June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

by Theo Wilson

Long before sensational trials were broadcast on Court TV and synopsized nightly by Geraldo Rivera, the country depended on pad-and-pencil reporters like Theo Wilson for their scandal du jour. A five-foot-tall fireball who once hailed a cab to cover a story 200 miles away (she had no driver’s license), Wilson spent more than four decades, mostly at the New York Daily News, tenaciously covering the trials of Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Patty Hearst and other high-profile defendants. Many readers consider her the greatest trial scribe who ever lived. Sadly, Wilson, who was 79, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on Jan. 17 while preparing for a TV interview and died the next day.

Keenly observant, she conveyed the distinct flavor of every trial she covered, a talent on full display in her summation of the surreal, circus-like prosecution of Charles Manson (during which “one woman juror wore a different wig nearly every day,” she wrote and occasionally “looked exactly like something out of Madame Butterfly”). But what shines through Justice, Wilson’s only book, even more than her love of writing on deadline, is her love of what went on after deadlines: the hours of eating, drinking and hashing it out with other dedicated newsroom types. Wilson was irked by the “flash and trash” journalism that replaced her hard-bitten style of reporting, but what she missed most was the late-night camaraderie with her ink-stained pals. (Thunder’s Mouth, $22.95)

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