Phil Noir: Court Gesture
Monday afternoon turned into This Is Your Life, Michael Baden as Phil Spector lawyer Christopher Plourd engaged in nearly 80 minutes of logrolling by asking defense pathologist Dr. Michael Baden about every little detail of his educational and professional history, from his internship at Bellevue Hospital in the 1950s to his rise as New York City’s chief medical examiner and beyond.
The idea might have been to buy time so the defense could line up its final witnesses and add recovery time for the doctor’s wife, defense lawyer Linda Kenney Baden, who has been bedridden with an undisclosed illness. Plourd also seemed eager, perhaps with certain jurors in mind, to get Dr. Baden to mention any black person he’d ever met in person or on the autopsy table. These included O.J. Simpson, Ron Settles, Medgar Evers, Oprah and the nation of Zimbabwe. It wouldn’t have surprised many if Baden had added that he’d taken the Jackie Robinson Parkway to get to LaGuardia Airport.
Tuesday morning’s direct examination of Dr. Baden resumed its dawdling pace with the prosecutors’ full acquiescence. Deputy D.A.s Pat Dixon and Alan Jackson sat impassively in their distinctive-looking chairs, which resemble Aerons that might have been designed by H.R. Giger. Finally, when Judge Larry Paul Fidler at last intervened and prodded the attorney to move on, Plourd asked Baden how Lana Clarkson might have continued to breathe even after a bullet had severed her spinal cord as she sat in the foyer of Spector’s home.
Simple, Baden said — the bullet hadn’t completely transected the spine; that was only accomplished on the morgue-wagon ride to the coroner’s. In the meantime, Clarkson could have — must have — breathed for “many minutes” after the gunshot. Suddenly the defense, which maintains Clarkson killed herself, had a unified field theory of blood spatter, one that could simultaneously explain the whereabouts of bloodstains on Clarkson’s clothes and account for the few red specks on Spector’s cream-colored jacket — she had coughed the dropletsonto the accused’s sleeve.
This was the first time anyone but Plourd had heard Baden’s bombshell thesis and, after Judge Fidler released the jury for a break, Alan Jackson leaped from his Alien chair to accuse the defense of violating California’s discovery laws by not turning over this new information to the D.A.’s Office. Jackson asked the doctor why he’d never mentioned the partial-transection theory to anyone in the four and a half years since Clarkson’s death, let alone in the post-postmortem findings he gave to Spector’s lawyers.
Baden, an avuncular, mustachioed man with white hair, tried to explain that he’d only experienced what he called “an ah-ha! moment” while talking to Plourd the previous Sunday. However, Baden’s disclosure on the witness stand immediately became a d’oh! moment for the defense. Fidler angrily rounded on Plourd and considered striking Baden’s provocative testimony from jury consideration. He ultimately allowed it — but with damaging jury instructions attached. Later that day, with the jurors present, Jackson hammered on the fact that Dr. Baden had an apparent conflict of interest because both he and his attorney wife were being paid by Spector.
Dr. Baden did not bear up well on the witness stand, displaying none of the worldly ennui that had made fellow defense witness Dr. Werner Spitz impervious to Jackson’s interrogation. Baden, so impressive years ago when he testified for O.J. Simpson, now fidgeted, audibly gasped, and continually wiped his brow. Rather than the authoritative, Bronx-accented host of HBO’s former Autopsy show, Baden resembled Captain Kangaroo with acute heartburn.
Baden is one more reminder of how much luster members of O.J.’s Dream Team have lost since they won the Juice a murder acquittal in 1995. This can’t bode well for Spector. If it’s true that all Russian writers emerged from Gogol’s overcoat, then it might be said that the Spector trial climbed out of O.J. Simpson’s golf bag. It was Spector’s first counsel, Robert Shapiro, and his team of lawyers, criminalists and investigators who secured the February 2003 crime scene at Spector’s Pyrenees Castle after the coroner had decamped with Clarkson’s body, and it was their handling and interpretation of the evidence that have set the tone for the defense long after Shapiro and company departed from the case.
The Spector trial has been affected by O.J.’s in other ways, however. From the start, Judge Fidler has repeatedly stated he will not allow the proceedings in his courtroom to turn into another Simpson circus, with an aggressive defense team stage-managing incendiary moments for the benefit of an uninformed jury and out-of-control media. As if to underscore his determination, Fidler last week read the riot act to gum-chewers in the gallery while bailiffs cracked down on visitors reading newspapers and doing crossword puzzles.
Rachelle Spector has attended every day of her husband’s trial, occupying a row in the gallery behind him. She often sits through testimony perfectly still, chin pointed slightly down, eyes fixed upward. She frequently frowns, though sometimes a thin Mona Lisa smile settles on her face. There are times when that mysterious smile is replaced by a more mischievous expression and Mrs. Spector seems to be laughing to herself at something quite unknown to others. The secret source of her mirth may be revealed one day, but for now it is one of many things about the 26-year-old that excites speculation.
Thursday defense attorney Roger Rosen took the extraordinary step of complaining to Judge Fidler that a member of the media had made rude comments about Rachelle Spector in court. Earlier, Fidler had admonished one of the trial bloggers for discussing evidence loudly enough for jurors to hear — the same person accused of ridiculing Mrs. Spector. The blogger, known as Sprocket, denies the charges, claiming to have been set up by a courtroom rival. These incidents were further evidence of an ugly guerrilla war that has erupted among certain factions of bloggers and people who post to Court TV’s Spector trial message board. Perhaps the flap is a measure of the fatigue that has settled in on Department 106. In one sense the Spector proceedings have become another Simpson trial in that there is a feeling of indeterminate drift that not even the judge can control.
Someday this trial will end. For a while it looked as though the case was winding down, but Labor Day week has returned as the expected date for jury deliberations. For now, the lawyers, witnesses and bloggers seem to be up well past their bedtimes as signs of crankiness and inattentiveness appear. Several times the normally focused Jackson addressed Michael Baden as “Dr. DiMaio,” an earlier defense witness, while at one point Baden referred to Lana Clarkson as “Lana Turner.”
Then, last week, one of Spector’s bodyguards broke away from his boss’s entourage to pass along some news to me and another reporter: Mr. Spector was having a party and was hoping that a few of us in the media might attend. I immediately imagined myself sipping tequila in the foyer (“Hey Phil — I’ll have another shot!”), tactfully eyeing the blood-red carpet for where evidentiary pieces had been removed and patched. The invitation was soon revealed to be a gag (ah-ha! indeed), so I saved myself a trip to the car wash — and some awkward moments at the castle gate. Was this joke what lay behind Rachelle’s enigmatic smile?
There are times when even the courthouse itself seems to conspire against us, as though it were a malevolent force all its own. One afternoon I left the trial and got into an elevator with a Sheriff’s deputy. The doors continuously bounced apart just as they seemed ready to close, accompanied by a recorded female voice that pleasantly repeated, “Going down.”
After a full minute of this, the deputy said, “One more time.” The doors then drew together so close, only to spread apart at the last moment, sending the frustrated cop into the hall. “Going down,” the robot voice lied. I lingered briefly, then stepped out to see where my fellow passenger had gone. The hallway was empty, even though the deputy couldn’t possibly have caught another car or taken the stairs so quickly. Yet he was nowhere to be seen. It was as though the courthouse had swallowed him whole.
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