I‘ve covered trials in this city for almost 40 years. That’s a long haul. And along list of defendants: Sirhan Sirhan, John DeLorean, Angela Davis, Patty Hearst, the Menendez brothers, Manson, the Manson girls, Robert Blake, O.J. Simpson.
When you cover courts, you really need to have a lot of patience. There’s a lot of sitting, a lot of waiting. If I could get back the hours I’ve spent waiting, it would come to about half a lifetime by now.
I’ve interviewed every major defendant, partly because it’s useful to see them in a situation outside the courtroom. I meet these people at a time in their lives when they’re in crisis–a degree of crisis they’ve never experienced. It’s not just about being vulnerable. This is about being raw, about seeing your structure crumble, about having your life fall apart. They want to talk to someone who really listens. I’m a good listener. You have to be, to be a courts reporter. You have to listen and not be thinking about your next question. The communication has real intensity, real urgency. It moves me. Someone said to me recently, “You really are the friend of the friendless, aren’t you?” In a way, that’s how it is. But I never forget that I’m not there to be their friend. I’m there for the public. My job is to inform them. To tell them what happened.
I think I’ve always known I wanted to be a reporter. To me, the daily newspaper is a miracle. It’s a book-length publication, produced every day. When I was growing up in Bradley Beach, New Jersey–which is a little town near Asbury Park–I always read a lot. I always asked a lot of questions. From my mother, a writer, I gained a love of words. For my ninth birthday my father gave me a typewriter. Can you imagine that? A real typewriter. I had it all through college; I had it for my first stories. I still have it. I guess he knew who I was, what I was. He saw something.
One person influenced me particularly. That was my uncle Marvin Sosna. For many years he was the editor of the Thousand Oaks News-Chronicle. He gave me a sense of what being a journalist is like, of what it’s like to live in Southern California. He made both seem so attractive, and that was instrumental to my coming here from the East. Another thing that brought me here was my fascination with glamour. Hollywood was the essence of glamour, of that quality we call “larger than life.” I wanted to write about glamour. But from my first trial–I covered the Sirhan Sirhan trial in 1969–I was writing about glamour. Because from the ’70s on, the nature of glamour shifted. By the time of the O.J. trial, everyone involved either was a celebrity or was becoming one: the defendant, witnesses, the judge, the prosecutors.
My education is a B.A. in English from Monmouth College. I was class of ’65. I spent most of my time working on the school and the local papers. Like a lot of my classmates I adored President Kennedy. The day he died I was at school. My impulse was to go to the paper. And I did. In a small town, the stories you’d do around an event like that were the cancellation of events, memorials, reaction of the local clergy. So we did them. Everyone pitched in. I worked all night. I remember standing in the wire room in the middle of the night, reading the wires and realizing that these lengths of paper in my hand were a tangible connection with what had happened.
In the days after Kennedy died I realized something about journalism that is still very important to me: that in dire situations journalism gives you something tangible to do. Rather than sitting back, you could do something positive. So you weren’t just an onlooker. You were a participant. You had a place in the world. That’s the part of my job that becomes ennobling, uplifting.
I have clear memories of every trial I’ve covered. None was just a trial by the way. Each of them symbolized the time in which they took place: Sirhan was a symbol of the violence and chaos of the late ’60s. Daniel Ellsberg was a symbol of protest, specifically of the Vietnam War. Patty Hearst symbolized post-Vietnam alienation. John DeLorean’s trial was about money and drugs and the values of the 1980s. I also remember talking to Roy Black, William Kennedy Smith’s lawyer, after Smith was acquitted. I asked Black if he would have won without the Kennedy money behind him. He said maybe not–the money enabled them to investigate endlessly, to engage the best expert witnesses. I said, isn’t that unequal justice. No, he said, that’s the capitalist system.
I remember the lead I wrote after watching Patty Hearst’s sentencing: “Patty Hearst, heiress to millions, was sentenced to prison for armed bank robbery by a jury that didn’t believe her.”
Two trials stand out particularly. The Manson case. And O.J. The Manson trial was horrible. I cannot tell you what it was like every day to go to court and hear those stories, see those pictures. It was like being in a war. The people there every day became bound together. We stayed together all the time because the case was so horrible that you only wanted to be around people who were having the same experience, people who could understand what you were going through because they were going through it. My best friends today are people I met during that trial.
During Manson, I also met the person who became my mentor, my teacher, my best friend, my sister: Theo Wilson, a great journalist who covered trials for the New York Daily News.
Theo began covering trials when courts reporters were men. Only Adele Rogers St. Johns had broken through. Theo was the first to be a daily courts reporter. Two of her rules were never leave the courtroom except to file and never come to court with your mind made up. During Manson, some reporters would go down the hallway to have a smoke. That’s where they were when Manson leapt at the judge. Another thing Theo said is that you have to see things with your own eyes. You can’t settle for secondhand account.
During Manson, Theo’s room at the Hilton became Charles central. Everyone stopped by—lawyers, reporters, etc. You couldn’t leave that courtroom and just go home as if nothing happened. We all had talk about it, to find a way to deal with being in Manson’s world. He was kin of a low-rent redneck. The women who had committed the murders were middle class. What amazed me was how articulate they all were. Everything they said was quotable. One day in court Manson turned around and snarled at Theo and me. Theo wasn’t having it. She said, “Oh, shut up, Charles.” Like she was talking to a kid.
O.J. was the most impressive defendant I ever saw. People can’t believe I think that, but I do. I’m also not convinced he’s guilty. There’s still reasonable doubt. What was amazing was that he won his jury over without saying anything except for two very short sentences: “Absolutely, 100 percent not guilty” and “It doesn’t fit,” which he said when he put on the glove left at the crime scene. When that happened, I was sitting next to Dominick Dunne, the Vanity Fair writer whose own daughter had been murdered. Dominick hated O.J. Still, he said, “O.J. just took the ball and ran for a touch down.” He won over the jury by his presence. His Dignity. You know, I never saw him play football until someone showed me a tape recently. He was phenomenal—the way he ran, the way he could elude anybody.
Theo retired before the O.J. trial started in 1997. But she watched it all on television. She thought it was unclassy. Too much grandstanding. Every night after court I went over to her house—around the corner from mine—to talk about it. Some people say I’m soft on defendants. Theo didn’t. She believed what I believe: You’re innocent until you’re proven guilty.
Theo saw so much and understood it so well. I tried to persuade her to write a book. I gave her birthday cakes with WHERE’S THE BOOK? written on them in icing. Finally, she wrote it. I arranged a book tour that started with Tom Snyder’s show. She was about to get in the limousine when something happened. She died that night of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 79. People thought she was about 60 because she was impossibly petite and perky. I still think of her all the time. She was the other half of my life. When someone says I’m the Theo Wilson of my generation, that’s the highest praise they could give me.