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Phil Noir: The Dark at the Top of the Stare 

Phil Spector’s trial reaches its endgame

Friday, Sep 7 2007
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FOR THREE YEARS, MUSIC LEGEND Phil Spector, now 67, has stood accused of a crime more heinous even than his production of Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man album. In the early morning hours of February 3, 2003, Spector picked up Lana Clarkson, a down-on-her-luck actress, at House of Blues, where she worked as a $9-an-hour hostess. The couple, who had never met before, were driven to Spector’s “castle” in Alhambra. Shortly before dawn, a gun belonging to Spector fired a bullet into Clarkson’s mouth, killing her. Spector and an evolving retinue of lawyers and forensics experts claimed that the 40-year-old Clarkson shot herself — either accidentally or intentionally. The District Attorney’s Office begged to differ and, in 2004, indicted Spector for second-degree murder. Now, after more than four months, the trial is reaching its endgame, with the two sides presenting their closing arguments.

The defense, having last week lost its flamboyant New York attorney, Bruce Cutler, left it to science lawyer Linda Kenney Baden to wrap things up Thursday. As soon as she began, however, it was clear Kenney Baden lacked Cutler’s showmanship and even the rhetorical polish of her Team Spector colleague Roger Rosen. For the occasion, she wore a double lei of turquoise rocks that may either have been a gift from her husband, Michael, or were on loan from Wilma Flintstone.

The Jersey-accented Kenney Baden came out swinging and offered few cordialities beyond a quick “Good morning” to the jury. From the start, her voice was hard, fast and declarative. It did not invite the listener to imagine possibilities or linger on nuances, but instead commanded jurors to weigh evidence favorable to her client. Standing at a podium that was now turned toward the jury box, she gripped a three-ring binder containing the notes to which she frequently referred. Her PowerPoint production values seemed rudimentary at best — Kenney Baden often threw up onto a screen entire pages of trial transcripts that jurors may or may not have bothered to squint through. It didn’t help matters that Judge Larry Paul Fidler attended to his paperwork during part of her presentation.

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Yet after the lunch recess, Kenney Baden returned calmer and more self-assured, regaining some of the maternal charm she had projected in her opening remarks last April. Her job today was to remind jurors of all the evidence that might help Spector, while also rehabilitating the defense’s expert witnesses who had been so flayed by prosecutor Alan Jackson’s cross-examinations. She doggedly stuck to a rush-to-judgment theme as her PowerPoint reminded jurors that “reasonable doubt” was enough to let Spector walk.

She did a credible job underscoring the lack of blood and gunshot residue on the cream-colored jacket Spector wore the night Clarkson died and even turned to her advantage a glib comparison that prosecutor Pat Dixon had used months ago to dismiss the idea that Clarkson’s messy home suggested an unraveling mind. Back then, Dixon had said that Clarkson’s Venice cottage, which she had apparently once trashed in a pique of frustration, was not the abode of a latent suicide, but that of someone merely untidy, someone, maybe, like Owen Wilson — who just this past week was hospitalized for attempted suicide.?

Still, Kenney Baden was no match for Alan Jackson’s preceding closing argument, whose waltzing grace and seeming spontaneity made it sound like one long, extemporaneous soliloquy. Listening to Jackson, who rarely referred to his notes, was sort of like hearing Carl Sagan rhapsodize about the Milky Way, except Jackson was describing how Spector had turned Clarkson’s mouth into a bloody pulp before wiping her face with a diaper soaked in toilet water.

Early in this trial, the Texan’s down-home drawl, Jimmy Stewart humility and moral outrage came off as a little precious. But these seeming deficiencies only emboldened his opponents to underestimate him, to their great cost, and it’s now revealed that within Jackson lives a great actor who is genuinely moved by his own words, as much as by the justness of his cause. There were moments when he looked at the jurors the way a Baptist preacher who is filled with the Holy Ghost regards his flock.

Even Jackson’s PowerPoint presentation had improved since his April opening statement — title cards appeared in Courier font as though they were typewritten headings from a screenplay, while black-and-white photographs of expert witnesses from what he dubbed the “Checkbook Defense” emerged in the kind of wired diagrams Congress uses when investigating the Mafia. Finally, an image of the scales of justice loomed in the background of many slides. If Jackson’s PowerPoint had come with music, it would’ve been the Tannhäuser overture.

Jackson mostly stood by the podium, but sometimes easily moved about, and at one point actually sat down, ?Walt Disney–style, before the jurors and opened his binder of notes as though to read them a bedtime story. That this fairy tale was about an evil old man who lured a golden-haired damsel into his haunted castle and killed her was beside the point. Jackson’s once-upon-a-time was the story of the first crime, a timeless fable of man’s primal madness and vanity. He was subtle too — seeming to compliment Bruce Cutler’s James Cagney impersonation but really mentioning Cutler to draw attention to the defense lawyer’s departure.

Jackson was also nervy — claiming that the forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee did not appear for the defense because he knew its 72-inch-blood-spatter theory was bunk, while hammering Dr. Michael Baden for appearing for the defense because Baden’s wife was being paid by the defendant, as was the doctor. (If Baden had not testified, Jackson could have pointed to his absence as evidence that Baden did not believe in Spector’s case.)

Closing statements are to be considered as purely argumentative and not as evidence. I’m still betting on a hung jury, but it remains an open question as to what effect the concluding war of words will have on its intended audience. One juror, after all, briefly played around with his cell phone during part of Jackson’s performance, and, under defense objections, Judge Fidler called out Jackson on some infractions, but basically just handed him fix-it tickets. Kenney Baden finished her summation just before noon on Friday. She was followed by an almost psychedelically rambling rebuttal by Pat Dixon that ended the day and the D.A.’s case against Spector.

As this long trial winds down, a strange exhilaration has electrified both sides. Giddy laughter fills the hallways of the ninth floor, where the courtroom is located, as well as the 13th, which serves as an informal greenroom for the defense. Even Phil Spector, sporting a darker hairstyle above his dead-eye stare, succumbs to moments of animation. But more noticeable is how little attention his trial is drawing, even now. The court had set aside another courtroom for anticipated media overflow this week, only to discover the room wasn’t needed. A few more reporters have drifted in, along with a handful of extra spectators, but so far none of the crush that was expected. The verdict will probably arrive next week, however, and with it evidence of just how much this spectacle has become part of the dream life of Los Angeles.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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