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Greenacres man in court almost daily – to watch

SUNDAY, FEB. 26, 2006

Tony Fields haunts the halls of justice, silently studying the work of attorneys he yearns to call his peers.

The gentle, 75-year-old Greek rides the bus from Greenacres every Monday through Thursday to spend the day at the Spokane County Courthouse. He visits all the courtrooms, chronicling bad things that happen to everyday people.

“It’s almost as if he is a part of the process that we go through when we have a trial,” Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor said. “I see him in virtually all my trials, at least for one day. If he comes back, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s an interesting case.”

But Tony the Court Watcher is more than just a bystander. His more than 30 years of watching legal arguments make many in the courthouse believe that he knows more about how to convince a jury than many of the attorneys.

Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno said she often would ask Fields about her cases back when she was working as a defense attorney.

“He’d say, ‘Nice job, but he’s guilty,’ ” Moreno said of Fields. “Then I’d get mad and say, ‘Oh, what do you know.’ “

But Tony is almost always right.

“I say I’m right about 90 percent of the time,” said Fields. He thought about it some and amended his answer. “I call it right, but a lot of times I don’t think the juries are always right.”

Fields predicted the outcome earlier this month in a civil suit brought by a Stevens County foster mother. In a case that wasn’t as clear-cut as it sounds, the jury flatly denied the woman’s $4.1 million lawsuit after Child Protective Services ordered her to stop using a steel-mesh cage to control the outbursts of an autistic boy.

Assistant Attorney General Jerry Cartwright, who represented the state in that case, said he has seen Fields sit through hours of routine court proceedings that were “dry as dust.”

“He probably knows more about juries than most attorneys in town,” Cartwright said.

But Fields doesn’t look for a juror folding his arms or rolling her eyes, like one did in the steel-cage case.

“It’s how (attorneys) present their case,” Fields said. “I just sit there like I’m the jury.”

Superior Court Judge Neal Rielly said Fields once was part of a cadre of older gentlemen who used to spend their days listening to cases. One of those men died, and another simply stopped coming.

When Rielly presided over the circus-like atmosphere of the 1997 trial of former Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Tom DiBartolo, Rielly made sure to reserve chairs in the packed courtroom for Fields and the other court watchers. DiBartolo is serving 26 years for the first-degree murder of his wife.

“I love the guy,” Rielly said. “Nobody has put the time in that Tony has. On occasion, Tony has told me what he thinks about the credibility of a witness or the outcome of a trial. He’s been darned accurate.”

Joan Fields, who has been married to the Court Watcher for 49 years, said she knows better than to try to keep him home.

“He absolutely has a passion about going and watching the cases. He loves the judges and the attorneys and even the security guards,” she said.

Fields follows an ironclad routine.

Every morning, he walks four miles at the Spokane Valley Mall. And on weekdays, he takes the bus to court.

He takes Fridays off, mostly because very little happens. He also eats about four dozen chocolate chip cookies every week, Joan Fields said.

“I know because I bake them. He’s a cookie monster,” she said. “He stays so slim because he doesn’t eat anything else.”

When he gets to court, Fields likes to listen to domestic violence cases and occasionally catches a DUI trial. Otherwise, he looks at the daily docket, picks a trial and finds a corner next to the wall.

If it’s not a particularly compelling set of details, Fields takes a catnap, Moreno said.

“He’s never distracting,” she said. “When we see him there, we know at least somebody is watching.”

Fields watched his first trial, by his memory, in 1973. It was a case of a town marshal from Deer Park who got into trouble.

“I liked it so much, I just kept coming up,” he said, “and I’ve been coming up off and on since then.”

Fields worked 27 years at Kaiser Aluminum. When he became a court watcher, he would spend his mornings at the courthouse before working swing shift at the Trentwood plant. He started coming full time when he retired in 1992.

Attorneys once picked Fields to sit on a jury in a DUI case. He also saw a suspect attack a prosecutor during a trial and watched as another defendant spat on a prosecutor as the prisoner was being led out during a break.

But his favorite experiences were the two times attorneys called him to testify as a witness.

In one case, Fields testified about watching a defendant pour water, pick up a glass and do other things with his right hand. The defendant earlier had testified that he was left-handed.

And then, in 2004, Spokane Deputy Prosecutor Andi Jakkola asked Fields to testify in the trial of Richard “Red” Culbreth, who was convicted of forcing another man to cut off his thumb for stealing Culbreth’s quilt and a lava lamp.

During a recess, Fields was sitting in the courtroom with two transport deputies, Culbreth and the witness who was about to testify. Both Fields and the deputies saw Culbreth write on a legal pad telling the witness what he should say.

“Tony was just so cool,” Jakkola said. “When I was questioning him, I said ‘You probably have watched many trials.’ He said, ‘I’ve probably watched more trials then you have tried.’ Everybody started laughing.”

Fields calls Jakkola “Kid.”

“It’s just nice to have somebody who is just a citizen who takes the time to come down and see what goes on,” she said.

Joan Fields jokes that her husband should get paid a consulting fee for telling the attorneys how their cases will transpire.

“He would have been an extremely good trial lawyer because I know his personality,” she said. “But when you are young, you don’t think. You just don’t know what your interests are until it’s too late.”

Tony the Court Watcher agrees.

“I think I would have made a good defense attorney, but what do I know,” he said. “I should have gone to law school. But it’s too late. I’m 75. I’m getting ready to die.”


 

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