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The retiree, who died at age 98, was familiar to judges and lawyers as the face of a well-informed public.
Murry White, 1914-2013
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
After his retirement in the early 1980s, Murry White became such a frequent spectator at Salem and Roanoke County court hearings that, in at least one case, his presence created a bittersweet misunderstanding.
“I suspect he saw every jury trial I ever tried as a prosecutor,” said Roanoke County General District Court Judge Vincent Lilley, who started as an assistant county commonwealth’s attorney in 1981.
“A lot of people thought Murry and his wife were my parents,” he said Tuesday, adding: “I couldn’t have been prouder if they were my parents.”
But back then White, well into his 60s at the time, was just getting warmed up. Across three decades, he and his wife, Suzee, observed countless trials and, in the process, greatly endeared themselves to dozens of area lawyers, judges, deputies and court officials.
Murry White died Sunday at age 98, following complications from a stroke on March 23.
“The two of them could watch court. They could tell you exactly what the citizens ... were thinking about the evidence that was presented,” Lilley said.
“It was remarkable and uncanny what they could tell you about how the case was going,” he added.
“It was just something that would get him and Suzee out,” said Betty Sue Enstminger, deputy clerk of Roanoke County Circuit Court.
The couple often showed up five days a week.
“She would bring a pack of crackers, a bottle of pop and a cup,” Enstminger recalled. “During the breaks, they would go into a break room downstairs and she would spread out napkins. She would always give him four crackers and half the bottle of pop.”
But their trial-spotting extended beyond the Roanoke Valley. Lilley said they attended every day of Jens Soering’s murder trial in Bedford in 1990. When Salem businessman Dennis West, convicted in the grisly 1988 murder of his wife, was retried in Loudon County across two weeks in late 1992, the pair headed for the courthouse in Leesburg to watch it unfold.
“A public trial needs to be public. It needs to be under the watchful eye of citizens, otherwise you have a star chamber,” said John Kohler of the Salem/Roanoke County Bar Association, which made White an honorary member last year. “He was the public. He represented everybody.”
Suzee White’s death in 2005 slowed her husband down but didn’t stop him.
“He’d been through several spells of bad health since his wife died,” said Roanoke County Circuit Court Clerk Steve McGraw. “He was always very trim, very fit. I think that’s why he lasted so long.”
White’s fascination with the justice system began when he was a boy, according to Katrina Johnson, who retired as Salem’s victim witness director in October and stayed in contact with White for years.
She said when he was young, White’s father took him to watch night hearings every Saturday in the old Roanoke County Courthouse in Salem.
During a mock trial when White was in high school, sometime in the late 1920s or early ’30s, he was tapped as the prosecutor in a student case involving a fictional shooting.
White showed up for the case with a slug he’d fired into a haystack, and he presented amateur ballistics evidence as part of his case.
“You would never be able to do this today, but he brought the gun to school, brought it into class, and he won the conviction,” Johnson said. “That’s what really got him started.”
That high level of curiosity and intelligence stayed with him, even as he came within arm’s reach of age 100.
“We lost a lot of knowledge when we lost him,” she added. “A lot of people lost a really good friend. I know I did.”
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