterson's trial, regular folk seek 'a minute of excitement.'

August 18, 2004|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — With raffle tickets and coffee cups in hand, the court watchers wait eagerly for the daily lottery to begin. As the tumbler spins and a sheriff's deputy reads aloud the numbers, winners applaud and shout: "Bingo! Yeah! Ooooh, thank you, thank you!"

It's early Monday morning, and nearly 100 people have gathered at the San Mateo County Courthouse here, hoping to be among the lucky 30 to win a seat in the highly publicized Scott Peterson murder trial. Some are regulars, taking copious notes inside the courtroom and keeping a mental score card on prosecution versus defense. Others are first-time participants -- law students, retirees and tourists -- eager to get a close-up view of the latest California tabloid trial, looking for their brush with history -- or at least interesting dinner party conversation.

One of the winners this day is Faye Zamzow, of Eagle, Idaho, who said she started tracking the case the day Peterson's wife disappeared. Zamzow scheduled her annual visit to her twin sister's house in nearby Lafayette around the trial. She and her sister, Katie Hughes, both arrived at 7:30 a.m. to take part in the raffle. Watching lawyers talk about the case on Court TV in rural Idaho just does not compare to seeing it live in California, she said.

Zamzow, 55, won a coveted seat, but her sister did not. At the end of the day, she briefed her twin on the recorded conversations between Peterson and his former mistress Amber Frey. "It was just amazing," she said. "I was sitting on the edge of my seat."

Ever since a pregnant Laci Peterson vanished on Christmas Eve 2002, the case has transfixed the nation. Her body washed up along San Francisco Bay four months later, and prosecutors charged her husband with capital murder. Now that the trial is well underway and Frey has taken the witness stand, crowds have swelled and the daily raffle has taken on a game-show quality.

Outside the court, the court watchers line up not far from a white media tent that has been set up for the duration of the trial. When the families of Scott and Laci Peterson arrive there's a flurry of activity from camera crews, reporters and observers. Everyone wants an up-close look at the participants.

Zamzow said watching the case in person convinced her of Scott Peterson's guilt. He looks nice and appears to have a pleasant family, she said, but she believes he is a "liar and a cheat."

But Marlene Newell, a courthouse regular who has attended roughly three-quarters of the trial, said she continued to believe Peterson had nothing to do with his wife's murder. The Sunnyvale resident runs a website promoting Peterson's innocence and said she believed it was her job to be "the eyes and the ears of the courtroom."

Newell, 56, said she was looking forward to the defense attorney's cross-examination of Frey. "I think he is going to get Scott's side of the story in through his questioning of Amber," she said.

'Like going to Disneyland'

The public is intoxicated by celebrity court cases, experts say, in part because of the explosion of lawyer television shows in recent years. And the Peterson case has all the elements of a compelling human drama: sex, violence, adultery.

Of course, real-life court cases do not have nearly as much drama as television shows. There are rarely last-minute confessions or battles between attorneys. "It's just a minute of excitement for just hours and hours of crushing boredom," said Hastings Law School professor Marsha Cohen.

Nevertheless, coming to court is cheaper than a movie or a museum. "There is obviously a group of people who are fascinated by this," Cohen said. "Ironically, where are these people when they get jury duty?"

University of Santa Clara Law School professor Gerald Uelmen said that even if court watchers did not see testimony that was particularly exciting or memorable, they could still say they were there in the courtroom, not far from the attorneys or defendant they see daily on the news.

"It's one of the sights -- like going to Disneyland," he said.

The hoopla and media frenzy surrounding the Peterson trial can reduce the gravity of what brought the watchers to Redwood City -- the murder of a woman and her unborn baby and a trial that could result in the death penalty for Peterson. Judge Alfred A. Delucchi has done a good job keeping the circus atmosphere outside the courthouse while running an orderly and serious trial inside, Uelmen said.

San Mateo County authorities decided to hold a daily lottery to discourage people from lining up in the middle of the night to get seats. Sheriff's administrator Carol Hurst, who spins the tumbler each day, said more than 250 people came last week for their chance to watch Frey's first day of testimony. The key prosecution witness has also brought more reporters and television cameras to the white media tent set up on the opposite side of the courthouse.

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