IT’S TAKEN ME HIS ENTIRE NINE-WEEK trial to realize that Anthony Pellicano looks less like his marine-bird namesake than the Vlasic-pickle stork — an elderly-looking fowl with spectacles whose appearance inspires laughter. The former Private Eye to the Stars who, with four co-defendants, faces 78 counts of racketeering, has acted as his own attorney, and spent all of 16 minutes on April 29 presenting his closing argument.
For the entire trial he has worn his federal prison-issue green Windbreaker, T-shirt and fatigues-style trousers; Tuesday was the one day he should’ve worn a suit, if only to give his position the air of seriousness that had eluded it all these weeks.
As it happened, Pellicano’s peroration was a rambling disappointment and so his hopes for acquittal must rely, by association (ironically), on the arguments of his co-defendants’ lawyers. (See my April 27-May 1 blog posts here.)
One highlight of the closing arguments worth mentioning here was the address to the jury by Lawrence Semenza, the Nevada attorney representing Abner Nicherie. The salt-and-pepper-haired Nicherie has cut an odd figure: His inattentiveness, tardiness and California-casual attire have given him the air of a superannuated teenager. He’s been very chatty in the Roybal Federal Building elevators and elsewhere — I’ve been told he was warned by Judge Dale Fischer to stop speaking to a court stenographer.
“I used to read the L.A. Weekly in the ’80s,” Nicherie once said to me, “when I wanted to know where to party.”
Lawyer Semenza is his polar opposite. A grave, downtrodden man of late middle age, he reminds one of Jack Lemmon’s character, Shelley Levene, in the film of Glengarry Glen Ross. Nicherie’s lawyer accumulated a bit of a mystique during the trial, mostly because he rarely spoke (he made no opening statement and did not put his client on the witness stand), but also because of his Las Vegas–bright neckties, which were best approached with earplugs.
Semenza proved an effective speaker during closing arguments, his acerbic voice outlining how his client might have been innocent of the Gordian knot of business intrigue allegedly involving Nicherie and his brother, Daniel, and fellow Israeli nationals Ami Shafrir and Sarit Shafrir.
Like Mona Soo Hoo, who had just concluded her defense of phone-company technician Ray Turner, Semenza ended his summation by pointing to an alternative villain — Ami Shafrir.
As I write this, the jurors are beginning their first full day of deliberations. It’s far from certain how they will find the defendants, who also include former LAPD sergeant Mark Arneson and computer expert Kevin Kachikian. The government’s case seems overwhelming, so much so that prosecutors Daniel Saunders and Kevin Lally dropped more than two dozen counts from the indictment toward trial’s end — there was just too much evidence for the jury to absorb.
Saunders and Lally have filled the projection screens with document after document bearing the names of Arneson and people targeted by Pellicano’s wealthy clients, whom he charged a flat $25,000 just to open a case. The government has also played profanity-filled phone conversations — recorded by Pellicano himself — that seem to confirm Pellicano’s central role in a conspiracy to wiretap the enemies or spouses of his clients, allegedly including such Hollywood machers as Michael Ovitz, Brad Grey and Bert Fields.
But working against the government is a jury’s innate reluctance to send an old, frail-looking man to prison. (Wearing a green Windbreaker, no less.) Kachikian, the computer wiz charged with creating the Telesleuth software that allegedly enabled Pellicano to effortlessly wiretap subjects, is thought to be the one person most likely to dodge a conviction, on the basis of his clueless-sounding testimony — and geeky appearance.
The alleged crimes left no bodies lying in pools of blood. The presumed victims had their personal DMV and law-enforcement records passed around, and have testified that they’ve received intimidating phone calls and, in some instances, had their tires slashed. From the point of storytelling, the charges against Pellicano and his associates did not, in the recalling, lend themselves to an Aristotelian structure with a beginning, middle and end.
Instead, they formed a Joycean narrative whose most memorable scene was that of entertainment journalist Anita Busch claiming that her car windshield was vandalized and adorned with a dead fish, a red rose and a note reading, “Stop.” That purported Busch moment, however, occurred years after some of the other allegations, and was followed by still others, so tended to get lost or forgotten in the two-month shuffle of testimony.
Last Thursday, prosecutor Saunders concluded his rebuttal argument by declaring, “This case is not about Hollywood. It’s not about Sylvester Stallone or Keith Carradine. It’s not even about Brad Grey or Michael Ovitz. ... This is a case about people who believed the justice system could be bought with a $25,000 nonrefundable retainer.”
But what, listeners wondered, could be more Hollywood than that?