Phil Noir: Strangers On a Train Wreck

At 11:25 a.m. WEDNESday the jury buzzed the court clerk twice. A long second followed as media and court spectators awaited a third buzz that would signal a verdict. It never came. Two hours later, without disclosing which way its sixth ballot fell — guilty or innocent — the jury foreman announced that jurors were immovably deadlocked at 10-2. With that, Judge Larry Paul Fidler declared a mistrial and thanked jurors for their time. Prosecutor Pat Dixon looked away from the jury box, but assistant DA Alan Jackson, whose presentations and cross-examinations were widely praised, stared blankly at the nine men and three women whom he could not completely persuade of Spector’s guilt. Moments later, he went to Lana Clarkson’s mother, Donna, and said, “I’m so sorry.”

FIVE MONTHS AFTER IT BEGAN, Phil Spector’s murder trial, once a model of decorum and correctness, lays in the wreckage of a hung jury. The jurors and alternates met as strangers last spring, but after nearly half a year, they’ve become a kind of judicial family that always eats together and moves as one group, arriving and leaving the court through security elevators and stairwells, under the watchful eyes of bailiffs. With their identities kept secret, we in the media have glibly nicknamed panel members for their fashion quirks or known professions. There’s White Shirt, Windbreaker and The Scarf, along with Topsiders and Dateline. But above all there is the Engineer — so called not because he resembles the narrator from Miss Saigon, but because he really is a civil engineer.

This 30-something man held our interest throughout the trial for his Zen-like demeanor, thoughtful neckties and prodigious note taking. Many pegged him to be the future jury foreman, and it came as no surprise when he was so chosen. Eight days after his election, the Engineer sent the note to Judge Larry Paul Fidler that threw this trial into turmoil: “We have reached an impasse and cannot reach a unanimous verdict.”

When the Engineer added that he and his fellow jurors were deeply fractured along a 7-5 split, prosecutors Alan Jackson and Pat Dixon looked devastated. Gone, suddenly, were the affectionate smiles jurors had drawn from both sides when passing the bar. As jurors left the courtroom Tuesday, Jackson and Dixon stared into space. What had gone wrong? Had jurors been persuaded or befuddled by the defense’s tortured theory of extended blood back-spatter? Had their visit to Spector’s Pyrenees Castle, where Lana Clarkson died, somehow endeared them to the music producer? (Perhaps it was the home’s cracked-walled, lived-in appearance that humanized the defendant for his visitors.)

The second-guessing must have been most acute for Jackson, who is widely regarded as the trial’s MVP. Jackson’s performance had been virtually flawless, especially in his cross-examinations of the defense’s formidable forensics experts, including doctors Werner Spitz and Vincent DiMaio, and forensics specialist James Pex. Jackson had tamed Spitz, demolished DiMaio and, in a tour de force session, playfully dueled with mustachioed old Pex, as though he and the retired murder-lab director from Oregon were having a good-natured disagreement over fly-fishing techniques and not on the vagaries of blood spatter. Above all, Jackson received raves for his closing argument — a virtuoso turn that would’ve been more appropriately reviewed in Variety and toasted at Sardi’s than in the D.A.’s 18th-floor offices.

JACKSON’S PERFORMANCES, HOWEVER, did not produce the jury deadlock — some of that responsibility rests with Judge Fidler. From the start, Fidler made it clear he feared a repeat of the court du soleil known as the Simpson trial. That three-ring circus had overwhelmed Judge Lance Ito (who presides in obscurity down the hall from Fidler) and resulted in an acquittal of a man whom nine-tenths of the world believed was guilty. Judge Fidler also did not want any surprises occurring during the Spector trial that could result in a conviction later being overturned.

These motivations, over the long course of the trial, began to conflict with one another as Fidler, a judge with a wry sense of humor who runs a tight and fair ship, seemed to become overbearing and short tempered toward everything from gum-chewing spectators to defense motions, which he increasingly addressed with dismissive comments. Then, possibly attempting to balance this attitude, Fidler would swing the other way and indulge the defense. Most critically, in the jury-instructions phase of the trial, he allowed Spector’s side to insert Special Instruction 3, which so narrowly defined the circumstances that would allow the jurors to convict Spector that it was basically unlawful. Yet Fidler didn’t notice this until some of the stalemated jurors brought it to his attention at an extraordinary court session in which jurors and judge conversed about what was holding things up.

Fidler had also given in to both defense and prosecution wishes not to place a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter before the jury for consideration. This especially helped Spector because it made it psychologically harder for jurors to send an old man to prison for the rest of his life. After the deadlock was announced, Fidler admitted that he had just recently come across a case similar to Spector’s, that would open the door to manslaughter, and said he was leaning, after eight days of deliberation, toward now telling the jury it could consider the lesser charge. It was Fidler’s own Ah-ha! moment.

But the next day he changed his mind again and said he couldn’t put involuntary manslaughter on the table. Nor could he think of any language to amend Special Instruction 3 that would not result in a mistrial. The court drifted into a state of controlled anarchy. Jurors cooled their heels in the jury room, wondering what was going on outside its doors, while Fidler, the prosecutors and defense team haggled over solutions. Finally, at the end of Thursday afternoon Fidler called in the jury and told it to simply forget all about the special instruction, “As if you’d never heard of it.”

He then proceeded to impose a new instruction that not only clarified the conditions under which Spector could be found guilty, but actually floated some possible scenarios in which Spector could’ve killed Clarkson. Needless to say, the prosecution had no objections to this but it brought defense lawyers to their feet. They were especially livid over one hypothetical in which Clarkson — not Spector — fired the gun.

The defense’s Brad Brunon complained about this scenario being included when Fidler had previously barred the defense from introducing evidence — long whispered about in the hallway, but never formally presented — that Clarkson had a reputation for drunkenly inserting objects in her mouth at parties.

Fellow defense attorney Dennis Riordan strenuously claimed that suddenly Fidler had turned all of Spector’s expert defense witnesses, who claimed Clarkson had, indeed, fired the gun, into incriminatory witnesses. Riordan spoke by speakerphone from his San Francisco office, and his halting, disembodied voice, with its vestigial Bronx accent, provoked occasional laughter in court, especially Thursday, when Judge Fidler pantomimed his pulling the plug on Riordan.

Still, Riordan’s importance to the defense became obvious. Riordan, is known for his tenaciousness and eye for overlooked details. He won a 14-year battle for freedom for accused murderer and ex–Black Panther Johnny Spain, got dog-mauling defendant Marjorie Knoller’s murder-two sentence tossed and is currently on the West Memphis Three appeals team. He was brought into the proceedings in late August to vet and block prosecution initiatives during closing arguments and jury instructions, and it was he who crafted the poison pill known as Special Instruction 3.

Next week, the DA’s office will announce whether or not it will seek a retrial. When the deadlock was announced, Phil Spector betrayed no emotion. Later, a news helicopter that followed Spector’s entourage back to his Alhambra castle recorded the music producer dancing with his wife, Rachelle, in their driveway, not far from where Lana Clarkson had been shot dead on February 3, 2003. For the time being, Phil Spector was home free.