Crime Time : Murder Trials Get High Ratings From Court-Watchers

Times Staff Writer

The doors to the courtroom were still locked and the members of the jury, loitering in the hallway and thumbing through discarded newspapers, were idly debating among themselves about who had eaten the most M & Ms.

But just a few benches down, sitting by themselves and clutching their handbags, were Aileen Herrera, 75, and Joyce Szuwalski, 66. And they were talking murder.

“Oh, murder’s the best,” Herrera, a widow from the city of Orange, was saying. “Not much point of coming to anything else, is there?”


“Oh, I don’t know,” said Szuwalski, an Anaheim beautician. “I’ve been to a few rapes.”

“Oh, have you?” asked Herrera, a bit surprised.

“Yeah, they’re real sad.”

The women turned toward each other to share a look of concern. Although they certainly don’t look like it, these friends know about such things, murder, violence, betrayal, deceit and the like.

They’re tough, these things. People break down. Witnesses cry and scream, and sometimes spectators as well. All in front of complete strangers.

Herrera and Szuwalski wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“It’s better than watching soap operas,” Szuwalski says.

“It’s life,” Herrera adds. “It’s the real thing. You’re not dreaming up some story. It’s not fun. It’s the way things are.”

And as Herrera and Szuwalski can attest to--they’ve been court watching on and off for 20 years--the fall season in Orange County murder trials is hot. No dreamed-up stories here, just lots of gruesome testimony and plenty of pictures not suitable for prime-time viewing.

Tragedies all, this season’s most sensational murder trials provide spectators with plenty of pathos and even education about such diverse topics as gay sex, forensic pathology, the drug culture of the high and mighty and the stresses of motherhood.

Now appearing in a courtroom near you, for example, is Randy Steven Kraft, 43, on trial in Santa Ana for the murders of 16 young men and accused by prosecutors of killing 29 others in Southern California, Michigan and Oregon. Kraft, a Long Beach computer consultant, says he’s innocent.

In the same building, two floors up, Sheryl Lynn Massip, 24, is charged with murdering her 6-week-old son by intentionally running over him with her Volvo station wagon. Massip says she is innocent by reason of insanity, in this case a controversial condition known as postpartum psychosis.

And in Superior Court in Westminster, the murder trial of Richard Dale Wilson--a 47-year-old San Francisco tax accountant charged with gunning down the man accused of murdering his fiancee--is just about to close after 4 months.

That’s where Herrera and Szuwalski were the other day, hanging on every word as defense attorney J. Tony Serra made his closing arguments, an impassioned and drop-dead dramatic plea about what a good guy his client was, what a lowlife creep his alleged victim was and what untrustworthy alcoholics his client’s accusers were.

It was a scene best appreciated in person, if only to watch as Serra’s long, straggly gray hair worked its way out of a ponytail in tempo with his flailing hands and mocking tone. Also worth noting was his too-tight plaid suit from which his bony wrists and ankles shot out like swamp reeds.

“Can we ever convict on the word of the alcoholic, the uncorroborated word of an alcoholic, an alcoholic who wasn’t there , an alcoholic who was caught up in a cyclone of psychiatric turmoil, who was seething with hate and disruption?” Serra demanded of the jury as he leaned over his lectern.

“You don’t build cases on the word of the snakes, the rats, the insects,” he said. “You do not build cases from the underbelly of society.”

According to Serra, the snakes and rats were Robert Hale, his client’s brother-in-law, and Okel Wilson, his client’s brother. Both men, who have admitted to drinking problems, said that Richard Wilson told them he shot Jeffrey Parker, an unemployed salesman, in front of the Costa Mesa home of Parker’s mother in August, 1983.

But of course, that was only part of the story. The rest of it, the best of it, had to do with Joan McSane Mills, the 33-year-old San Francisco socialite who was Richard Wilson’s live-in fiancee when she was beaten to death, allegedly by Parker, after a night of drugs and violent sex.

When paramedics arrived at Mills’ room at the Beverly Crest Hotel in Beverly Hills at 5:22 a.m. Saturday, April 30, 1983, a shirtless Parker was sitting on Mills’ lifeless and broken body, frantically and violently pressing on her chest.

Parker, according to Serra, was “a cocaine psychotic, a Jack the Ripper, indeed, a modern day Frankenstein.”

And to make sure the jury got the idea, the defense attorney held up two ghastly pictures of Mills’ battered face, allegedly Parker’s fiendish doing, and then contrasted those with another of Mills standing happily alive in a field of flowers.

“She wore flowers in her hair and a sparkle in her eye,” Serra said. “This is how my client remembered her.”

All of this was simply too much for one of Wilson’s friends, a man in his 40s, handsome and well dressed, who wiped a tear from his eye. He had been watching Wilson’s lips quiver and his eyes fog up a bit with the mention of his fiancee’s brutal death.

