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Phil Noir: The Tooth of Crime 

A coroner gets examined and cross-examined

Monday, Jun 4 2007
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Every day of the ongoing trial in L.A. County Superior Court’s Department 106, Lana Clarkson’s mother, Donna, and sister, Fawn, stoically observe the prosecution make its case that music producer Phil Spector murdered the actress in 2003. Occasionally, when graphic images are projected onto a screen, the two turn their heads away. But neither were present last week when forensic pathologist Dr. Louis Peña came to court with his crime-scene photos and autopsy sketches. Gone was the Laura Palmer/Twin Peaks–style headshot of a beautiful, smiling Lana that the prosecution projected at every opportunity, replaced by photos of her bloodied face and close-ups of her broken front teeth. Had they been there, Clarkson’s survivors would have had crippling neck kinks by the time Peña finished testifying.

From the start, Peña said it was highly unusual for someone of his seniority to be ordered out to the Spector mansion to examine a body, but this was no ordinary case. It fell, as the first line of the coroner’s report says, under the heading, “Celebrity, Gunshot Wound, Media Interest, Victim of Crime.” Very early on in his testimony, Peña pronounced the death a homicide, based not only on the crime-scene evidence, but onClarkson’s lack of past suicidal tendencies — an absence the defense plans to fill with its own contrary evidence.

Peña proved to be an unbelievably believable expert witness — matter-of-factly answering defense attorney Christopher Plourd’s polite cross-examination questions about blood spatter and traumatized-tissue flow as though he were discussing his golf swing. Except for a nervous habit of pulling up one of his socks while on the witness stand, Peña remained unruffled and seemed downright helpful, often delivering his opinion directly to the jurors and engaging the monotone Plourd in a warm, conversational manner, occasionally replying with, “You know, that’s a good question,” or, as when explaining the unpredictability of gunfire, “The bullet will do its thing.”

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For four full days he was the charming, avuncular face of the coroner’s office — Mr. Science and not Dr. Death — breaking down esoteric subjects into homey analogies that everyone could understand.

“Remember when you were a kid, you’d go to Baskin-Robbins?” he asked as he described how blood was absent from the grooves of the wiped-clean gun that killed Clarkson. “You get that cone, they put ice cream on it, it starts to melt, right? That ice cream gets on your fingers, and it gets on the crevices there; you get the napkins and start to wipe the ice cream where you know it was, but you know it’s in the crevice too, right?”

Then, to explain a shooting victim’s red skin lesions produced by gunpowder stippling: “If you’ve been to a pool hall and played dart board games, it looks like that — all around the dart board [it’s] pinpointed [by holes] all the same size.”

Everyone knew though what Plodding Plourd was up to: By repeatedly asking if the medical examiner’s officehad considered certain possibilities and circumstances — and to explain why not — Plourd was forcing a key prosecution expert witness to disprove a negative. Presumably, future defense expert witnesses will be very happy to explore these possibilities that the county lab coats had supposedly been negligent in overlooking. The defense’s most potent weapon might well turn out to be its Plourd drone, but by Day Three Judge Larry Paul Fidler informed Plourd that jurors were sending up notes saying they were growing fatigued from the attorney’s repetitive, hair-splitting questioning.

It wasn’t all rhetorical waterboarding, though, as some unforgettable vignettes emerged from the murk. Peña admitted, for example, that one of his criminalists had dropped a vial containing one of Clarkson’s shattered teeth, losing it forever on the ground — an image seemingly taken from the end of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Bernice,” in which a woman’s extracted teeth bounce upon the floor of a maniac’s estate.

“I know, I know... it was an era.”

This enigmatic line flickered on the courtroom screen for only a moment before a prosecution objection had it removed. The apologetic words had been written on a medical-history questionnaire in which Lana Clarkson admitted past use of cocaine and marijuana. The document was both a tantalizing glimpse into the alleged murder victim’s past and a peek at what the defense has in store for Clarkson’s reputation once the prosecution finishes calling its witnesses. (Clarkson had been prescribed a Paxil-Vicodin cocktail to alleviate severe headaches. One name written on one of Clarkson’s medical-history forms was that of her prescribing doctor, Mark Saginor, the legendary Dr. Feelgood who was once the Playboy mansion’s on-site physician until his license was suspended in 2004 for failure to maintain proper records. What the defense will do with this bit of trivia can only be imagined.)

Although Plourd was not finished with Dr. Peña by week’s end, the attorney had clearly scored some points by apparently getting Judge Fidler to allow jurors to consider a memoir written by Clarkson. The prosecution tried to block this (dismissing the document as a creative-writing class exercise) and with good reason — Clarkson’s opus, “The Story of My Life,” could be a dynamite keg as far as the mental state of the late actress and House of Blues hostess is concerned. Last Thursday, with jurors out of earshot, Plourd revealed examples of Clarkson’s fragile mindset. In 2003, for example, she’d been cast as Marilyn Monroe in a local stage production of a play called Brentwood Blondes, but was dropped from the show after it was clear she was hearing voices speak to her. (On Monday, Fidler ruled the memoir inadmissible for Plourd’s cross-examination of Peña, but said it could be used when the defense questions its own expert witnesses.)

Besides her fascination with Monroe, who’d committed suicide in 1962, Clarkson was obsessed by the story of another woman, an unsuccessful actress who killed herself in the 1930s at the same Hollywoood Hills home Clarkson once shared with roommates. Plourd also disclosed the fact that although Clarkson described herself as a “social drinker” on one of her medical-history forms, elsewhere she admitted using drugs when she was 13 and drinking 17 shots of tequila when she was 17. When Plourd pointedly asked Dr. Peña if he thought that constituted social drinking, the coroner simply turned to the jurors and explained Clarkson’s alcohol and Vicodin tolerance in layman’s terms: “It’s like taking a shower. You jump in the shower and you know how you get used to it? Someone might get in there with you and say, ‘Hey, this is too cold for me,’ but you’ve adjusted to it. The same applies to drug use and is called tolerance.”

Plourd spent part of Thursday afternoon channeling Lana Clarkson by reading her words and projecting her handwriting, but spectators heard another surprise voice from beyond that day— Bruce Cutler’s. After a rather testy hearing out of the jury’s presence, Judge Fidler ruled against Plourd’s attempt to quote some of Phil Spector’s less-deranged crime-night statements to the jurors — only to have Cutler, who has been benched for weeks, suddenly begin haggling with the judge. An electric current of excitement ran through the court as spectators remembered why the New York lawyer had been hired in the first place. Here was Cutler being Cutler, not taking no for an answer, talking over the very same judge who’d previously warned Cutler about interrupting him.

“Can it come in a vanilla way, a generic way?” Cutler asked about admitting Spector’s statements. Fidler, more surprised than annoyed, eventually told Cutler no meant no.

By the end of Thursday, Dr. Peña, his testimony finished for the week, sat in the hall guzzling water from a bottle, his tie and jacket off, looking very much like a man who needed a shower. Or 17 shots of tequila.

More Phil Noir:

Doth the Doc Protest Too Much? Criminalist Henry Lee lashes out at critics

Hassle in the Castle The night the cops had Phil Spector by the short hairs

Murder As a Second Language As questions about defense attorney Bruce Cutler’s effectiveness circulate, immigrant witnesses place new accents on shooting timeline

Marlowe vs. CSI? The Tycoon of Teen’s Gun Problem The Phil Spector verdict is months away and Bruce Cutler’s wardrobe has not yet begun to fight.Accidental Suicide Guns, slips and semioticsA Spectator at the Spector Trial Tell it to the judge: Bruce Cutler's  California adventure

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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