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Phil Noir: The Heart of the Spatter 

Jurors get put on a strict science diet

Friday, Jun 22 2007
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Sara Caplan, who was one of Phil Spector’s lawyers for about five minutes, finally had her morning — and afternoon — in court. In the a.m. she wore a beige pantsuit to request a five-hour postponement of her contempt hearing. After the lunch recess Caplan reappeared in gray — supposedly, according to some waggish reporters, because beige would wash out on television. (At least Caplan lost the Dr. Seussian green eye shadow she’d defiantly worn the week before.) Once in court, Caplan had to participate in her own exorcism ritual, in which prosecutor Alan Jackson asked her questions related to defense criminalist Dr. Henry Lee’s alleged misappropriation of evidence, to which she declined to answer on the grounds that doing so would violate Spector’s attorney-client privilege. After each refusal Judge Larry Paul Fidler ruled her in contempt.

Fidler, after allowing how much he admired Caplan’s principles, applied a “coercive-contempt” ruling against her, one whose sentence he stayed until Caplan’s attorneys can appeal to a higher court. In a trial bled dry of drama, Caplan’s appearance was electrifying. The big irony about this contempt kabuki was that Caplan’s face, until the moment she broke down in tears, truly was a mask of contempt. (Think Katy Jurado sneering at Grace Kelly in High Noon.) “This is despicable,” Caplan said to the judge before the courtroom karaoke even got under way.

Theoretically, Caplan could find herself in jail for the trial’s duration (which some people are predicting might not end until September), although that doesn’t seem likely.

“She might serve an afternoon or overnight,” says former federal prosecutor and current USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth. “[She] was really just grandstanding, but I don’t hold that against her — it’s what defense lawyers are paid to do.”

The next day the prosecution rolled out its final witness, Sheriff’s department criminalist Dr. Lynne Herold. If Herold had changed her outfit between morning and afternoon, it wasn’t apparent — unless she’d switched from one quilt-patterned muumuu to another. A melancholy woman with long, unstyled hair, Herold seemed all the more sad because she tried to be humorous on the stand, even though, as she said, she was in the grim business of analyzing “the fluid we call blood.” Herold was there, Jackson announced, to answer three questions: “Where was Lana? Where was the gun? And where was the white jacket?”

Actually, Jackson is using the spatter expert to show that the blood blow back from Clarkson’s mouth gunshot wound couldn’t have extended more than 3 feet. This would place the blood-speckled white jacket — which happened to be on Phil Spector at the time — within arm’s length of Clarkson’s face. Jackson is also trying to match blood-smear patterns on the gun grip with those on Clarkson’s left hand — implying that Spector placed the gun in that hand after it was fired — and show that Spector tried to clean both the gun and Clarkson’s face immediately after shooting her.

Moving from enigmatic blood-spatter patterns, Herold then delved into another mysterious area — women’s handbags. At the crime scene, Clarkson’s own leopard-skin-print bag seemed to be facing the “wrong way,” the criminalist said, suggesting it had been placed on the shoulder of Clarkson’s body by a man — possibly the man in the white jacket. Although Herold was not as eager and unequivocal in her pronouncements as Jackson clearly wanted her to be, her testimony was part and parcel of the prosecution’s contention that Spector is a murder auteur who reblocked the stage of his crime before the police arrived at his Alhambra mansion.


Mick Brown dropped by the courtroom recently. Brown is the London Daily Telegraph reporter whose new book, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, is partly based on interviews Brown conducted with Spector only weeks before Clarkson’s death. Brown begins his book describing how long he’d been cooling his heels on the Sunset Strip awaiting his meeting with Spector, until finally a chauffeured car arrives to pick Brown up. In some ways it’s a remarkably déjà vu moment, recalling, as it does, Jann Wenner’s 1969 interview with Spector in Rolling Stone. There, Wenner wrote of waiting 40 minutes on the same Sunset Strip for his interview, until a limousine, driven by an armed chauffeur, arrived to take him and photographer Baron Wolman to Spector’s home. For all his legendary volatility, Phil Spector has remained consistent over the years — or rather, consistently volatile.

Brown had previously attended the first sessions of Spector’s trial, but then left to promote his book. Most members of the foreign press, in fact, have decamped Department 106, leaving empty seats to visiting law school students or court interns who, no doubt, are having their preconceived notions of courtroom spectacle shattered.

They are not alone. Years ago the American Living Room had a Perry Mason perception of how trials proceeded, and believed that lawyers could basically do anything they felt like in court, from hypnotizing witnesses on the stand to menacing them with daggers. Today, with Court TV’s live broadcasts of the Spector trial and others, we finally know just how boringly choreographed court really is, from the forced bonhomie of counsels to the methodic introduction and labeling of evidence.

Perhaps for this reason the frenzy surrounding certain cases (usually, celebrity cases) has actually increased since the O.J. Simpson trial. These stories fixate on the personalities accused of crimes, their lawyers and their clothing and hair — even who is reporting on the trial or is visiting. Proceedings against a Simpson, Robert Blake or Phil Spector become metatrials whose coverage focuses on the coverage itself and what the trial supposedly says about American attitudes on, say, race, class, age. We forget that what lies at the heart of a trial is the accusation of a crime — and that behind the crime lies a body.


It’s clear that Dr. Herold will be on the witness stand well into next week, although some observers have wondered why the prosecution didn’t end with a bang witness.

“Science can’t tell you who pulled the trigger,” Jean Rosenbluth says. “I would have ended with one of these women who dated Spector and to remind the jury of the violence the defendant is capable of. But this is more of the same. I’m not sure [jurors] are aware of any reasons to stay awake.”

Alan Jackson ended his direct examination of Herold halfway through Thursday. Defense counsel Linda Kenney Baden lost no time getting adversarial with the Sheriff’s criminalist. With her metallic Jersey voice ricocheting off the courtroom walls, Kenney Baden tried to undermine the relevance of the articles Herold had written on blood spray and to get her to admit her awareness of published theories that claim back spatter can extend 6 feet from an entry wound — which, the defense says, explains the relatively small amount of blood on Spector’s jacket and puts him outside the perimeter in which the gun was fired.

Before long Kenney Baden began talking down to the witness. This was a mistake. The grandmotherly Herold, whose voice sounds a little like that of the late TV chef Julia Child, responded at times by rolling her eyes or asking, “And your point is?”

By the end of last week’s testimony jurors seemed more deafened than blinded by science, while those of us covering left the court in search of that fluid we call scotch.


More Phil Noir:

The Human Stain How Spector left his mark on Lana Clarkson

Like Watching Blood Dry  A slow trial suddenly goes ballistic

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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