Oh, and to complete the scenario, Serra held up a color glossy of Parker’s shirtless corpse, a bullet hole piercing his chest.

“Is there any comparison?” Serra harangued the jury. “The only wound is on his chest!”

Prosecutor Douglas Woodsmall also had his final words, of course, but such were not the stuff of great courtroom drama. Wilson killed Parker, he said. There were two witnesses who said so.

The scene in Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald’s 10th-floor courtroom in Santa Ana is something else entirely.

There sits Sheryl Lynn Massip, her dyed blond hair primly coifed, her expression sad and timid and a Kleenex box placed squarely in front of her on the defendant’s table. She looks like a victim, and indeed, that dovetails perfectly with her attorney’s strategy.

This is what the defense says: Massip, a new and inexperienced mother, a housewife who idolized her husband, was suddenly, dramatically, overcome with a rare mental illness known as postpartum psychosis.

According to the defense, it was the illness, not criminal intent, that led her to place her squalling son, Michael, under the front left tire of her car and run over him on the driveway of her Anaheim home. The date was April 29, 1987, Massip’s 23rd birthday.

The baby used to cry throughout his waking hours and Massip, according to court testimony, was an emotional and physical wreck. She told the court that it was voices in her head that commanded her to kill the baby “to put him out of his misery.”

The prosecution, however, is having none of this.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Borris says flat out that Massip is a baby murderer, a woman who, to cover up her crime, concocted a wild story about a red-haired woman abducting the child at gunpoint. The baby’s body was later found dumped in a trash bin in Fullerton.

But while the jury still has a while to make up its mind about the defendant’s guilt or innocence, Sheryl Massip has become a cause celebre to most of the courtroom spectators, friends, relatives and even complete strangers who stop by to watch the trial because they too have suffered the ravages of postpartum lunacy.

Massip, so the thinking goes, is not only a victim of hormones run amok but of a male-dominated society that refuses to recognize the validity of her illness.

Jan Knowlton, a public relations consultant who founded the Society for Hysterectomy Education, SHE, said she has come to support Massip “because I got no help from the medical profession and neither did Sheryl.”

Knowlton said her brush with destructive hormone levels came after a hysterectomy, when she was suicidal and the male physicians she consulted patronized and belittled her.

Another courtroom observer, a young man who said he was a friend of Massip, added that besides coming to show his support, he had parked himself in the courtroom because “I just got married and I want to find out about postpartum psychosis.”

And one psychologist in the crowd, Virginia Watford, said that because of publicity over the Massip trial, she has formed a support group at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center for women suffering from postpartum illness.

This is not to suggest, however, that all spectators in the courtroom were drawn by a sense of higher purpose. Some were merely curious to see a woman who had killed her baby. Others were interested in why.

First-time courthouse visitor Kathy Beeghly, a department store sales clerk, said that based on what she’d seen of the Massip trial and that of Randy Kraft, “I’d definitely come back.”

“I’ve always been interested in law and seeing how these things work,” she said as she waited in the hall during a recess in the Massip trial. “And with these cases, I wouldn’t get bored.”

But because Beeghly earlier left Kraft’s trial to attend Massip’s, she and her friend, Wendie Grunzweig, didn’t get to see a series of up-close and horrifying pictures of one of Kraft’s alleged murder victims.

“Oh, really!” Grunzweig was saying as she listened to another court watcher describe the pictures of a tortured corpse. “How disgusting!”

“Eew!” Beeghly added as she moved in closer to make sure she could hear every word.

The Kraft trial, as one might imagine, is on a different plane than that of Massip.

Simply by virtue of the staggering number of murders involved, it is shaping up as one of the longest, and probably most expensive, in California history.

The unspeakably vile torture that most of the victims suffered puts it in a class by itself. And it is grim.

One sees revulsion and fascination reflected in the glassy stares of the jury and on the faces of the spectators, who range from elderly retirees, to college students, to lawyers on a break, to professional writers and an unusual assortment of others.

In fact, the only bright light in the eighth floor Santa Ana courtroom of Judge Donald A. McCartin is a framed color photograph, on a side wall, of his son’s red-haired retriever. The dog is looking straight at the camera with a dopey grin on his face.

But nobody ever looks at the dog. Instead, they are riveted by the macabre details of violent death, too many and too obscene to print in a family newspaper.

“Most of it isn’t in the paper,” said one elderly man who had come to watch the trial with his wife. “It would be too much.”

“And we even get to see things that the jury doesn’t,” added his wife. “Like when the jury goes out and the judge talks to the attorneys. We can hear that.”

Indeed, when McCartin was talking recently with prosecutor Bryan Brown and defense attorney C. Thomas McDonald about what photographs the jury would be allowed to see, the only noise in the courtroom was that of chairs squeaking as people adjusted themselves to get a better look.

Inquiring minds wanted to make sure they didn’t miss a thing.