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Phil Noir: Like Watching Blood Dry 

A slow trial suddenly goes ballistic

Thursday, Jun 7 2007
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It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California . . .

—James M. Cain, Double Indemnity


Two false eyelashes.  A maroon-colored toilet. Brandy snifters, burning candles, a Viagra three-pack and a box of Mylanta tablets. These formed part of the tableau de l’amour that cops and coroners found at Phil Spector’s Pyrenees Castle before the dawn of February 3, 2003. There were other things around, to be sure: a bloody diaper, a DVD of an old James Cagney film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, a .38 special revolver, and the body of B-actress Lana Clarkson, whose impromptu Date With Phil ended in death.

None of these details are new, but last week they took on renewed significance as Spector’s murder trial lurched into its seventh week. It began as a tortuous sequel to the previous one as defense attorney Christopher Plourd finished up with county pathologist Louis Peña, who, despite four and a half days of cross-examination, never even began to identify with his captor, sticking to his belief that Clarkson was murdered and did not commit suicide, as Team Spector insists she did. (One juror began to applaud when Peña finally left the witness stand.)

Soon, however, jurors and spectators began to realize that only more of the same lay ahead through the grinding conga line of homicide detectives and criminalists.

“It’s like watching paint dry” was an expression often heard in the hallway, although it was more like watching blood dry as defense attorney Bradley Brunon tried to get Sheriff’s Detective Mark Lillienfeld to concede that perhaps some part of the bloodstained grip of the revolver was still tacky — and susceptible to unintended smearing — 12 hours after the gun fired a bullet into Clarkson’s mouth, severing her spinal cord.

In today’s CSI-spiked consciousness, “crime-scene contamination” is the platinum Get Out of Jail Free card, and the defense was clearly reaching to create doubts about the crime-scene examination. At one point, Brunon even seized upon a photo showing a single ungloved hand visible among the many investigators examining Spector’s home, implying that this lapse in protocol meant the county’s forensics search was little more than a slumber party of incompetents.

“If there’s no glove, you must acquit,” you could almost hear Brunon admonish, even if this lacked the rhyme and logic of Johnnie Cochran’s famous couplet from the O.J. Simpson trial. Almost, that is, until it was revealed that the bare hand belonged to Lana Clarkson.

The previous week’s obsession with Clarkson’s tooth fragments continued, but the testimony increasingly became dominated by ballistics examinations. The prosecution is concerned with what came out of the barrel of Spector’s .38, while the defense keeps hammering on what was left behind in its cylinder. The fronts of the remaining bullets were all swabbed for Clarkson’s blood DNA, whose presence on their tips Lillienfeld attributed to the gun’s blow-back. Brunon, however, asked if the cartridge heads were also checked for DNA, which they weren’t. (During the defense’s opening statement, attorney Linda Kenney Baden had said that Clarkson’s DNA was present on the shell casings — meaning she loaded the gun that ultimately killed her.)

The county’s ballistics tests also included a sound test, in which guns identical to the alleged murder weapon were fired during re-enactments at the castle (conducted, oddly enough, by Department of Health hygienists, according to Lillienfeld), in an effort to show that Spector’s chauffeur, Adriano DeSousa, could hear the fatal gunshot above the noise of the car’s running engine, its stereo and a nearby fountain. The defense is less concerned with proof of DeSousa’s ability to hear the shot than with torpedoing his claim that he heard Spector, upon emerging from his home, announce, “I think I killed somebody.” To that end, Spector’s lawyers characterize the fountain as a deafening Niagara Falls thundering less than 20 feet from the castle.


The week’s most dramatic moment was easily the pre-announced refusal of lawyer Sara Caplan to testify. Caplan, who was once part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team — as well as, her Web site claims, that of alleged Beverly Hills “Limousine Rapist” John Gordon Jones — had briefly been engaged by Spector’s defense through Robert Shapiro. The prosecution wants to use her to impeach criminalist Dr. Henry Lee, who is accused of destroying or losing crime-scene evidence. With the jury absent, Caplan’s attorney, Michael Nasatir, claimed that her appearance would violate her attorney-client confidentiality. Prosecutor Pat Dixon shrugged off this claim, noting that she was first brought in to testify during an evidentiary hearing by the defense itself.

Nasatir, a grandfatherly figure who has successfully defended Robert Downey Jr. and Christian Slater in highly publicized drug cases, begged Judge Larry Paul Fidler not to force Caplan to testify, appealing to the Sixth Amendment and to “centuries” of tradition — as though Fidler were sending Nasatir’s own daughter to the electric chair. But Fidler, announcing that lawyers are not above the law, flatly stated that he would hold Caplan in contempt if she refused to take the witness stand — the first time in his 25 years on the bench that he has done so. Going beyond Dixon’s arguments, he cited several examples in case law in which attorneys were compelled to testify against former clients, including the 1981 case California v. MIchael Meredith decision of the California Supreme Court.

But then Caplan stood up and strode to the bar and addressed Fidler directly. A woman with world-weary eyes, Caplan began to choke as she told the judge she never in her life imagined she would be forced to turn against a client. The courtroom was riveted by her brief performance — even the normally stoic Spector turned around to take in the drama. Caplan was Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! — or at least, she was Spector’s Susan McDougal, willing to do time for a principle. Oh, and Caplan, too, had read Meredith — and said she found the ruling to be far more limited than Fidler was suggesting.

The court temperature immediately changed with these words. And something strange happened — the normally imperturbable Fidler blinked. Bailiffs would not be taking away Ms. Caplan, not today nor in the future — Fidler allowed that he would stay any contempt citation he made until a later resolution of her expected appeal, but, more important, he was going to research the matter further and have a decision Monday. One moment he was whistling Dixon, and the next he suddenly realized he might have to dust off Meredith and take another look at it.



Amid all this, the sad details of Lana Clarkson’s life continued to pour forth from e-mails filled with fragile bravado. We learned in one that she had 16 days of sobriety under her belt. From another, that she wore a TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder) brace at night in the hope this would deter the severe headaches that bedeviled her toward the end of her life. In another message, Clarkson, who starred in Barbarian Queen and Amazon Women on the Moon, complains that she participated in a movie autograph show, but the event cost her more money to attend than she made selling her signatures.

Even the optimistic gestures she made in the last weeks of her life seem forlorn — dieting to get a role in an infotainment spot for a piece of exercise equipment, buying 10 pairs of shoes for her job at House of Blues and ordering up new head shots. Throughout the testimony, Clarkson becomes a little less human and more abstract — she describes herself as an “Amazon crybaby,” and at one point Detective Lillienfeld slipped and said she was found with “her right paw” resting on her handbag.

The jurors listen impassively, some taking notes, some with their eyes half shut, others passing out Altoids. Perhaps they feel sorry for Clarkson, maybe they think she paid the price for getting into a stranger’s car. Or perhaps they just try to imagine her in the tiny bathroom near Phil Spector’s staircase, peeling off her fake eyelashes and neatly placing them on that maroon toilet.

More Phil Noir:

The Tooth of Crime A coroner gets examined and cross-examined

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

Related Stories

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 semiotics

A 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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