To Court Watchers, Law Is Theater

Sam Ruscitti, 77, is a theater buff of sorts.

Every weekday morning, circumstances allowing, he catches RTD's 92 bus a couple of blocks from his home in the Atwater District of Los Angeles and rides to Hill Street, near the Music Center. But Ruscitti doesn't even pause to see what's playing at the Ahmanson Theatre or Mark Taper Forum.

Instead, he heads straight for the Los Angeles County Courthouse or the Criminal Courts building, where he watches raptly as stories of passion, greed, intrigue and murder unfold.

In the 10 years since Ruscitti retired from his career as a freight expediter and began frequenting Los Angeles courthouses, he's had front-row seats to cases that were turned into books and films and television miniseries. He's spent hours within chatting distance of celebrity litigants such as Carol Burnett and defendants such as Dan Rather and John DeLorean. The cast of criminal characters he's observed includes Leslie Van Houten, Bill and Emily Harris, the Hillside Strangler, the Alphabet Bomber, the Freeway Killer and the Bob's Big Boy Murderers.

While most people are content to satisfy an apparently universal fascination about what goes on in courtrooms by reading newspaper articles or watching the news, Ruscitti and those who share his avocation--"court watchers," they're called--prefer to be there, basking in the reflected glow of the legal footlights.

"I like drama, and where will you find more drama than in a courtroom?" Ruscitti asks.

Most of the dozen or so people whom bailiffs in the Orange County Courthouse identify as regular court watchers (several older retirees, a couple of middle-aged men and a few middle-aged women) are less than eager to talk to a reporter, even momentarily, about the way they spend their days.

However, Wally Green, an 82-year-old court watcher who lives in El Toro, talks to whomever he feels like--including defense attorneys and prosecutors if he thinks he has some worthwhile advice.

One of the first things Green tells people, sometimes, is that he once made a million dollars in a day. People tend to believe him.

Neatly dressed in white shoes, yellow pants and a sport shirt, Green ambles through the courthouse hallways with the assurance of Bob Hope on the fairways of Palm Springs (where, until a recent injury knocked golf out of his routine, Green maintained a little hideaway near his favorite course, he says).

Even before he gave up golf, however, Green had come to view courthouses in much the same way he viewed golf clubhouses--as clean, air-conditioned places to shoot the breeze and kill time.

"When I was a kid in San Francisco, 12 or 13 years old, I wanted to be a lawyer," Green recalled as he sat in his usual seat in the noisy third floor cafeteria of the courthouse on a warm afternoon.

"I graduated (with honors) from grammar school, you see. My teacher's son was a district attorney, and as a reward, she had him take me into his office and talk to me about the law. I still remember that building he worked in. It was really something."

Dropped Out of School

Green's legal aspirations didn't last long, though. One of nine children, he dropped out of high school to go to work for his brother-in-law, who operated fruit stands in Los Angeles.

Before long, Green began setting up stands of his own. The stands grew into markets: Wally's Market, Federal Ranch Market, Nickel Market--nine in all.

While his produce markets prospered, Green also had success in the real estate market, where he closed that particularly memorable deal that, he says, netted him a million dollars in a single afternoon. Soon thereafter, he retired.

"I couldn't take it," he said of that first retirement 20 years ago. So he went back to work as a beer distributor. He also worked as a stock trader before retiring for good 12 years ago.

"I had a lot of money. What the hell did I need to work for?" he asked in the gruff, bored-with-it-all tone that colors his conversations.

After Green's most recent retirement, he and his wife flew off on Shriners' trips to France, Italy and Switzerland. They treated themselves to seven vacations in Honolulu. But they needed something to fill the hours when they weren't traveling or putting around a golf course. "I had nothing to do," he said.

One day, "for no reason," they went to the courthouse near their home in Santa Monica and sat in on a trial. They went back the next day and the next, and before long they stumbled into the Lee Marvin-Michelle Triola Marvin "palimony" case. He can't explain why, exactly, but Green was hooked.

Studies Court Calendars

Most weekday mornings now, Green's wife drives him in their Cadillac Eldorado from their current home in Leisure World to the Orange County Courthouse. Green searches the court calendar for interesting cases and makes his choice.

"If a case isn't interesting, I'll sit for maybe an hour. Then I walk out. Sometimes I'll watch three or four cases in a day," he said.

After lunch one warm afternoon, Green, who'd been away from the courts for several days while doctors tuned up his pacemaker, headed off to sit in on a murder case he'd been following--one of three murder trials in progress on the 10th floor during a particularly eventful period for court watchers.

