Phil Noir: Killing Time

“THE JURY BELIEVES THEY ARE HUNG.”

The air suddenly went out of Department 106 when Judge Larry Paul Fidler told the courtroom Tuesday afternoon that the Phil Spector trial jury was deadlocked. Apprehension had been building with each passing day that the nine men and three women were at an impasse. Then, about 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, court media and spectators were jolted by two buzzes from the jury room — indicating the jurors had a question for the judge. (Three buzzes would have meant they had reached a verdict.)

The mood in court quickly changed over the next few hours from one of drowsy tedium to nervous dread as the case’s prosecutors, defense lawyers and, finally, Spector himself arrived at the Criminal Courts Building for the afternoon “proceeding” that had been called by Judge Fidler. Deputy D.A.s Alan Jackson and Pat Dixon looked ashen and showed none of the ambling self-confidence that had marked their many presentations and cross-examinations. Members of Team Spector also looked as though they expected disaster.

The judge then summoned the jurors and asked their foreman, Juror 10, if he thought some rereading of testimony or instructions would help the jury move toward a unanimous decision.

“We discussed that at some length,” the foreman, who is a county civil engineer, said flatly. “At this time, I don’t believe anything else will change.”

Fidler polled all the jurors, finding several who disagreed — three indicated that it might help if the judge would clarify the difference between “doubt” and “reasonable doubt.”

Another bombshell dropped when the foreman revealed a 7-5 schism among the jurors — the deadlock, in other words, was not the result of some 11-1 holdout, but an almost even split. While many assume the 7-5 divide was in favor of conviction, there is no evidence of that. Although the jurors avoided eye contact with media and spectators as they filed into court, this was not a case of jury indecision. Its 12 members were very decisive — so much so that none would change their minds after four ballots.

After sending the jurors and alternates home for the day, Fidler asked lawyers for both sides to submit arguments to him Wednesday regarding what kind of instructions he will give the jury. He can, as the defense called upon him to do, declare a mistrial. But this is unlikely, given the five months that have gone into the trial. He can read back certain instructions and further explain the intricacies of doubt and reasonable doubt, although, as he said after the jury had been dismissed, this “seldom produces positive effects.” Or he can reverse his own earlier ruling and permit the jury to consider Spector liable for the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Some might say that Judge Fidler has himself to blame for the deadlock. By insisting on an all-or-nothing decision on second-degree murder, he made it harder for jurors to send an old man to prison for the rest of his life — something they were reluctant to do after his lawyers had planted enough doubt about Spector’s guilt in their minds. The odds are on Fidler now allowing Spector to face this lesser charge, which means the lawyers for both sides would have to present new closing arguments, tailored around involuntary manslaughter, on Thursday morning.

Phil Spector didn’t blink when Fidler announced the impasse, and the defense retinue retained its stony-faced façade all the way to the elevators after court was dismissed. Still, they must have been secretly rejoicing.

“We’re not allowed to speak to the media,” said one member of the entourage. “But if one of us did, it would be to say that the absence of bad news is good news.”

BEFORE TUESDAY’S DEADLOCK, the days had been long ones for Department 106 court watchers. Friday morning arrived with grave disappointment when some panel members filed in wearing jeans and T-shirts — indicating they were more likely to spend the weekend at Lake Havasu than announce a verdict and face the media. In the courtroom, a few journalists read newspapers or whispered comments to each other while trying not to draw reprimands from bailiffs or court media handlers. Occasionally, we’d drift upstairs to the 18th-floor press office next to the D.A.’s office, where there’s a TV and DVD player. Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne obtained and donated for viewing a 1967 I Dream of Jeannie episode co-starring Phil Spector as himself. The L.A. Times’ Peter Hong delivered Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Lana Clarkson’s first film) and the Godfather trilogy (intra-oral gunshot homicide in the second film); City News Service’s Ciarán McEvoy brought in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which also features a gun-in-mouth murder. More important, the Meyer movie’s freakish, homicidal character, Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, was supposedly modeled on Spector.

Dunne caused a stir Friday when a group of TV and radio reporters heard him discuss, outside the courtroom, videotapes made by Spector and his then-assistant, Michelle Blaine, in which Spector walked through possible alibi scenarios. Dunne, in his October Vanity Fair article, wrote about how these tapes were rumored to have been shot at the Beverly Hills Hotel over the course of eight days immediately following Clarkson’s death — but declared the rumor to be untrue. (The tapes were actually made a year later and not at the hotel.) Nevertheless, local media, in the dry white season of waiting, jumped on the news as though it were true.

