On an overcast Friday morning last November, a few dozen people gathered, as they had for the past several months, outside the San Mateo courthouse in Redwood City, California.
"There was a core group of 40 to 50 court watchers who showed up every day," said San Mateo County Sheriff Capt. Mark Hanlon. "After a while, they were on a first-name basis with each other."
The loyal crowd had followed every twist and turn in the Scott Peterson double murder trial. Within a couple of hours, they were joined by more than a thousand others, as word got out that a verdict was about to be read. Hanlon, head of courthouse security, was prepared. "We had implemented the security plan usually reserved for disasters."
Hours after the guilty verdict was announced, television crews continued to file live reports and crowds milled about outside. "The verdict was broadcast live in Italy," Hanlon said. "Even in Iraq, with explosions going off all around them, they were paying attention to a murder trial here in California."
On Wednesday, the crowds returned, this time for the sentencing of Peterson, who was given the death penalty.
Two hundred miles to the south, a small but colorful crowd converges daily outside the Santa Maria courthouse, hoping to catch a glimpse of Michael Jackson during his child molestation trial. Homemade signs supporting the singer are unfurled and Jackson impersonators perform before photographers and TV crews.
Still farther south, news crews outside the Van Nuys courthouse, rushed out live reports moments after jury acquitted Robert Blake of murder Wednesday.
Public interest in criminal trials is nothing new. When Elizabeth Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in their home in Fall River, Mass., in 1892, newspapers carried coverage from the initial investigation to the end of the trial and beyond. More than a century later, there are still dozens of Web sites dedicated to the case. The morbidly curious can even stay at the scene of the crime, which now serves as a bed and breakfast. Borden was acquitted, but schoolchildren today can still recite the damning poem, "Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks ..."
Decades later, Bruno Hauptmann was accused of the kidnap and murder of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son. The 1935 "trial of the century" was the original media circus, with newspaper and newsreel photographers jockeying for position in the courtroom.
The modern-day equivalent, of course, is the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Hundreds of print and broadcast journalists from around the world covered the case, making instant celebrities out of the legal teams and the judge. Large crowds gathered in downtown Los Angeles to either support the former football hero, or condemn him.
The impact of the Simpson trial is still being felt today. "When we were considering security, we looked at the O.J. trial for guidance," Hanlon said.
High-profile trials have ready-made audiences. They're a mixture of two favored entertainment genres: the crime drama and reality TV show. Some feature well-known names, some create them.
For some people, the broadcast and newspaper updates aren't enough. They travel to the scene of the drama to see it firsthand. Some of them are interested in the legal process, some focus on the spectacle. The group of court watchers in San Mateo kept their opinions about the case to themselves, according to Hanlon. "They didn't show which side they were on." Hanlon also noted that there was a court order barring signs outside the courthouse.
"Our situation was different than Ventura (County, where Jackson is on trial), he said. Peterson was in police custody and Jackson is not. "We didn't have the arrival and departure spectacle every day, we didn't have the star quality," Hanlon said.
For a few trial fans, interest goes beyond events in the courthouse.
For instance, on Internet message boards, participants point out Peterson's movie star good looks, seemingly connecting them with innocence. "Scott Peterson is gorgeous," one such message says, "but he didn't kill his wife. ... I hope he gets off on appeal." It has also been widely reported that he's received a deluge of love letters since his incarceration.
Other notable California murder cases have received similar attention. Both Lyle and Erik Menendez, serving life for the slayings of their parents, and Richard Ramirez, on death row for the Nightstalker serial killings, got married from behind bars.
Sheila Isenberg, author of the book "Women who Love Men who Kill," says that many of these women are drawn to the excitement of becoming involved with dangerous men. "Worrying about whether your mate is going to live or die is much more dramatic than wondering what to have for dinner."
In her book, Isenberg focused on 30 women who sought out relationships with convicted murderers. The subjects of her study, which she cautions should not be taken as a definitive analysis, had histories of abuse in childhood or earlier relationships. "With a prisoner, they have control in their life. They know where their man is, what he's doing. They decide when to see him, when to contact him." Isenberg is currently working on a sequel, which she says will focus on the inmates' side of the story.
She also said some women are attracted to the element of romance. "Inmates have much more time on their hands to give the women lots of attention. They write long love letters, poems, and love songs," she said. "They put women on a pedestal, show them lots of respect" in their communication. "Plus, there's no sex," she said, "so there's that idea of King Arthur-type courtly love."
However, Isenberg points out that there may be some differences between the women she questioned and the ones drawn to the headline-grabbing cases. "All the women in my study were in relationships with men who were not particularly famous," she said. "I think the women attracted to (high-profile trials) ... it's the 15 minutes of fame."
For a woman seeking that connection to celebrity, the isolation and loneliness prisoners experience makes them more receptive, Isenberg said. "So a woman would have a somewhat easier time getting a response from a Scott Peterson than a Brad Pitt, I'm guessing."
She noted that there's a cultural fascination and admiration for killers. "It's that macho mentality," she said, "the very fact that Scott Peterson has attained celebrity status is testament to that fact. In a sense, these women are just following a cultural trend."
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