As he made his way out of the cafeteria, defiantly eating an Eskimo Pie in spite of his diabetes, he waved to bailiffs and attorneys and stopped to talk briefly to court employees and fellow court watchers who asked about his operation.

"Hey, we go way back," said Freddy Flynn, who runs a shoeshine stand across the street from the courthouse.

"He knew me when I was peppier, before the stroke," Green said, in reference to another health problem.

"Yeah, but you're still cool," Flynn replied, between bites of a taco salad.

Running Commentary

Walking down the hallways, Green gave a running commentary on the prosecutors and attorneys passing by, explaining their cases and evaluating their skills, often with profane frankness.

In a crowded elevator, he nodded toward a harried-looking young lawyer.

"They're hungry, most of 'em," he confided. "They don't make much."

A moment later, he added: "Money. Who cares? It don't mean nothing. It's like I never made a nickel in my life. I don't spend it on nothing." Then he walked into Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas' courtroom, and immersed himself in the lawyers' realm of pleas and motions and stilted legalese.

"I think maybe I'm a frustrated lawyer," said a middle-aged court watcher and acquaintance of Green from Costa Mesa. The retired boat-yard worker asked to be identified only as Arthur. "If I had it to do over, I think I'd like to be a paralegal or something," he said as he sat on a bench outside a courtroom.

Like Green, Arthur said, he first took an interest in the legal process as a schoolboy.

"My high school civics and government classes would take us to the country courthouse on class trips and the judge would explain things, like the jury system and how it works," he said.

Approves of System

And as far as Arthur is concerned, it works just fine. As an example, he points to the widely reported case in which Minh Van Lam was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the shooting death of Cal State Fullerton professor Edward Lee Cooperman.

"It was pretty interesting, with all the (alleged) international intrigue. But I kind of figured from the beginning they didn't have enough evidence," he said.

"When I'm on the outside, and I hear people talking about cases, I tell them, 'You don't know anything about a case unless you're right there in the courtroom,' " he said.

"People are interested in trials. But most people only watch the TV news, where they give you a minute maybe, and then they think they know all about it. You hear people say, 'That guy is guilty.' But they weren't there. They don't know what a witness looked like or what he sounded like when he testified."

Sam Ruscitti is another court watcher who feels, by and large, that the system works well.

"When I'm watching a case, I consider myself one of the jury," he explained recently during an afternoon recess. "I try to be objective, and most of the time I've been able to come to see the same verdict the jurors do."

Ironically, Ruscitti first became interested in the criminal justice system because of a case in which he thought justice failed. As a boy, Ruscitti listened to his family's impassioned arguments about the controversial trial of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on murder charges. Convinced of their innocence, Ruscitti stood in protest outside the gates of the Charleston State Prison in Boston the night in 1927 when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.

Remained Fascinated

Ruscitti also had thought about a career in law. But he, too, got caught up in earning a living before he could get an education. At the same time, though, he remained fascinated with news events and court proceedings.

As a hobby, he took to collecting newspaper clippings, paying particular attention to coverage of such trials as the Lindbergh baby kidnaping case and the Scopes "monkey" trial. To this day, he maintains albums of newspaper clippings he has accumulated over the years. He has labeled his collection "History in the Making."

"It started as a hobby, and then became an obsession," he said.

Shortly before he retired, Ruscitti began attending trials. At first, he felt lost, like an outsider, he said. Now he approaches court watching with something like professional aplomb.

Nattily dressed in blue sports coat, white shirt and red tie, Ruscitti casually sprinkles obscure Latin legal terms into his conversation and drops the names of judges and prosecutors with whom he's familiar as frequently as a politically ambitious attorney might.

In fact, Ruscitti and some of his court-watching colleagues occasionally have more inside information on what's going on in the courts than the people who are paid to cover them.

The Word Spreads

"I'll be sitting in a courtroom and someone will come in and say, 'Sam, they're bringing in a verdict in such and such a case,' " he said. "Maybe it's another court watcher or one of the bailiffs who'll tell us--because we become familiar with the bailiffs. Well, we'll pass the word along, and sometimes I'll give the news to the reporters. I know some of them pretty well, and they appreciate it. So, before you know it, the courtroom's filled.

"Going to the courts has been an education for me," Ruscitti said. "That's for certain."

But it's not just the educational aspect of court watching that keeps him coming back, he said.

"When I was younger, I did some acting, so I like the theater. And to me, this is real theater. Real theater."

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