In the rear of a courtroom at D.C. Superior Court two weeks ago, a woman and her friends huddled to concoct a story to tell Judge Peter H. Wolf. They were making up an address where the woman supposedly lived.
Little did they know that veteran court-watcher Frank Zegowitz had sidled up beside them and overheard their conversation. Later, he would meet the judge in the hallway and spill the beans about the fabricated address.
"Judge," said Zegowitz to Wolf, "they pulled a con job on you."
"Next time," the appreciative judge replied, "You'll have to let me know [sooner]."
Zegowitz is one of the regulars without portfolio who roam the city's halls of justice in search of daily drama. They are the court buffs of Washington, and they are legendary. Taking their favorite seats, they attend dozens of trials each week, chat with judges, suggest strategies to lawyers, and claim to know just when a case is won or lost. Sometimes they are the only spectators in the courtroom. Notes attorney Charles F. Stow: "They assure a person of a public trial."
Once there were large numbers of these regulars -- retired wallpaper hangers, music teachers, meteorologists and the like -- walking the hallways of the District's courts. But no more.
"Right now, it ain't many," says Zegowitz. "Right now, it ain't but about three. That's all that's left now. There used to be about 12 to 15. Most of them are dead, or moved way out in Maryland. They don't come no more."
"It's a lost art of observation," says Superior Court Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio. "It's sad that it's finally coming to an end."
The names of the three remaining regulars -- Zegowitz, Hewitt, and Flynn -- sound like a law firm themselves.
Zegowitz, twice divorced, used to work at the Washington Navy Yard and would take his annual vacations watching murder trials. Now 66, retired and balding, he spends all his time plodding from courtroom to courtroom. He seems almost the spokesman for the group, and is always pleased to point out the others.
There is Leon Hewitt, who, according to Zegowitz, "worked at the Bureau of Engraving. He done something with the ink -- I don't know what the hell it was." And there is tall, white-haired Ray Flynn, a news vendor who shows up after selling his daily allotment of newspapers near the downtown Woodward & Lothrop department store.
For the most part, Zegowitz, Hewitt and Flynn split their daily business, just as would any good law firm. Says veteran Judge Tim Murphy: "They don't seem to be in teams. They don't sit next to each other. They are always very quiet. They are always proper, you never see them sleeping or reading papers. They're models of propriety."
Still, they look out for each other. When "there's a really good one in courtroom 33," it isn't long before the news has spread and the triumverate has gathered.
"It's sort of like real-life drama," says Flynn, a 61-year-old, retired Defense Department contractor who has attended trials for a decade. "It's better than movies. Better than television."
Their roles in the daily give-and-take of justice should not be understated.
If a trial bogs down, their loud snores, heavy breathing and buzzing hearing aids often enliven things. If a trial is breezing along, however, they can be as astute as the most brilliant lawyer.
"If you look around and don't see them, something has happened," says Grandison E. Hill, a criminal defense lawyer. "The first thing we do is run out and try to find them. Usually they say 'You've blown it,' or 'They have nothing.' It's anticlimatic to them. They go to their next one."
"They have an uncanny sense of what a jury is going to do while [it] is out," says attorney R. Kenneth Mundy. "They can say, 'That's a loser,' or 'That's a winner.' A lot of times in the middle of a trial, I'll say, 'Frank, what do you think? Did you believe him? Was he a good witness or a bad witness? Is he believable or unbelievable?' I have a good relationship with them."
"May, they've been around as long as I can remember -- as long as dirt," says Hill. "I've tried more cases with them than without them. I pick their brains. It's like having a chance to talk to the jury in the middle of a trial."
The regulars prize such recognition and respect. They speak proudly of the scribbled note from District Court Judge Joyce Hens Green to her favorite court-watcher, their reserved seats at Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio's widely publicized 1977 Hanafi Muslim trial, and the day Judge John Sirica asked them to talk to his son because sons "don't pay attention to their fathers."
Judge Gladys Kessler once refused a lawyer's request that she throw a regular out of her courtroom. Another time, Zegowitz rushed to the well of the courtroom during a recess to assist prosecutor Alexia Morrison after he believed she had been insulted by the opposing attorney in the hotly contested case.
"Frank came bounding up," Morrison recalls, "hollaring at [the lawyer] with his finger in his face: 'Don't you do that to her! You treat her with respect!' It was my first opportunity to feel I had a big brother."