Friday was also the day O.J. Simpson arose from the ashes of oblivion, when he was accused in Las Vegas of coercing the return of sports memorabilia that he claimed belonged to him but was in the unlawful possession of a collector. The L.A. media went into meltdown mode over this story, which, in an ironic twist, veteran Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch, who covers Spector’s trial every day, recounted a conversation she’d had with Simpson, in which the Juice told his side of the Las Vegas debacle. Suddenly, Deutsch’s voice was heard every 15 minutes on radio — not about Spector, but Simpson, a specter who still haunts this town.

The instant eclipse of Spector by Simpson demonstrated just how little the music producer’s trial means to the public, and reminds me of the time nearly every reporter covering Robert Blake’s murder trial two years ago fled Blake’s courtroom to watch the arrival of superstar Mel Gibson at another room in the Van Nuys courthouse. There was an attempt by NBC’s Dateline program (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032600/) to glam up the Spector case last week with a hilariously cheesy “special.” Tongue-in-cheekily narrated by Keith Morrison, the documentary substituted ironic captions for analysis and video manipulation for intellectual focus.

“She grew up in Northern California,” Morrison’s voice intoned, “tall and pretty and hungry for fame.”

And, if this hoary narrative weren’t enough:

“But Hollywood, as every child should be taught early on, is often a cruel town.”

The big gag, of course, is that Juror No. 2 is himself a Dateline producer and will no doubt be a font of insider knowledge once the program does a post-verdict special.

JUST BEFORE THE JURY began its deliberations, Judge Larry Paul Fidler handed down a gag order against Spector and his wife, Rachelle. The latter had earned the judge’s wrath for going before Court TV cameras almost immediately after an earlier Fidler admonition against speaking to the media about the case. When Fidler brought down the hammer on Rachelle, she spoke up in court.

“And that’s all right for Louis and all the other bad people to go out and say stuff?” Rachelle called out from her seat, referring to one of Spector’s adopted sons.

Fidler, like the suddenly exposed Wizard of Oz, was shocked and angered that anyone in the gallery would even consider speaking to the robe, let alone in this tone. He immediately warned her against repeating such insolence — only to hear Rachelle reply again.

“You’re talking to me,” Rachelle sputtered. “I’m not allowed to respond?”

After giving her a final warning, the judge turned his attention to Phil Spector, ordering him and any “surrogates” from speaking to the press. The source of Fidler’s ire was a long interview with Spector that had appeared the day before in London’s Sunday Mail, in which the Wall of Sound creator accused the judge of not liking him and questioning that his case could be fairly heard “by 12 people who voted for Bush.”

Spector’s lawyers responded that he did not say these things, and, in fact, the interviewer, Vikram Jayanit, who is making a Spector documentary for BBC and often sits in court with Rachelle, claims that what the Mail ran was an unauthorized edit of a pretrial interview with Spector. The damage had been done, however, and Fidler threatened the Spectors with contempt penalties if they opened their mouths again, on the grounds that he would view future interviews as attempts to influence the jury.

However, Fidler’s authority to gag the spouse of a defendant in a criminal trial — a spouse who is not involved with the defense team — seems iffy, at best. One former federal prosecutor I spoke to says she cannot recall any instance in which a judge has barred a spouse from speaking to the press. Both the ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg and the First Amendment Project’s executive director, David Greene, told me that Fidler’s move raised freedom-of-speech questions and seemed to go beyond what was necessary to protect the jury’s objectivity, especially since it has not been sequestered. Erwin Chemerinsky, Duke University professor and in-out-now-back-in-again dean of UC Irvine’s law school in waiting, went further.

“I think the judge has no jurisdiction to gag Phil Spector’s wife,” Chemerinsky said. “She isn’t a party in his courtroom, and I think it’s unconstitutional to gag her. But the honest answer is that there’s no Supreme Court case and the law is very unsettled about this.”

THERE WILL BE OTHER DIVERSIONS besides old DVDs to turn to as the jury tries to overcome its impasse. Some of these can be found in the transcripts of tapes made at an Alhambra Police Department interrogation room after Spector’s arrest. The give and take between the outraged and confused suspect and Alhambra P.D. Detective Esther Pineda reads like the peripatetic dialogue of a David Mamet play — or the Three Stooges. Most of the pages of conversation consist of Spector claiming he hasn’t made his three allotted phone calls, when the cops say he has. There are also Spector’s requests to see his personal assistant, Michelle Blaine, as well as friends Romy Davis and bodyguard Jay Romaine — seemingly unmindful that as a prisoner he cannot summon and meet with them as though they were guests at his castle. And, of course, there’s Spector’s belligerent denial of wrongdoing in the death of Lana Clarkson, for whom he shows zero pity. Detective Pineda sounds woefully deferential — almost cowed.

J’Accuse!

