Phil Noir: Accidental Suicide

The Phil Spector trial is possibly the biggest theater ticket in town, although the house was dark this past week due to star lawyer Bruce Cutler’s mysterious illness. This trial is certainly the only one I can recall that comes with its own press kit. (The Cotton Club murder trial didn’t have one, much less the Wonderland massacre case. Robert Blake? Forget it.) The ninth floor of downtown’s Criminal Courts Building is a justice multiplex; when the Spector jury in Department 106 was dismissed for the week following news of Cutler’s malady, reporters discussed surfing some of the floor’s other trials. Down the hall in Dept. 101, Chester Turner was about to be found guilty of being one of California’s biggest serial murderers, while in Dept. 104, the jury for accused Toonerville Gang super killer Timothy McGhee was being chosen. Each room should’ve had its own marquee.

The Superior Court’s blue press kit contains no head shots of the Spector trial’s principals, but they are all photogenic — and successful. Prosecutors Patrick Dixon and Alan Jackson are fresh off their victory in the Mickey Thompson case, in which the race car legend and promoter’s former business partner was found guilty of ordering the deaths of Thompson and his wife. Team Spector, of course, is led by Cutler, famous for his three victories defending Mob boss John Gotti, although Cutler also unsuccessfully represented both the estranged husband of John Wayne’s daughter, in a brutal Orange County assault case, and so-called Mafia Cop Louis Eppolito. He is joined by onetime Eddie Nash attorney Bradley W. Brunon, Century City lawyer Roger J. Rosen and Spector’s three DNA counsels — Linda Kenney Baden, Christopher Plourd and O.J. Simpson Dream Team member Robert Blasier.

The jury is either going to love or hate Cutler, who during his opening statement seemed to be auditioning for King Lear rather than pleading his client’s case. If there’s “method” in Cutler’s madness it must come from the acting approach he’s been using — massaging his temples, waving his arms in the air or simply creating long silences in the courtroom.

Surprisingly, Cutler, known for his devastating cross-examinations, left defense questioning of the D.A.’s first witness, Dorothy Melvin, to the somber Rosen, who, with his wire-rimmed glasses and thinning gray hair, , somewhat resembles the former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Perhaps Cutler was channeling On the Waterfront and couldn’t break out of it. (“Charley... Charley... I coulda been a defenda...”) While appearing deferential to Judge Larry Paul Fidler, Rosen was unaccountably snippy to Melvin — and was quickly slapped down by Fidler for his incivility.

Stocky Linda Kenney Baden, who concluded the defense’s opening statement, showed off her conversational command of forensic science and is already coming off more sympathetically than the boys in the band. With her Jersey accent, glasses and mane of impossibly blond hair, she seems motherly, sassy and efficient all at once. It’s no accident that she sits next to Spector and puts her hand on his shoulder during the court’s stressful moments. By trial’s end it’ll probably be glued there.

The defense’s verbal and semiotic strategies are emerging in subtle ways. Although this is not a federal trial, and is officially called People v. Phillip Spector, both Cutler and Kenney Baden refer to the prosecution as “the government,” possibly presuming a libertarian antipathy in the jury box toward the state. Furthermore, Cutler describes as ornamental the .38 snub-nose that blew apart Lana Clarkson’s mouth in Spector’s foyer and sent tooth fragments up a staircase — as though it were a Victorian absinthe spoon that could easily be mistaken for something besides a deadly weapon. Also, while the prosecution refers to the outfit Clarkson wore to work and, later that night, to her death as a black “slip dress,” Spector’s lawyers simply call it a “slip.” The difference being that “slip” helps build an image of Clarkson as the questionable kind of woman who would accompany a complete stranger from the House of Blues to a House of Blood in her underwear.

The biggest rhetorical gambit, however, has been Cutler’s description of Clarkson’s death as an “accidental suicide.” As in, the kind of unintentional suicide a depressed person might accidentally commit if she were horsing around with a gun she thought was too ornamental to do any harm. This is the idea Cutler was trying to sell to the jury that, thanks to his team’s persistent vetting, consists of 10 men and only two women. This mostly blue-jeaned audience may seem like an ideal, Spike TV demographic for Spector’s defense, which seems to want to say: “Look, guys, you can imagine what happened up there, right? She was a bit crazy to begin with, she had a few and went menstrual on my client.”

Spector, on the other hand, was “a true romantic of a bygone era” that “spanned the years from Lenny Bruce to John Lennon” who had simply been in the wrong place (his home) at the wrong time (5 a.m.).

“There’s a dead woman in my home,” Cutler imagined Spector telling the police, a line that runs a little too close to the title of a Terence Frisby play, There’s a Girl in My Soup. Likewise, when referring to a domestic disturbance call involving Spector and a date at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, Cutler thought it necessary to throw in that, by the way, “the people at the hotel thought she was a prostitute.”

The odd thing is that whenever the prosecution gets in its digs about Spector’s history, the defendant will stare into space and almost imperceptibly shake his head in denial. Yet when Cutler or Kenney Baden make him sound like the victim of fame and masochistic women, he sinks low into his shirts’ Byronic collars, almost to the point of disappearing.

So far in these very early stages of the trial, the most compelling figure has been Judge Fidler. Folksy yet erudite, shaved-headed and with a guidance-counselor’s authoritative but calming voice, Fidler runs a tight, fair courtroom in which no theatrics are countenanced.

“No one is going to have 15 minutes of fame here,” he said on the trial’s first day in reference to the room’s three TV cameras, as though admonishing lawyers and would-be streakers alike.

Fidler has charmed the jurors by waving the jury summons he had just received in the mail and made sure Cutler had plastic cups available so the lawyer wouldn’t be seen swilling water from a bottle. Fidler is not the kind of judge we see on prime-time TV shows but, rather, he is like a real judge acting in a movie about a fictional trial — like Joseph Welch, the attorney who famously faced down Joe McCarthy and later played a laconic small-town judge in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder.

You can almost imagine Fidler, perhaps responding to the accidental suicide theory, quoting Welch’s famous line, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Everyone looks at the Spector trial as spectacle, but we know it’s no King Lear or a Preminger film. Instead, we’re stuck with a Lifetime Channel movie of the week whose accused character, Spector, supposedly inspired the homicidal music producer Z-Man in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the 1970 camp fest written by a young Roger Ebert. Even here, though, the reality isn’t as good as the popular myth.

“The character,” Roger Ebert has written, “was supposed to be ‘inspired’ by Phil Spector — but neither Meyer nor I had ever met Spector.” After hearing Spector described by both sides, we might ask, “Who really has?”

Click here for more of Steven Mikulan's Phil Noir: A Spectator at the Spector Trial


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