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Phil Noir: The Left-Handed Gun 

Spector trial mirages, red herrings and no shows

Friday, Aug 31 2007
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AN ORNATE STARTER’S PISTOL. Unfired bullet cartridges covered with the victim’s DNA. A criminalist with a fatal flare for the limelight. These are some of the decoys and mirages conjured by Phil Spector’s lawyers that never saw the light of testimony. Perhaps none cast a longer shadow than a great debate that was promised by both sides but never argued: How did the .38 Colt Cobra special that fired the deadly bullet into Lana Clarkson’s mouth find its way under her left leg? Clarkson was right-handed. So is Spector. The .38’s position might have supported the defense contention that Clarkson committed suicide — that is, if she had braced the Colt with her left hand and the revolver dropped west after the shot, just before her body came to its final rest. Or the gun’s location could have supported a prosecution theory that a panicking Spector, remembering wrongly that she was a southpaw, had planted the gun under Clarkson’s left leg.

In the end, it seemed so plausible that the little pistol (the same model Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald) had simply been kicked underneath Clarkson inadvertently by crime-scene visitors that both sides split the difference and dropped the matter.

Equally intriguing was the idea, first broached by now-departed defense attorney Bruce Cutler in his opening statement, that an “ornate” track gun that fired only blanks may have been in the house on the night Clarkson died. The innuendo was unmistakable — Clarkson may have been horsing around with the starter pistol and, later, after many drinks, mistaken the real .38 for the cap gun. Then, during her own phase of opening remarks, attorney Linda Kenney Baden spoke of how the backs of the bullets found in the .38’s cylinder bore Clarkson’s DNA — yet not Spector’s — which suggested that at the very least the struggling actress had, at some time during that deadly 2003 evening, handled the shells and possibly even loaded them into the gun herself.

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Then there were the witnesses who never got called, as well as Clarkson’s own writings (purportedly filled with morbid reflections and graphic sex talk) that were never read in court, not to mention photos of her fondling firearms. At first glance, the witness list looked as though it had been redacted from an Agatha Christie novel. There was Hollywood madam Babydol Gibson, who was going to talk about her trick book and whether or not Clarkson’s name appeared in it — until Judge Larry Paul Fidler simply blocked her appearance on the grounds she’d only be there to dump a few tons of mud on Clarkson’s reputation. Ditto with a shadowy figure calling himself the son of the late actor Raul Julia (and scion of a Mexican banking dynasty to boot), who claimed to have been Clarkson’s lover and would testify to her extensive use of illegal drugs. (Apparently Fidler stopped “Raul Julia-Levy” from appearing when it became clear this canary’s rap sheet — I mean, résumé — would take too much time to recite in open court.)

The most eagerly anticipated expert witness, however, had been Dr. Henry Lee, who shot to fame testifying for O.J. Simpson, and who had since reinvented himself as a lecturer and expensive trial expert for hire. But Judge Fidler had taken a key and scratched up Lee’s shiny reputation when he declared the Connecticut criminalist to have lied about some missing evidence Lee had discovered at the crime scene. (The so-called smoking fingernail.) As the defense lawyers listened, Fidler’s words must have sounded to them like the long, sickening scrape of the iceberg beneath the Titanic’s prow. Lee’s showy, smarmy bedside manner had already revealed its vulnerability to cross-examination during an evidentiary-hearing joust with Deputy D.A. Alan Jackson; Jackson would have only pounded Lee over the head with Fidler’s pronouncement. And so, the forensics virtuoso never had the chance to crack his trademark jokes, especially about how Caucasians all look alike to him — let alone to declare Spector innocent of Clarkson’s death, which Spector maintains was self-inflicted and which the prosecution calls second-degree murder.

FOR NOW WE WAIT. Two or three days of closing arguments by the defense and prosecution will begin after the jury’s weeklong Labor Day vacation. Then the real drama starts as jurors crack open their notebooks and begin deliberating. Will any of them remember Spector’s left-handed gun and other fake-outs? (“Hey!” one of them might shout. “Did they ever say if that was spit or cum on Lana’s nipple?”)

If not, what will they remember the most? The cinematic sparring between prosecutor Alan Jackson and defense criminalists Lee and Vincent DiMaio? The scene, near trial’s end, when Jackson caught their octogenarian colleague, Dr. Werner Spitz, in an apparent lie about a discussion with defense lawyer Chris Plourd — but then, in a moment of mercy rare for this trial, declined to press the matter? Or will it be the little things, like the way both defense and prosecution counsels respectfully stood every time the jurors filed into court, beaming at them as though each carried a cocker spaniel puppy? How both sides called the defendant “Phillip” Spector, only to later slip into “Phil” Spector?

Before they get down to the real tough part and begin arguing among themselves, the jurors might recall the otherworldliness of court culture and how the two sides conducted themselves. There were the strange air hugs given by members of opposing counsel, as when they’d huddle before Fidler at the bench, arms sort of around each other’s waists but never quite touching. And the way, as the City News Service reporter Ciarán McEvoy pointed out to me, that the prosecution always alerted Clarkson’s mother and sister, Donna and Fawn, of the imminent projection of crime-scene and autopsy photos, whereas the defense didn’t — and even seemed to deliberately leave the pictures out on the podium, a few feet in front of where the Clarksons sat.

The jurors, like most of the courtroom spectators, have probably long forgotten statements that today sound quaint, as when Alan Jackson, in an April pre-trial discussion, had requested that the prosecution’s expert witnesses, many of whom came from the Sheriff’s department, not be shown on the Court TV feed.

“At least put some sort of fuzzy ball over their faces,” he’d pleaded at the time, to no avail.

“There’s not going to be any yelling, screaming or pounding of tables,” Judge Fidler had said during that same period. “I deplore any kind of theatrics.”

Fidler’s hard line on histrionics effectively scuttled Bruce Cutler’s role on the defense team and bled the trial of as much drama as possible. But if Fidler’s comment foreshadowed the trial’s lack of spontaneity, it was a quip from defense counsel Brad Brunon that touched on the trial narrative’s noir quality.

“It sounded like something Dashiell Hammett would have written,” Brunon had cracked about a prosecutor’s menacing description of the .38 special. No doubt Hammett, Raymond Chandler and any number of hard-boiled writers from the 1930s would have felt at home listening to noirish testimony about a fading actress’s fateful encounter with a faded music producer.

No trial panel is an open book offering easy reading, but court visitors have remarked that these 12 jurors and, now, five alternates seem to be an unusually collegiate group. During the 90-minute lunch recess, we in the media would spot them chatting amiably in the driveway that leads beneath the Criminal Courts Building or, under watchful eyes of Sheriff’s escorts, wandering about an open-air market held on the City Hall lawn. Now they are no longer tourists to the criminal-justice system but will take center stage to become both the trial’s leading actors and its most knowledgeable critics.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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