Regulars feel lure of the courthouse

September 22, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

When murder is the subject, you will find Bill Pulley in the back of a Baltimore Circuit courtroom, a toothpick rolling in his mouth, his eyes fixed firmly on proceedings he has no part in. It has been thus, the former truck driver says, for some 30 years, ever since he first wandered into the courthouse "to see what was going on."

You will find Eugene Belk, a retired laboratory manager who once spent his free time hunting and fishing, predict

ing verdicts and sentences on scraps of papers he stores in a shirt pocket.

They are court watchers, and they feel important in these echoing halls. Everybody knows their faces, from the deputies guarding the doors to the judges on the benches, and they are as much part of the place -- and its daily dramas -- as anyone. They know the system's heart-pounding moments and its maddening delays.

They've watched fledgling law clerks blossom into seasoned trial attorneys. They've fashioned themselves a surrogate family.

"There were times I would actually go back to Bill and talk to him about how a witness did on the stand," said Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Ara Crowe, head of the trial division. "At least I would know I had one friend in the courtroom. He's my biggest fan."

In the age of O. J. Simpson and "Court TV," court watching isn't so unusual -- millions do it, off and on, from their living rooms. But Mr. Belk and Mr. Pulley tend to be interested only when the action is local, live and in person. The preposterous Simpson trial holds no cachet.

"I want to see the real stuff. I want to be right here," Mr. Pulley says.

Mr. Belk, 70, says he finds cases such as robbery, murder and child abuse depressing. But often he is drawn downtown nonetheless by the simple need to see the face of someone who could do the things defendants are accused of doing.

"You're surprised," he said. "They all look normal."

What's real are cases like the killing of Towson State University student Joel Lee and the acquittal of Davon A. Neverdon, the man charged with his murder, the man four eyewitnesses said shot Mr. Lee for want of a dollar so he could eat at McDonald's.

"That one was enough for you to want to hold your nose a few days," Mr. Belk said.

Merzbacher case

Or the rape and sexual abuse trial of former schoolteacher John J. Merzbacher, who Mr. Belk predicted -- wrongly -- would be found not guilty because so many years had passed since the crimes.

"What you really learn about coming down here is how your police department operates," Mr. Belk said. "I think they do a good job."

Mr. Belk sometimes discusses the cases with his son, an attorney in Carroll County.

"The more you go, the more you get addicted," he said. "I've made a lot of friends down here."

Mr. Pulley, a Baltimore native, says he first walked into the courthouse complex on Calvert Street about 30 years ago. He was driving a truck at night and couldn't bring himself to sleep much during the day. Back then, you could follow the fortunes of characters like defense attorney Elsbeth Levy Bothe -- now one dTC of Mr. Pulley's favorite hanging judges.

"The second day I came back. And the third day, and the fourth day, and every day since," Mr. Pulley, 58, said recently.

"I like to listen to the testimony, see what happened -- why they was killed. Where they was killed. I want to know everything."

Sentenced himself

Mr. Pulley's loyalties were tested 7 1/2 years ago, when he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun into the courthouse. He was alleged to have fired at his girlfriend's son at an apartment the three shared in Northwest Baltimore. Police knew where to find him -- sitting quietly in a murder trial.

The arrest caused a flap over security measures in the courthouse, which Mr. Pulley had somehow evaded.

He received a six-month suspended sentence, with two years' supervised probation and a $250 fine, plus court costs.

But it didn't stop him from remaining a fixture in his favorite place. He still makes the journey from his Park Heights home to patrol the courthouse in rolled-up jeans, a T-shirt and a yellow windbreaker to ward off the chill of the air-conditioned courtrooms.

When he sits to watch a trial, his round frame perches at the edge of the court bench on full alert. He says little, but when he spies a prosecutor or defense attorney or judge he considers a friend, you can hear his bellow of greeting down the street.

"That's my lawyer," he shouts most mornings from the courthouse steps, greeting all the players as they come to work.

Jury duty once

Mr. Pulley said he has been called to jury duty only once in all his years of court-watching -- and was assigned a panel that convinced him civil trials were boring. ("Guy fell in a hole or something. We gave him a lot of money.")

Though he has only an eighth-grade education, he once thought about going back to school, maybe becoming a paralegal. No more: "I'm kind of old."

But he says he'll never be too old to amble over to the courthouse and assume his role as a permanent extra in the proceedings. At the end of the long day on which Merzbacher was sentenced to life in prison, Mr. Pulley shook the hand of one of the teacher's accusers. He assured her justice had been done, and wished her good luck.

She had no idea who he was.

Then he walked out the front doors of what they call Courthouse East. He paused for a moment on the steps, the lone figure facing a legion of reporters and camera crews who were waiting for someone else.

He stood half-smiling, enjoying a brief moment as a star. Then he ambled down the street to board a westbound bus, to watch another day.

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