“I feel connected to the case because I was in Poway the night the murder happened.”
Sometimes a marshal lets them in early; sometimes they find an unlocked door. They take the elevator to the fourth floor, and by daybreak, the wooden bench in the hallway outside the courtroom is filled — even though the proceedings don’t begin until nine.
People exchanged business cards and passed out breath mints, and raffle tickets were being sold to raise funds for the Cara Knott Foundation.
The courtroom accommodates only thirty-six spectators. Seven seats each are reserved for the family of the victim, SDSU student Cara Knott, and seven for the family of the defendant, former California Highway Patrol Officer Craig Peyer. One seat is reserved for the captain of the California Highway Patrol, and there are seven press seats. In theory that leaves fourteen for the public, but many of these are often reserved for family and associates of attorneys and court officials. The remaining few are up for grabs — first come, first served. Although four other murder trials are now being conducted in the county courthouse, Department 22 is the only courtroom that uses a roped barricade and hand-printed sign (“Spectator Line Form Here”) to keep onlookers under control.
Since the first week of the trial in January, as many as seventy-five potential spectators in a single day have been competing for these few available seats. Some of the 6:00 a.m. early birds have voluntarily relinquished their seats to Knott family members, who have been, on most days, twenty and thirty strong. A semiretired real-estate broker who has come to the courthouse nearly every day before dawn (and who parks in an eight-dollar parking lot each time) has never been inside the courtroom. “Even though I don’t know the Knott family personally, I have three children the same age as theirs. I do whatever I can to help,” she explained. “I don’t come here with the intention of getting in. I come to give up my seat to one of them.” Based only on the possibility of getting into the courtroom, other hopefuls have rearranged their work schedules or have sacrificed sleep, breakfast, vacation time, and afternoons with Oprah to insure an early spot in line.
Jan, who asked that her real name not be used, is completing her third year at SDSU, where she is majoring in speech pathology. By her own admission, her interest in this case is extraordinary; she attended the preliminary hearing and sat through two days of jury selection. “Ever since December 27, 1986, when the crime was committed, I’ve been completely absorbed in the details,” she said, “and I’ve kept a scrapbook of clippings of everything I’ve read about it. My friends tell me it’s all I talk about. Maybe I’m a little obsessed, but I really identify with the victim. I’m the same age she was, and I live near Poway, so I feel just as vulnerable. Last week, my mother and I walked to Mercy Road where it happened,” she added. “It could have happened to me.”
Jan has spent a lot of time in the hallway during the first days of the prosecution’s case. “One morning I left my house before five, got to the hallway a little after six, and I waited seven hours to get in. It was the day the milkman [Robert Calderwood] testified. People were arguing over position in line, but someone was nice enough to hold my place while I went out to get a sandwich.
“I spoke to one of Cara’s sisters and to one of her aunts,” she continued. “I was there the day that one of Cara’s friends brought her seven-week-old baby daughter into the hallway. She named the infant Cara. When she held the baby, Mrs. Knott commented that the birth weight was similar to her own daughter’s, Cara’s. We were all very moved. It was as though Cara Knott’s spirit was renewed.” The forensic testimonies attracted a fellow who claimed he came every day all the way from Riverside. “Because I don’t like cops,” he explained. To whoever would listen, he read aloud passages from a law book. “What they’re doing is illegal,” he shouted as he offered a litany of injustices done to him by police. “Just because someone graduates from law school, that doesn’t make him a lawyer,” he yelled, and his stage whispers grew increasingly disconcerting. “Know why the D.A. won’t deal?” he said within earshot of the victim’s family. “ ’Cause the chick’s dead!” To one of the reporters, he offered, “Wanna interview me? I’m Peyer’s cousin. He used to kill animals when he was a kid.” Then he winked.
Jan recalled the day twenty-three women testified about being stopped by Peyer. “The tone was downright hostile,” she said. “There were heated arguments about position in line. People kept cutting in. When the marshal opened the door to the courtroom, they pushed and shoved their way in.” She also remembered the couple from North Dakota who had been visiting friends in San Diego during Christmas of 1986. “After they returned to South Dakota, their friends sent them newspaper clippings about the case throughout 1987,” she said. “When they came back to San Diego last month for another visit, they spent part of their vacation sitting in the hallway outside the courtroom.”
