REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – She may be a devoted regular at Scott Peterson's (search) murder trial, rising before dawn to try winning a spectator's seat in the gallery, but Ginger Hood-Akers wants to make it clear she's not crazy or a loser in search of a life.
The 49-year-old nurse never intended to become one of those who flock to the courthouse each day to live the unfolding legal drama. She didn't plan to spend nearly five months rehashing the latest developments over coffee, lunch, drinks, dinner or the Internet with fellow trial watchers.
But she did. A supporter of the murder convictions against the former fertilizer salesman, Hood-Akers has been able to get a pass into the courtroom 30 times out of 55 attempts.
"I can't tell you how many times I dreaded jury duty, and here I am voluntarily," said Hood-Akers, who is single and works nights in an intensive care unit for sick newborns. "Some of my friends on 'the outside' don't get it. They think we're nuts."
For many people, the Peterson case has been something of a cultural curiosity, a baffling, media-fed sensation that distracts from weightier news such as the war in Iraq or the nation's economy. For others, it's pure water cooler fodder, a guilty pleasure served up in heaping doses on cable television, on the Internet and in the pages of newspapers and magazines.
Then there is the small, but hard-core cadre of trial addicts such as Hood-Akers, which has made the daily soap opera a lifestyle choice.
Bonded by their geographical proximity to a whodunit that has captured national attention but is not being televised live because cameras are banned from the courtroom, they have become as much a part of the trial's social fabric as the lawyers, legal commentators and journalists paid to be there.
On Nov. 12, about 1,000 people gathered outside the San Mateo County Courthouse (search) to hear the verdicts being read.
"I know more people at this trial than I do on my own street," says Robert Lee, 42, a Web site developer making a documentary called "Scott Free," which focuses on the shadow jury of followers lining up outside the courthouse each morning.
The crowd of regulars has its share of eccentrics, such as the guy who thinks the case can be cracked through numerology or the woman who tells people she can channel Laci Peterson's (search) spirit.
"It's like the casting call for the remake of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,"' Hood-Akers said.
Many, though, are average citizens who possess an above-average fascination with the case and enjoy dissecting every detail, whether it's a prosecutor's choice of questions, the likelihood that a pair of television personalities are romantically linked or what kind of tie the defendant wore that day. Some are convinced the jury returned the correct verdict, while others are firmly in the innocent camp.
Like Hood-Akers, who has been able to get time off work at her overstaffed hospital for health reasons, most trial regulars have flexible schedules. Bob Espinosa, 48, is a private investigator. April Vanderbilt, 40, is a part-time graphic design student. Valerie Harris, who runs the definitive trial watcher's Web site, www.petersonblog.com, owns a publishing company and is planning to write a book about her experience.
"It's going to be an inside view about what it would be like if you decided to take a year off of your life to attend a high-profile murder trial," said Harris, who has sat in on the Peterson trial 132 times since pretrial motions began in February.
Some of the habitual attendees seem slightly embarrassed or at least mystified by their absorption with all things Peterson. Others are not the least bit sheepish about it. They greet news reporters and analysts by their first names and occasionally exchange nods or a few pleasantries with Sharon Rocha (search), Laci Peterson's mother.
"My friends think the most interesting thing about the Peterson trial is that I'm interested," said Marilyn McCormack, a part-time student and substitute teacher from Palo Alto, who won't reveal her age but easily rattles off the reasons for her habit. "It's operatic. It's high art. It's tragic. It's comedic. It's California."
To win one of the two dozen or so seats reserved for the public, a person has to get to Redwood City early and hope for luck. A court clerk hands out tickets by 7:30 a.m. and draws the numbers bingo-style 30 minutes later.
With the trial winding down, talk among the regulars has inevitably turned to how they will fill the void when it ends. They have joked about creating a "12-step program for former Peterson trial junkies," according to Hood-Akers, and hope to schedule a reunion sometime next year.
"The more you come, the more you somehow feel emotionally involved, like you're a part of it. I know it's probably a warped sense of self-importance," she said. "I try to keep that in check, that it has nothing to do with me. It's all about the families. I try to keep in mind that it's a tragedy and not a social scene, but it's hard sometimes."