In bygone days, Nunzio, now a judge, was the prosecutor the regulars followed most avidly. Back in the 1960s, Nunzio recalls, one of his most avid fans was a white-haired lady named 'Dolly," who often came to court with her round glasses and wearing a veil. One day, just as Nunzio finished selecting a jury in a murder case, he heard a loud whisper. "Mr. Nunzio, Mr. Nunzio" came the voice. Nunzio asked the judge for a moment, and went to the rear of the courtroom.
"Dolly, what's up?" he asked her. "Get rid of [juror] number seven," she said. "He hung another jury last week -- I was there." Nunzio struck the juror, and won the case.
Nunzio is one of their favorite judges now, and they often wave or smile to him on the bench. In one case, an attorney in his courtroom was making exaggerated faces in view of jury while a witness testified. The jury had become distracted, and Nunzio sent them out.
"What's he telling them to leave the room for?" the lawyer asked Zegowitz, who was sitting nearby.
"You're making those faces, and he's going to give you hell," Zegowitz replied. Moments later, Nunzio chastized the attorney.
Sometimes the regulars, in trying to act as intermediaries, inadvertently step into the fray between lawyers and judges. In one instance, Zegowitz said, he could tell the defense attorney's brutal questioning of a witness was offending the judge.
"I could see the judge's face was getting red, but the government lawyer wasn't objecting none," Zegowitz recalls. "I get out in the hall, [and] I says [to the lawyer], 'The judge is getting mad as hell because you're not objecting none.'
"He says, 'The hell with you, and the judge too.' So ten minutes later, the judge comes up to me: 'Frank, you go back and tell that guy I'm getting damn mad 'cause he ain't objecting to suit me. He's letting this guy rub it in and saying nothing.' So I says, 'I done tole him.' He says, 'You better go back and tell him I said so.'
"So I went back and told the lwayer. He said 'Go back, and tell him to go to hell.' So I went back and told the judge what he told me. Judge said, 'Yeah?'
"Boy, when they come back, don't you think he didn't pick on that poor son of a bitch. And the appeals court sent the case back because the way the judge was acting."
By his account, Zegowitz's keen eye helped prosecutors win a murder case against a man who claimed that he had left his hiding place simply to call the police, not to escape, as prosecutors had contended.
Zegowitz looked at a photograph of the room where the man had been hiding.
"I seen where it had 'Office [written] on the door. I went outside and I asked a policeman, 'I see office written on that door. Is there a telephone in that room?' And the police says, 'Yeah, I used it, why?'
"I said, 'Well, it's never been mentioned in the courtroom about there being a phone in that room. He wouldn't have to run upstairs to use no phone, 'cause there was one already down where he was at.'
"And the police told me, 'Goddamn it, I never thought of that.' And the district attorney said to me, 'Goddamn it, I never thought of anything like that.' So I said, 'You better think of it now.'"
The regulars assist judges, too. Once Judge ywolf asked where an attorney was who had failed to show up in his courtroom, and the word came back that the attorney was before another judge. Zegowitz rose in the back of the courtroom and announced: "That judge [recessed] half an hour ago. He's knocked off early . . . He's gone to lunch. They ain't nobody up there now."
"Thanks for the information," Wolf replied. Later, in recalling the incident and Zegowitz's tattling, the judge would say: "As far as I was concerned, that was the gospel truth."
The regulars, who always seem to know their way around the eight-storied courthouse and its 45 courtrooms, often are approached by witnesses lost in its endless corridors. Their presence also is reassuring for the families of defendants.
"There's a lot of them come in here you gotta feel sorry for," Zegowitz explains. "It's pitiful. We sticked with them when everybody else turned against them."
Once Zegowitz encountered a young woman whose boyfriend was charged with murder.
"The trial had got over and it was the second hung jury," he remembers. "She got out in the hall and said, 'Dammit, I wish I could find a decent lawyer who could win this case.' I said, 'I'll get you one. So I sent her to Kenny Robinson [a leading local defense lawyer]. 'Say Frank sent you.' [the next time] they came back not guilty."
Hewitt says his most interesting trial was the Watergate trial of John Mitchell. He recalls that a few of the regulars bumped into Judge Sirica at the elevator after the jury went to deliberate.
"How long do you think it'll be out," Hewitt said Sirica asked them. "We said four hours, and I think the jury came back in 4 1/2 hours or 3 1/2 hours. We missed it by half an hour."
All three partners in Zegowitz, Hewitt and Flynn commute to the courthouse. Zegowitz rides the subway from Union Station to Judiciary Square, and then walks home at night. Hewitt takes the Bennet Road bus to Lafayette Square, then transfers to 7th Street, and walks to the court.
"I tell a lot of old people sitting around doing nothing to come down to the court sometime," he says. "I mean, you learn a lot of things. Things you ordinarily wouldn't see."