By the time the defense rested its case on February 8, the mood in the hallway had become more intimate. People exchanged business cards and passed out breath mints, and raffle tickets were being sold to raise funds for the Cara Knott Foundation. “The prize is a Lady Diana bride doll with real diamond earrings,” explained an elderly woman wearing a paisley printed dress and round, red plastic clip-on earrings. She bought a raffle ticket for two dollars and tucked it inside the Billy Graham book she was reading. Bill, who described himself as a land entrepreneur, bought six raffle tickets, which went into the pocket of his well-tailored gray pants that also held an enormous food supply.
“I feel connected to the case because I was in Poway the night the murder happened,” he explained between bites of an apple. Two young elementary school teachers, who were both on sabbatical, admired the hummingbird design on another spectator’s needlepoint project. The woman in the paisley dress looked up from her Billy Graham book. “How many tickets did you buy?” she badgered one of the reporters who turned up early. “Maybe I’ll win a pretty bride doll,” she said as she turned to the father of Cara Knott’s fiance. This man had kept daily vigil in the hallway from six in the morning until almost nine, when he would drive to his job in Mission Valley. “Show time!” one of the hallway people announced, and those at the head of the line began filing into the courtroom in twos and threes.
Despite the intense media coverage, the Peyer trial did not capture the interest (or at least the presence) of the San Diego Courtwatchers, the dozen or so courtroom regulars who attend trials daily. These folks pursue their “caseloads” academically and are well acquainted with procedure and nuance. “We won’t waste our time coming here at six in the morning and waiting in the hallway all day for a seat,” explained Shirley Thompson, president of the Courtwatchers, as she continued two doors down to watch the legal maneuverings of a district attorney known for prosecuting child molestation cases.
The last day of testimony brought newcomers. A retired couple from Coronado said they came because this case was more interesting than the David Carpenter case on the fifth floor. “There were grisly multiple murders that happened in northern California,” the couple reported, “and there weren’t any spectators in the courtroom.” A Chula Vista woman who came by bus explained her presence to the hallway regulars. “I’ve been following the stock market,” she said, “but I gave that up, and now I’m following this case.”
During the two-hour lunch recess, a woman wearing spike heels and large, round glasses showed up. Her eyes darted nervously around the hallway. “Mrs. Knott is so pretty,” she whispered to the woman sitting next to her on the bench. “Do you think I’ll get in?” she asked no one in particular. “How do they choose who goes in and who doesn’t?” After she explained that she worked for the police department (as a “receiver of information,” she claimed), her barrage of nervous questions continued. “I’m here to study Peyer’s facial expressions,” she finally admitted. “I want to see him hang in public!” When the marshal motioned to her that there was one vacant seat, in her haste she walked right into the rope barricade and knocked it down. “Oh, no!” shuddered the marshal. “I knew that would happen.” But within less than two minutes, the “policewoman” was back in the hallway. “I had to go to the bathroom,” she explained. “Do you think they’ll let me in again?”
Morning closing arguments were scheduled for February 10. The media announcement drew a large crowd, and by 8:00 a.m. the audience spilled over onto benches outside other courtrooms. Two students from San Pasqual High School in Escondido, who had cut classes to attend the trial’s last day, were among the approximately fifty people waiting in the hallway. There were law students (eating yogurt from a container), a political science instructor from Mesa College, housewives, and people from the California Center on Criminology. Among the first in line was a Penasquitos author under contract to Crown Publishing to write a book about the case. Since he is without local press credentials, he too had been turning up nearly every morning at six in order to get into the courtroom. “This is my second murder trial book,” he explained. The first took place in Texas, where the trials are much livelier. “People stand up in the courtroom and yell ‘sonofabitch’ at each other,” he said.
Because of the presence of Reuters and AP news service reporters, there weren’t enough press seats to go around. Reporters on deadline from the Times-Advocate, the Californian, and the Daily Aztec were left pacing in the hallway and dashing through the milling spectators to telephones at the ends of the hallway. One woman who took a day off work was determined to attend the trial’s last day because she had been following it closely on television from the very beginning. She bemoaned the fact that it went by so quickly. “This is like saying good-bye to the pandas,” she said sadly.
But it wasn’t. That morning, the chief prosecutor, Joseph Van Orshoven, broke his tooth. At his request, Judge Richard Huffman postponed the final arguments to the following week. Some of the hallway people lingered outside the courtroom. “See you next Tuesday,” they said to each other when they finally headed toward the elevators.