Phil Noir: Murder As a Second Language

It was late in the afternoon at Department 106, the time that jurors’ eyelids droop and the courtroom’s elderly spectators check their bus schedules, when Phil Spector’s murder trial paused for another sidebar. The two deputy D.A.’s and defense attorney Roger Rosen leapt to Judge Larry Paul Fidler’s bench, but Bruce Cutler didn’t budge from his seat, marking another symbolic diminution of his role in the trial. Only three weeks ago Cutler had bombastically laid out the defense’s theory of how Spector wound up with a dead woman sitting in his foyer. Among other things, the lawyer alleged that star prosecution witness Adriano DeSouza’s difficulty with English cast doubt on the chauffeur’s claim that he heard Spector utter the self-incriminating words, “I think I killed somebody.”

Sure enough, when DeSouza appeared on the witness stand last week, he spoke with a thick Brazilian accent, often forcing the court clerk as well as prosecutor Alan Jackson to ask him to repeat himself — with DeSouza also requesting Jackson to rephrase his questions. Then there was the 911-call playback in which his mangled pronunciation of “Phil Spector” was repeated to DeSouza by a dispatcher as “Seal Inspector.”

DeSouza wasn’t the only immigrant witness who was difficult to understand. There was Trader Vic’s bartender Ming Fong Chu, along with former Trader Vic’s general manager Chai Rojana — both of whom had worked decades at the Beverly Hills restaurant. Even the plain-speaking Dan Tana waiter Manuel Cuadra and House of Blues security chief Euphrathes Lalondriz had moments that caused listeners to cup their ears for clarity. Their testimony was a vivid reminder to spectators about how much Los Angeles is a divided city of immigrant servers, chauffeurs and valets who speak little or no English, and who are employed to attend to the whims and pleasures of its middle- and upper-class whites.

But the trial is laying bare another civic demarcation, the one between those who, as Lalondriz said, are “treated as golden” — and the rest of us. Like Messrs. DeSouza and Chu, this golden crowd also speaks its own native language but with voices, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, full of money. Again and again defense attorney Rosen tried to get House of Blues employees to deny they would break the law by serving inebriated patrons, Rosen’s implication being that Spector was not drunk when he left the Sunset Strip club. Yet again and again they told Rosen that the rules were bent for members of the club’s exclusive Foundation Room such as Spector, who, on the night Lana Clarkson died, left a $450 tip there for a cocktail and a bottle of water.

Cutler, in his opening statement, had depicted the chauffeur DeSouza as an illegal immigrant who was “taking a siesta” at the time of the alleged shooting, but it was the silkier defense lawyer Bradley Brunon, a silver-haired man in his 60s, who grilled the driver. He was a smart choice. Brunon’s calm baritone helped him interrogate DeSouza with seemingly detached, off-handed objectivity. The blustery Cutler couldn’t possibly have finessed such a delicate assignment nor could, for that matter, co-counsel Rosen, a vinegary man whose smile muscles creak whenever he greets a new prosecution witness.

Still, even Brunon could not conceal his disdain of DeSouza’s foreignness — constantly asking the chauffeur how to pronounce his name and, at one point, muttering a little too loudly that he thought DeSouza’s pronunciation of the word “sheet” “meant something else” — as in, the sheet hitting the fan. How well his performance is playing with the overwhelmingly nonwhite jury is difficult to tell. Brunon risks looking like the kind of French-cuffed aristocrat who wouldn’t let most members of the jury even work at his country club, let alone join it. His constant queries about DeSouza’s years of schooling in the English language, as well as his gratuitous dig at the chauffeur for illegally working while holding a student visa could easily backfire.

So far Cutler has conducted  only one cross-examination, and it was an instant disaster. He had barely said hello to Dianne Ogden, a fragile-looking blonde with a girlish voice, when he began pounding the podium as he dismissed Ogden’s claim that Spector had tried to rape her. Then he pointed both index fingers at Ogden, as though hurling double thunderbolts toward the witness stand. The lightning, however, struck Cutler instead as Judge Fidler immediately cut off the New Yorker, harshly warning him that his brand of histrionics would not be tolerated.

Word has allegedly emerged from the defense team that Cutler’s showboating was cause for concern even before the trial began. According to one source, the defense paid a jury consultant $35,000 to have two potential opening statements read to a mock jury in order to learn which would be more effective — and indeed found that one statement received far more favorable reviews than the other. Cutler, however, told the other team members he was not interested in the results of this audience test and would do the opening statement his way.

Cutler ended up fumbling on the trial’s first day, claiming loud and long that deputy D.A. Jackson’s opening statement, which unexpectedly omitted Spector’s inflammatory crime-night quotes, rendered Cutler’s own prepared remarks legally unusable. It may have been that Cutler, when faced with having to deliver the defense’s opening statement very late in the afternoon, was simply trying to run out the clock to face a refreshed jury the following morning, but Fidler ordered him to begin his statement nonetheless.

Jean Rosenbluth, a USC law professor and former federal prosecutor , whose career path has included stints in rock journalism (she once met Spector at one of his bowling parties), believes that Cutler’s insistence to Fidler that his opening statement was scuttled by what Jackson didn’t say was indeed a stalling tactic.

“I don’t blame him,” Rosenbluth told the L.A. Weekly. “He couldn’t have been shocked by the judge not allowing him to use the quotes once the prosecution didn’t. That’s Opening Statement 101.”

After Fidler ordered him to begin his statement, Cutler left the courtroom for a brief sidebar with himself in the men’s room, only to return with a seemingly extemporaneous peroration, whose oft-repeated phrase, “They had murder on their minds,” quickly became the butt of jokes among reporters.

All of this leaves court watchers wondering if Cutler is crazy as a fox or just crazy as a lunatic — and how much longer he’ll be on Team Spector. Rosenbluth says Cutler’s exit during the trial would be unlikely, though, since it would signal trouble to the jury. However, Rosenbluth noted, Cutler could leave on a medical pretext, the grounds of which have already been laid relating to Cutler’s reported problems with his diabetes medication.

There was one $35,000 moment last week, and it came when the defense inadvertently allowed the immigrants to turn the tables. At one point Bradley Brunon asked Adriano DeSouza to describe Spector’s voice, whereupon the driver produced a high nasal impersonation of the music producer.

“Adri-ano! Adri-ano! Go to the Grill!” DeSouza whined.

Except for Spector, the courtroom exploded in laughter — sometimes even voices full of money sound hilarious.


More Phil Noir:

Marlowe vs. CSI? The Tycoon of Teen’s Gun Problem — Muzzle Tov  Friday, May 11, 2007

Accidental Suicide, May 3, 2007

A Spectator at the Spector Trial, April 27, 2007


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