Court Watcher Judges For Himself Retiree Has Become A Fixture At County Courthouse
Tony Fields works a toothpick in his mouth and stares at an attorney.
“How am I doing, Mr. Court Watcher?” the smiling lawyer asks, packing up his files for an afternoon trial break.
The toothpick stops. Fields squints behind glasses as thick as ashtrays.
“You’re going to lose this thing,” Fields says flatly, poking a finger in the air for emphasis.
The lawyer’s smile vanishes, just before he does. His client had just taken the stand to accuse a drug counselor of seducing him.
Fields hobbles over to the attorney for the accused counselor, who overheard the exchange and now is looking rather pleased.
“If you don’t win this, I quit,” Fields says, throwing his arm out in disgust. He turns and hobbles from the courtroom, already thinking about finding another.
Fields, 65, has spent much of the last 18 years in the Spokane County Courthouse, watching the drama of people’s lives unfold.
He’s on a first-name basis with many lawyers and judges, and yuks it up regularly in the hallways with bailiffs and clerks.
They’ve come to value his opinion on everything from whether a witness is telling the truth to what the verdict will be. Fields says his instincts are correct about 75 percent of the time.
“He’s pretty much seen it all,” says Neal Penney, a Superior Court bailiff. “He’s probably seen everybody in action.”
Another bailiff, Kathy Hathaway, says she relies on Fields for updates on trials in other courtrooms. “Whenever I want to know what’s going on, I always ask Tony,” she says.
Fields made court watching a part-time hobby in 1978, when his wife was working long hours at Sacred Heart Medical Center that didn’t match his shift at Kaiser.
He started spending his mornings at the courthouse but had to leave for work at lunchtime. It frustrated him, not being able to see a case all the way through.
His retirement in 1993 freed Fields to court-watch all day. It’s better than television, he says, and keeps him out of his wife’s hair.
“I just love watching the lawyers go back and forth with each other, trying to sneak things past the judge,” Fields says. He flashes a smile that completely hides two rows of teeth, giving him a gummy look. “I can’t get enough of it.”
Deputy Prosecutor Dannette Allen, whom Fields fondly refers to as “the Marcia Clark of Spokane County,” says she was nervous about the court watcher when she first saw him years ago.
With his slicked-back hair, dark glasses and beard, and the way he slipped in and out of court, Allen thought Fields was a criminal defendant.
Now, his presence gives her confidence, Allen says. She makes it a point to tell him when she has a good case coming up and scolds him if he doesn’t show.
“He sits back there and he’s totally impassive, extremely professional,” said Allen, one of Fields’ favorite lawyers. “He listens to everything. Then I’ll ask him, ‘What do you think?’ and he tells me, thumbs up or thumbs down.”
Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor guesses Fields spends more time in court than most lawyers.
She spots him at civil trials and pretrial motions, not just the high-profile cases that usually draw the crowds.
“I always enjoy having Tony here,” says O’Connor, whom Fields admires for running “the strictest ship in the whole place.”
Fields says he dreamed of becoming a defense attorney, but never pursued a law career because “I don’t have enough money or enough smarts.”
Instead, he examines the daily docket every morning in Superior Court, hunting for cases that are being tried by lawyers he likes the best.
If nothing catches his attention, Fields wanders next door to District Court. He says he can usually find an interesting drunken driving case there, especially when Frank Bartoletta is the defense attorney.
“He is good, he always wins,” Fields says.
Such praise flatters Bartoletta, who appreciates the way Fields sticks with a trial from beginning to end. It gives him more faith in Fields’ assessment of the case, he says.
“If you ask, he gives it to you straight,” Bartoletta says.
Even defendants appreciate Fields’ opinion.
Last year, when Valley carpet store owner Rick Birnel was on trial for killing his wife, Fields learned the defendant used to work at Kaiser. He struck up a conversation with Birnel during a break.
“He asked me how I thought he was doing,” Fields recalls. “I told him it wasn’t looking good.”
He was right. Birnel was convicted of second-degree murder.
Before that, when Evel Knievel sued the Ridpath Hotel for allowing an angry friend into his room, Fields was there. He chatted with the former motorcycle stuntman and got his autograph.
One day, Knievel introduced Fields to his girlfriend and told her to sit with him during the trial.
“He looked bad, his body was all tore up from all those accidents,” Fields says of Knievel. “But his girlfriend looked real nice. Too nice for him.”
Fields didn’t remember that Knievel wound up winning $50,000 in that case. He admits he usually isn’t around to hear the verdicts being read, because unless someone tells him, he has no way of knowing when the jury comes back.
Such loose ends don’t bother him, though. Fields usually reaches his own verdict before the trial is over, like he’s done in the drug counselor case.
After the break, he returns to the courtroom anyway, sliding into the far corner of the very last row. Two flesh-colored hearing aides help him listen. He leans forward.
Not an hour later, he’s had enough.
“That guy’s lying,” Fields says of the man who’s suing. “He just wants money is all.”
Without waiting for the verdict, Fields scoots from the courtroom, dragging the aching leg that he injured climbing the courthouse stairs a few weeks back.
“See you tomorrow,” he says, and he’s gone.
The jury didn’t give the man a dime.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo