Phil Noir: Doc Day Afternoon

Vincent DiMaio sat in the witness chair like someone’s Uncle Vinny visiting from Brooklyn. As facial tics rippled around his mouth and white drawbridge eyebrows raised and lowered involuntarily, he nevertheless oozed self-confidence and expertise. Dr. DiMaio, who retired last year as medical examiner for Bexar County, Texas, is a grand old man of blood spatter whose testimony is sought by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, from the U.S. to the U.K. His textbook, Gunshot Wounds, is the Maltin guide of bullet trauma.

DiMaio was Team Spector’s first witness after the prosecution provisionally ended its presentation Tuesday, and he testified that gun-muzzle gas blowback accompanying a bullet impact can propel blood 6 feet toward a shooter. The measurement is critical, because the prosecution claims “back spatter” cannot extend more than 2 to 3 feet — which could put the .38 special in Phil Spector’s hands on the night Lana Clarkson died in his Alhambra home. The defense, though, claims that the blood spatter could pretty much spray out to Monterey Park, given the size of the gun’s ammunition.

The doctor also claimed, with a whaddaya-kiddin’-me? finality, that based on the spatter, statistics and her depression-saturated e-mails, Clarkson had committed suicide, emphasizing his words with knowing, half-closed eyes and an avuncular nod. Some spectators might have thought, Why does the defense need Dr. Henry Lee when it has DiMaio? The latter easily connected with jurors, forcing them to keep their focus on him by addressing most of his words directly to the jury box and only occasionally to defense attorney Christopher Plourd.

However, there were early flashes of a dangerous vanity that led DiMaio to make the kind of ghoulish comments that transformed him from Uncle Vinny to Grandpa Munster. At one point Plourd announced, with some understatement, that a photo he was about to show of Clarkson’s bruised tongue, which was removed at autopsy, was “not a very pretty picture to look at.”

“From the jury’s perspective, right!” laughed DiMaio, who’d seen all this stuff before. Clarkson’s mother and sister sat 20 feet away as he said this — and would soon flee the courtroom.

Deputy D.A. Alan Jackson leapt to his feet Wednesday afternoon to begin his cross-examination of Dr. DiMaio, and the two men hit it off immediately — as enemies. DiMaio would not even deign to glance at Jackson, often answering the prosecutor over his shoulder while shuffling through some papers. Jackson, meanwhile, dismissively referred to the M.D. as “Doc,” as though he were a veterinarian or Santeria priest, or would hiss quotation marks around the word “science” that DiMaio invoked so often on the stand. During Wednesday’s cross, Jackson seemed somewhat unsteady, and DiMaio effortlessly deflected innuendos that his suicide stats were skewed, along with the rest of his testimony.

The problem is that while Jackson is superb at thinking on his feet and can quickly map out a logical interrogation, his rhetorical skills don’t seem to have advanced past that of a star high school debater. His voice lacks texture and modulation, and he expresses doubt or outrage only by speaking faster. Instead of injecting nuance and irony into his speech he can only add more exclamation points. By Thursday, however, he found his footing and emerged with the upper hand as he challenged the increasingly irritable DiMaio’s objectivity. Bit by bit he chipped away at the old necromancer’s composure, until he needled the doctor into saying that Clarkson, had she had a gun drawn on her, should have grabbed it and then, after disarming him, broken her would-be assailant’s fingers.

While the Court TV feed may show the confrontation as a draw, those in the courtroom saw jurors gasping or laughing at the doctor’s advice. And if jurors equated the defense’s attacks on the credibility of Sheriff’s criminalist Lynne Herold with beating up on Ma Joad, they probably saw nothing wrong with the prosecution’s pounding of Dr. DiMaio.

At first glanceit seemed that the transition from prosecution to defense testimony would mean no discernible change in the interminable migration of forensic experts to the witness stand. The D.A.’s lab coats emulated character actors out of an old policier — monotone, taciturn and unused to direct light. And if they sometimes resisted the prosecutors’ nudging to draw unequivocal statements about Spector’s guilt, they could be more than frustrating to the defense. With, for example, his fussy demeanor and philosophical reluctance to state an opinion, county firearms expert James Carroll proved to be a slippery combination of Felix Unger and Jacques Derrida.

All that changed with DiMaio, who turned out to be all opinion and attitude. The withering exchanges between the doctor and Jackson were what the media (and, probably, the jury too) were here for, even though on balance they produced little new information of substance. Instead, we learned that DiMaio was being paid $400 an hour for his defense services. Jackson also got him to admit that the doctor’s objective scientific data could serve to implicate Spector as much as to nail Clarkson as a suicide. (Days before, defense lawyer Linda Kenney Baden had gotten prosecution witness Herold to admit the same thing about the case’s evidence potentially exonerating Spector.)

Nor did DiMaio, whose textbook states that police tend to overlook suicidal causes behind many gunshot deaths because of cultural taboos regarding self-murder, sound especially erudite when he assigned a dumb-blonde explanation for Clarkson’s alleged suicide.

“This isn’t a real suicide, where someone leaves behind a note,” he told Plourd. “This was a stupid impulse.”

For his part, Jackson reduced an important gunshot experiment conducted at the University of Münster, using live cattle, to “a German guy who shot a cow in the temple.”

Still, after the doctor’s mud-wrestling match with Jackson, DiMaio’s final moment on the stand petered out into a familiar, anticlimactic drone about dandruff and the “coefficient of drag” — a constant that might well be used to measure much of this trial’s tedium.

It’s hard to imagine how much the average person knows or cares about the Spector case. Even the defense’s figurehead lead attorney, Bruce Cutler, apparently has a hard time taking the trial seriously. He’s been absent for the past week, taping a reality TV show called Jury Duty. This is a trial whose testimony has shown how little name recognition Phil Spector has in the city in which he revolutionized pop and rock music. During the trial’s first week, Spector’s British biographer, Mick Brown (Tearing Down the Wall of Sound), told me how amazed he was that Spector, still so popular in the U.K., has been forgotten by his countrymen — and the pop culture he once helped to define.

Perhaps Dr. DiMaio’s offhand explanation of Clarkson’s depression also explains the obscurity of both the trial and its defendant:

“She’s competing against Paris Hilton and things like that.”

Note: There will be no Phil Noir next week because the court is dark until July 9.

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