Phil Noir: Fidler Out of Tune
ONCE HE DECLARED A MISTRIAL in the murder case against Phil Spector and the jury left Department 106 for the last time, Judge Larry Paul Fidler looked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. With good reason. Early on, through his somewhat imperious control of the proceedings, he appeared to be playing the role of Lear, and then, toward the end, by vacillating between difficult and unattractive choices, he was Hamlet.
It was the Hamlet turn that threw the case into turmoil. First he allowed a defense-crafted special instruction to the jury that would’ve made it virtually impossible to convict Spector. He replaced this poison pill with, perhaps, an even more toxic remedy, one that asked jurors to consider possible scenarios in which Spector could have shot and killed Lana Clarkson, the 40-year-old down-and-out actress who became more famous dead than alive. Fidler even briefly flirted with the idea of allowing the jury to consider the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. The buzz among many corridor lawbots was that by now, even if Spector were found guilty, Fidler had handed the defendant’s lawyers enough ammunition to guarantee an overturned conviction on appeal.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s announcement that the jury had deadlocked 10-2 in favor of conviction, Fidler, who is said to be up for a state appellate judgeship, looked subdued. Occasionally, he spoke almost inaudibly, as though he’d been battered by the turn of events. As if a hung jury weren’t enough, a distracting sideshow flared up in the trial’s waning days when Rachelle Spector’s Team Spector blog proclaimed, “I love Phil Spector!! The evil judge should DIE!!”
Although, through her husband’s lawyers, Ms. Spector has demurely denied posting this inflammatory declaration, the Sheriff’s Department has opened an investigation on the grounds that the quote constitutes a perceived threat against a judge.
“I feel sorry for Fidler,” one lawyer unconnected to this case said to a colleague during an elevator ride Tuesday.
“Why?” asked his friend.
“The death threat,” the other sighed. “And his bad decisions.”
THE DEADLOCK, WHILE NOT AN OUTRIGHT defeat for the District Attorney’s Office, is certainly a setback and will only deepen public perceptions that California law has short legs when it comes to catching up with celebrities. This city’s prosecutorial establishment continues to reel from O.J. Syndrome, which dates back to having lost its 1995 murder trial against former football star O.J. Simpson. In May, former model Paris Hilton seemed to receive preferential jail treatment for a drunk-driving conviction, and, in 2005, actor Robert Blake won acquittal on charges he murdered his wife. In Santa Barbara County, singer Michael Jackson beat a child-molestation rap.
After the jury was debriefed by the judge and lawyers for both sides, three jurors held a short but somewhat tumultuous meeting with reporters in another courtroom. These were Jurors Nos. 9 and 12, both of whom had voted for guilty verdicts, and the foreman, Juror No. 10. The trio confirmed what many had assumed — that both the 7-5 split from the previous week and the final 10-2 verdict were in favor of conviction. Just how fluid those figures had been, though, became clear when it emerged that the very first vote was four for guilty, five for acquittal and three undecided. The two people who held out for acquittal apparently believed the coroner’s office should have conducted a “psychological autopsy” that would have examined Clarkson’s state of mind over the last months of her life to buttress or refute defense claims that she shot herself in Spector’s mansion. The holdouts also felt Spector should have had more blood on his clothes and body if he had shot Clarkson.
Juror No. 9 further described as offensive Bruce Cutler’s opening arguments that depicted Spector’s chauffeur, Adriano DeSouza, a Brazilian national, as an illegal immigrant with a tenuous grasp of English who was taking a “siesta” when Clarkson died.
The foreman, who grew a bit prickly during the give-and-take, refused to give his name or reveal his vote, although later on Court TV, Juror No. 9, Ricardo Enriquez, said the foreman had been one of the two acquittal holdouts. Enriquez, who on television appeared by turns erudite, commonsensical and sometimes catty, also complained that once elected, the foreman had prevented the group from taking any kind of preliminary votes during the first days of deliberations — until, that is, Enriquez had threatened to go to the judge.
One unforeseen aspect of the verdict was the desire of jurors to seek out sympathetic bloggers, while bypassing some of the reporters who pressed business cards on them Wednesday. Enriquez, in fact, was unloading his thoughts with Trials & Tribulations’ Betsy Ross before he even went on Court TV’s Bloom and Politan show.
Before the three jurors answered media questions, Sandi Gibbons of the D.A.’s Office announced that prosecutors will seek a retrial. Spector has the right to return to court within 60 days of the first trial’s end, but no one believes he’ll be in any rush to do so. It’s unknown if the music legend can finance an expensive new defense effort and who, if anyone, from the original defense team would return to his side. Furthermore, Judge Fidler has a crowded court calendar that has to be cleared before a new trial can begin. We might not see a rematch for another year.
Spector betrayed no emotion when Wednesday’s deadlock was announced, even though the Wall of Sound creator, who turns 68 in December, had faced a 15-years-to-life sentence on the murder-two count alone. Later, a news helicopter that followed his entourage back to his Alhambra castle recorded the legendary music producer dancing with Rachelle in their driveway, not far from where Lana Clarkson had been shot dead. For the time being, Phil Spector was home free.
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