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Phil Noir: If He Did It 

Warning: Spector verdict spoiler

Friday, Aug 10 2007
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IMAGINE THIS SCENE AFTER 15 weeks of Phil Spector’s murder trial: A cross section of men and women file into an empty courtroom at L.A.’s Criminal Courts Building. They’ve heard the evidence and must now decide the fate of a single individual. Deliberations immediately become heated, with some in the room taking the two-sided debate very personally. Four months of collegiality break down in minutes.

So much for Tuesday’s meeting of the trial’s reporters. Only one journalist could be chosen to represent all of them as a pool reporter at the jury field trip to Spector’s Pyrenees Castle in Alhambra. This little sideshow, which displayed a bared-fang rivalry between the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, ended with a 15-7 vote in favor of the AP’s Linda Deutsch. (Later that day, Judge Larry Paul Fidler authorized a second reporter, the Times’ Peter Hong, into the pool, only to reverse himself after Spector objected to having to put the welcome mat out for anyone but Deutsch — whom his lawyers had publicly proposed.)

Thursday was the big visit behind the Wall of Sound (or, at least, the wall of cinder block that protects Spector’s home), and about 35 reporters, bloggers, camerapeople and various liaison staffers found what little shade there was under pepper trees a block down the hill. Hong, the runner-up in the pool verdict, provided Starbucks and bagels to his colleagues as three groups of six jurors and alternates visited the foyer of death they’d been hearing about for so long. They also studied the courtyard fountain whose noise may or may not have affected what Spector’s driver, Adriano DeSouza, heard shortly before dawn on February 3, 2003. On the witness stand, DeSouza recalled his dazed boss wandering out of the house holding a gun and muttering, “I think I killed somebody.”

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Much of the trial has hung on that single moment, with the defense claiming DeSouza could not possibly have heard Spector correctly. The scene has often reminded me of the moment Orestes emerges from the palace to announce he has just killed his mother, Clytemnestra. As the mythologist Edith Hamilton retells Aeschylus’ story:

“When he came out again, those waiting in the courtyard did not need to be told what he had done. He seemed not to see them; he was looking at the horror beyond them. Stammering words came from his lips: ‘I am not guilty there .?.?. Did she do it or did she not?’?”

Did, indeed, Lana Clarkson shoot herself in the mouth, as the defense maintains, or not? That’s what the jury will begin deciding in about two weeks, and the pilgrimage to the House of Atreus — I mean, Spector — was crucial for them. As Deutsch later reported to the assembled media down the hill, the jurors seemed diligent in studying firsthand what they’d only heard about in the courtroom. They alighted from their vans to brush past Spector, dressed in sweats, long-sleeved T-shirt and sandals, and his wife, Rachelle. The couple stood still as Greek statues. Over the next 90 minutes, some jurors slumped, à la Lana, in a replica of the death chair while others sat, like DeSouza, in a Sheriff’s car next to the fountain.

Judge Fidler, however, drew the line on the jurors’ requests to conduct experiments involving sound re-creations and to wander about other parts of the house — requests that may well betray a sense of CSI-entitlement nurtured by watching too many TV crime shows.

ALMOST FROM THE START there has been a sense that the weight of the district attorney’s evidence, and its seamless presentation by prosecutors Alan Jackson and Pat Dixon, have produced a tilt of courtroom opinion against Spector’s defense. Now, as the trial shudders to its conclusion, that tilt has become vertiginous — one can practically hear deck chairs and champagne carts sliding across varnished planks. Much of this perception is based on such intangibles as juror body language, the demeanors of witnesses and, of course, a common-sense evaluation of the testimony.

The defense’s theory that Clarkson committed suicide in the home of a stranger has always sounded like a blame-the-victim yarn, much of the physical proof of which heavily depends on Clarkson’s body moving about after her spinal cord had been severed by a bullet. On Wednesday, a defense expert witness, neuropathologist Dr. Jan Leestma, even cited a study, conducted during the time of the French Revolution, on guillotined corpses to buttress his speculation. Some victims of the Terror, Leestma said, had moved about hours after execution.

From the outset, the defense swore it was not out to tarnish Clarkson’s memory, but faster than you could say The War Against Women, it pounded her image from that of a buoyant blond actress to one of a deeply depressed alcoholic whose inability to restart her career inevitably led to suicide. It’s also tried to portray her as salacious and vaguely trampy. In the Lana Unleashed video shown the week before, Clarkson was seen playing a Siegfried and Roy–type character discussing one of his big cats: “My pussy is extremely sensitive. I wash it, I trim it, I blow it.”

Despite this, I predict Spector will get a hung jury. I base this on the accumulated doubt planted in jurors’ minds by the testimony of the more convincing paid defense experts, coupled with a reluctance to send a near septuagenarian to prison for what would probably be the rest of his life. There’s also the memory of Robert Blake, whose guilt seemed even less ambiguous than Spector’s, yet who was completely acquitted in 2005 of murdering his wife. I could be wrong — the overwhelming consensus in the press gallery is that Spector will be found guilty — but, as the old saw has it, it only takes one holdout to hang a jury.

“L.A. ISN’T KNOWN FOR THEATER,” prosecution witness Nick Terzian stated Monday. Terzian was Clarkson’s agent for ads and commercials but had never known his client was cast in a 99-seat-theater production of Brentwood Blondes — from which she was fired before its opening. It pained me, as a theater critic, to hear this, but Terzian was correct. Despite the dozens of stage productions performing here on any given weekend, they remain mostly invisible to the public, for whom Los Angeles is all about film and TV. The Spector trial has been called the town’s biggest theater ticket, but it is Bruce Cutler’s starring role in a reality TV show called Jury Duty that has kept the defendant’s former lead attorney away for much of the trial. Cutler still says he will participate in closing arguments, but that seems about as far-fetched as the defense’s “accidental suicide” theory. And now Vanity Fair’s venerable Dominick Dunne, who’s been covering the trial since day one, tells me he will appear in two episodes of the TV cop show The Closer — as Dominick Dunne.

No wonder the biggest witness buzz this past week concerned Transformers director Michael Bay, who’d been called by prosecutors to deny Punkin Pie’s previous testimony that he had snubbed Pie’s best friend, Lana Clarkson, at a party weeks before the actress’s death. Bay’s testimony was fairly boring, however, and after the director stepped down, the trial’s theatricality went with him. The haggling among journalists for the pool-reporter credential and the schlep up to the castle provided the week’s remaining drama. Now the only theater to look forward to will be a possible appearance of defense superstar criminalist Dr. Henry Lee and Devra Robitaille, another woman who claims Spector menaced her with a gun. As the trial participants enter what defense attorney Brad Brunon ruefully calls “the twilight of our days,” the court has become a reality TV show, but without a sense of reality.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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