A Noir Gift From Phil Spector

As 2007 wound down, our thoughts once more turned to Phil Spector, thanks to radio play of A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, his 1963 Christmas perennial. Spector’s murder trial turned out to be one of the most ballyhooed flops of the season, the courtroom equivalent of Cane. But when testimony opened in April, there were all the right ingredients for a blockbuster: wacky music mogul, poker-faced bodyguards, a dead blonde and a flamboyant defense attorney cut from the same cashmere as such immortal celebrity lawyers as Melvin Belli and Jerry Geisler.

Yet Spector as spectacle did not present a flavor profile suited to fickle Angelenos. He was too old and too obscure, his most famous work long behind him. In the Darwinian struggle for media sunlight, Spector’s daily emergence from his shiny black Mercedes (license plate: 1 ? Phil) couldn’t compete with a Paris, Lindsay or Britney sliding out of an unwashed SUV. Perhaps worse, his lead New York attorney, Bruce Cutler, self-destructed the moment he opened his mouth and was slapped down time and time again by Judge Larry Paul Fidler until Spector unceremoniously benched him for the rest of the five-month trial.

It was never clear what Cutler could have done to help his client. The Brooklyn-born attorney’s limitations were immediately evident and he appeared to be little more than a loud and often sarcastic shouter, a tummler who played well in New York’s Eastern District court by pounding police snitches but bombed when it came to the delicate job of defusing the testimony of women who revealed that Spector had threatened them with guns after drinking bouts. Cutler made oblique references to being an outsider who was unfamiliar with confusing points of California law, but this drew little sympathy among spectators — he was not exactly Sam Liebowitz come to Alabama to save the Scottsboro Boys.

Press coverage dwindled trigonometrically after the first day of statements, although such veteran stalwarts as Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne and Associated Press’s Linda Deutsch stuck it out for the duration. The most visible presence was Court TV’s contingent of reporters, bloggers and techs, whose live video cameras, interview tent and access to the prosecution gave rise to BlackBerry envy among some of the lower-tech and lower-profile reporters. The biggest row erupted between a few Internet posters and a popular blogger named Sprocket, and the Internecine intrigue this spawned resulted in Sprocket leaving the trial after being admonished by Judge Fidler for unbecoming conduct, a charge she claims was unjustified.

With Cutler neutralized and most of the defense’s more volatile witnesses (including former pimp Babydol Gibson and celebrity-son impersonator Raul Julia-Levy) vetted off the list by Judge Fidler, the trial settled into the trench warfare of expert-witness testimonies whose intricate and endless explanations gave new meaning to the words “inherit the wind.” Reporters and court rubberneckers alike sat glassy-eyed over the summer during the great debate over just where, when and how the late Lana Clarkson’s blood had reacted when a .38 slug slammed into her throat before dawn on February 3, ?2003. The defense claimed the relatively few specks of blood on Spector’s white jacket exonerated him, while the prosecution stated that the nature of Clarkson’s intraoral wound would have precluded much blood, if any, from leaving her mouth.

Then, toward the very end, defense witness Dr. Michael Baden dropped a bombshell — on his own foot. He claimed he’d experienced a recent epiphany when he realized that the bullet hadn’t actually severed Clarkson’s spinal cord — that had occurred, he theorized, between the time her body was loaded into a coroner’s van and its arrival at the morgue. Baden, until that moment a respected forensic scientist who once served as New York City’s chief medical examiner, immediately drew the wrath of deputy D.A. Alan Jackson, who accused the defense of withholding evidence and of tailoring its expert-witness testimony to fit a presumption of Spector’s innocence.

The defense ultimately escaped court sanctions for Baden’s Hail Mary revelation, but a grimy layer of soot settled on its case as people viewed his theory as evidence of desperation from Spector’s lawyers. It mattered little, though, for the jury eventually hung on the matter of Spector’s guilt. On the first ballot the majority of jurors favored outright acquittal, but eventually this shifted to a 10-2 vote for conviction. Some blamed the panel’s holdout foreman, but Judge Fidler, who was always center stage before Court TV’s cameras, also had a hand in the debacle. He micromanaged the court to the point where he overlooked a clever defense ploy that inserted a special jury instruction making it almost impossible to convict Spector.

Today the concerned parties periodically materialize in Fidler’s court to discuss retrial dates with Spector’s new San Francisco lawyer, Doran Weinberg. Spector also has a new brace of bodyguards, although the prosecution team still consists of Alan Jackson and Pat Dixon. Even Sprocket has returned, though she sits in the back row with her laptop and an instant feed to her site. Everyone seems so relaxed now that the cameras are gone and Fidler’s courtroom resembles the shell of an abandoned movie set. The date for Spector II will probably fall somewhere between late summer 2008 and early 2009. As for Lana Clarkson not receiving justice, her ghost may well heed Philip Marlowe’s words: “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”


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