SPECTOR: This is nonsense. You people have had me here for six fucking hours, maybe nine hours. And you have me locked up like some goddamn fucking turd in some fucking piece of shit. And you treat me — and then while this person eats and shits and farts — and you have me jerking around. And when somebody comes over to my fucking house who pretends to be security at the House of Blues and comes over to my house — remember, I own the House of Blues. Where this lady pretended to work, okay? And then just blows her fucking head open in my fucking house and then comes and — and then — and then you people come around and — and arrest me and bang the shit out of my fucking ass and beat the shit out of me and then you pretend and arrest me and then pretend like you’re fucking Alhambra.

And the — the Mayor of Alhambra wants me to have Bono come and sing at the anniversary of — bullshit. This is nonsense. This is absolute fucking nonsense.

I don’t know what the fucking lady — what her problem is, but she wasn’t a security at the House of Blues and she’s a piece of shit. And I don’t know what her fucking problem was, but she certainly had no right to come to my fucking castle, blow her fucking head open, and [unintelligible] a murder. What the fuck is wrong with you people?

Return to Gender

PINEDA: Hold on. Okay. All right. Just a minute. Let’s slow things down. He wants to speak to the people that are here. Now, Michelle Blaine is unavailable, but the Romaine guy — or Romy?

UV2 [Unidentified Voice 2]: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: He is at the front counter.

UV2: Female.

PINEDA: Romy?

UV2: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: Okay . . . because Jay Romy, or Romaine, is at the front counter.

UV2: That’s a male.

PINEDA: That’s a male?

UV2: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: Now, this Romy person is a female?

UV2: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: Okay. Let me . . .

UV2: Sounds like a girl.

PINEDA: Okay. Let me — well, the guy that I spoke to doesn’t really sound like a guy.

UV2: [Laughs.]

You’re Kiddin’ Me, Right?

SPECTOR: I’m being charged with murder?

PINEDA: Yes. That’s one of the things that [unintelligible] . . .

SPECTOR: Of whom?

PINEDA: Okay. Well, I — I don’t have her name yet, but, um, have you contacted your attorney?

SPECTOR: No. I haven’t been allowed to do a damn thing. That’s why I wanted to talk to . . .

PINEDA: Okay.

SPECTOR: . . . uh, Jay and Michelle.

PINEDA: Okay.

SPECTOR: Can’t I talk to Jay and Michelle . . .

PINEDA: I . . .

SPECTOR: . . . first?

PINEDA: Umm, Michelle — you can’t talk to ’cause she’s talking to somebody else right now. And Jay — I’ll — I’ll see what I can arrange with the jail because the law says . . .

SPECTOR: Can I just talk to Jay and Michelle, um, in — in . . .

PINEDA: You can’t.

SPECTOR: . . . in a room?

PINEDA: We can’t bring them inside the jail. But . . .

SPECTOR: Oh, I can go out.

The Art of Compromise

PINEDA: Tell you what I’m going to do. I . . .

SPECTOR: What?

PINEDA: I said, “Tell you what I’m going to do.” I . . .

SPECTOR: Yeah. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna be fucking — somebody’s gonna pay for the fucking — I have been locked up for the fucking last twelve fucking hours. And you fucking people come in my house and rummage through my fucking house, and you ties me down like a fucking pig and, you know, while somebody’s dying there. And, you know, and — and — and — and — and it scared the shit out of everybody — while somebody commits suicide.

PINEDA: Mr. Spector, go ahead and have a seat. I am going to call Ms. Davis back. You can talk to her on this phone when the phone rings.

SPECTOR: I just wanna get the fuck outta here.

What Is to Be Done?

SPECTOR: Charge me with murder. Fuck this.

PINEDA: Hand me the phone. Hi, Ms. Davis. This is Detective Pineda with the Alhambra Police Department. Um, Mr. Spector is a little bit agitated with, uh, us being here. And he didn’t answer my question as to whether . . .

SPECTOR: [unintelligible]

PINEDA: . . . he would accept the call from you. So I thought out of courtesy, since you were gonna be able to get a hold of Mr. Shapiro, that I’m gonna put the call through. I told him he needs to pick up the phone if — when it rings. So if it just keeps ringing and ringing, it’s because he’s not picking it up, and you can disconnect the phone and then call us back. Now, hold — let me put you on hold to figure out exactly what needs to be done.

Talk to Her

PINEDA: Mr. Spector, come on over. Mr. Spector, do you wanna talk to a detective? I’m a detective. I understand you wanna speak to a detective.

SPECTOR: I would like to have my phone call first.

PINEDA: Oh, you don’t wanna speak to a detective?

SPECTOR: No. I want . . .

PINEDA: Okay. Then I’m gonna go . . . It’s almost 12:00. It’s a quarter to 12:00. Okay. I thought you wanted to speak to a detective.

SPECTOR: Oh, I was — no. I thought they wanted to talk to me, but I would like to make a . . .

PINEDA: Oh, I do want to talk to you.