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THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Trial Watchers Find Perseverance Isn’t Always the Ticket : OUT OF COURT: The Simpson Case Reverberates

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Linda Johnson-Phillips would take no chances when it came to getting a seat at the O.J. Simpson trial. A veteran courtside observer of the Reginald O. Denny beating trial and both Rodney G. King beating trials, she was adept at staking out seats reserved for the public.

In the beginning, during Simpson’s preliminary hearing, tickets were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Remember the mystery envelope?” Johnson-Phillips said about the day in court when the secret item would be discussed. “I had stayed overnight.”

Anticipating masses of spectators converging on the courthouse this past Monday to hear opening statements, she arrived in the dark of morning--at 1 a.m.--to secure a seat. But at 7 a.m., she found out that the luck of a lottery, not the perseverance of an overnight wait in line, would decide which of the 20 to 30 hopeful spectators would get the six seats.

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Johnson-Phillips recalled the tension of the Monday lottery and “hollering and screaming” after the outcome. “I was the last one picked,” said the 38-year-old woman, who takes a bus from her South-Central Los Angeles home and whose regular appearance at court has made her something of a minor character in the very public drama.

Not only was she lucky, she was clever. She shared her laminated courtroom pass Monday with a 16-year-old Phoenix youth who, despite camping out since 8 p.m. the night before, lost in the lottery. “I gave him the badge Monday afternoon,” Johnson-Phillips said.

On Tuesday, she lost in the lottery and the teen-ager won. In a return gesture of friendliness, he offered to share his court time with her.

Of all the people who try to wedge themselves into Judge Lance A. Ito’s courtroom, no one has less standing than members of the public. Untitled, not retained by anyone for anything, they simply have to wait hopefully every morning for the six--sometimes as many as 10--seats. Kind of like flying standby.

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But this week as each day has passed, fewer people have clamored to get in.

Monday and Tuesday were the most competitive. “They were very excited,” Sheriff’s Deputy William Dinwiddie, supervisor of the ninth floor courtrooms, said of people vying for spots.

By Thursday morning, certainly the driest day, there was a mere line of two at 6:45 a.m.

“They’re going to give us those tickets,” said Johnson-Phillips as she waited with an occasional Simpson trial watcher, Shirley Stanley.

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She was right. By the time sheriff’s deputies escorted the line of hopefuls into the lobby for the 7:15 a.m. lottery, they had only six people and a drawing wasn’t necessary. (But deputies were ready at a desk in the lobby with a wad of red raffle tickets and a crumpled plastic grocery bag to use as the lottery pot.) Deputies passed out six laminated yellow badges to six people. The court observers gave up their driver’s licenses as collateral.

“That’s so we have a picture I.D. of who’s in the courtroom,” Dinwiddie said, “and so we can get the passes back.”

They all come for different reasons. Some like to watch trials, others want to glimpse firsthand the celebrities created by this trial. A few--maybe a lot--are aspiring screenwriters.

In fact, one of the intrigued screenwriters, Daniel Hackney, took his chances because he had been on jury duty last week and realized that the chances to get in were good.

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Bill Collins, 65, about to be a first-time Simpson watcher, called his wife in Laguna Hills and his sister, who avidly watches the proceedings from Green Bay, Wis. “She couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘Where are you?’ ” Collins related. “I said ‘I’m in the Criminal Courts Building.’ ”


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