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Phil Noir: The Human Stain

ON TUESDAY THE PROSECUTION finally got around to that dab of DNA Phil Spector left on Lana Clarkson’s left nipple the night she died. There’s no mention of it in the coroner’s 57-page homicide report because the coroner is not charged with solving murders. And the Sheriff’s Department crime lab, which is, doesn’t release this kind of information to the press or public. Still, the presence of Spector’s stain had been whispered about for some time. In December, Spector biographer Mark Ribowsky (He’s a Rebel) told an open-mouthed Nancy Grace on CNN, “The only DNA of Spector that was found on her was semen on one of her breasts.”

Judging by the number of long silences that filled my conversation with a senior member of the crime lab last month, the subject was obviously a sensitive topic. In answer to my questions, however, the official said that non-Lana DNA had been found on Clarkson’s body but it was not semen. Indeed, last week, Sheriff’s criminalist Steve Renteria allowed in court that the DNA pointed to Spector and might be saliva. Somehow this seemed less damning to the suspect than if the DNA on Clarkson had been from Spector’s sperm — even though Ribowsky and others appear to suggest that such a money shot could help the defense, since it presumes a sexual assignation occurred before Spector’s other gun went off in Clarkson’s mouth during the early-morning hours of February 3, 2003.

Come again? you might ask, since there’s no proof that any sex play that might have occurred was consensual — or, more to the point, that it wasn’t postmortem. And even if the DNA that Ol’ Brown Eyes left on Lana’s breast — and, it seems, that she might have left on his crotch — was saliva, there’s no timeline evidence asserting it didn’t get there after her death, either. Suffice to say, that possibility was not discussed by the Sheriff’s crime-lab spokesman.

THE WEEK’S TESTIMONY OFFERED a rare chance to see and hear the men and women who cart off and examine L.A.’s murder victims. Typically, these forensics witnesses went out of their way to break down the esoteric science of blood spatter, gunshot residue and DNA markers into a Reader’s Digest paradigm (a kind of Death of the Month Club format), using simple analogies for jurors.

Renteria, for instance, described garden-spraying Spector’s entire foyer and staircase with Luminol, a chemical agent that makes even trace blood glow in the dark. Renteria thought about how to explain the effect to the jurors.

“At least in my day,” he finally said, “it would be like with a black light and the posters.” Exactly. Like those zodiac sex-position charts, only with lots of blood on them.

There’s an impulse to cut the coroners and criminalists slack and to view them as compassionate scientists instead of nerds or ghouls. However, when Renteria stated that his crew wanted to get to Spector’s castle “before the sun went down,” our Quincy view was quickly replaced with the image of people in windbreakers racing to the Alhambra castle, armed with wooden stakes, in search of Spector’s earth-lined coffin.

FOR MORE THAN A WEEK, now, the defendant has been wearing neckties to trial, forswearing the open-collar pose of the first month of court. Spectorologists are not in agreement as to what this exactly means. Is Spector trying to belatedly project a more serious image? Are the ties themselves barometric indicators of certain mood swings? Should we call 911 if he shows up wearing a bowtie? The fact is, Spector has trapped himself into a single defining look and it’s not the one most likely to earn juror sympathy. Every day he has appeared in some variant of a Teddy Boy frock coat, kerchief, silken shirt and four-inch heels. And, of course, the wig, which is a kind of Klute hair helmet.

In other words, Spector looks as though he wandered into court from a Playboy Mansion party, circa 1974. The problem is that he needed, from the start, to project vulnerability instead of compensating for his short height and baldness. (In her autobiography, Be My Baby, his former wife, singer Ronnie Spector, says he was so self-conscious about the latter that he would come to bed wearing a hat.) When, for example, it dawned on Robert Blake that he faced serious jail time following his own homicide arraignment, the Baretta star lost his Last Exit to Brooklyn pompadour and stopped dyeing his hair. By the time his trial started, he looked like a little old man in a business suit — and not another ancient Hollywood eccentric pretending to be a teenager. If anything, then, Spector should have dressed conservatively, lost the wig and the heels.

Perhaps another concession to public perception has been the paring down of Spector’s security detachment — from the four colossal bodyguards who accompany him everywhere, including the men’s room (imagine a quartet of Notorious B.I.G.s), to just two. The guards sit impassively in court, apparently preoccupied with text messaging on their cell phones, while occasionally rankling reporters by telling them to turn off their phones upon entering the courtroom. “Blessed” is a typical reply when one of them is asked how he is doing.

If this is true, they must be the only ones in the defense entourage to feel this way, as Judge Larry Paul Fidler seems to continually rule against Spector’s attorneys. Roger Rosen made a motion Tuesday to have the proceedings declared a mistrial, but the judge swatted away the move with only a few words, even though the crux of the request was Fidler’s own alleged tilt against the defense.

The latest example of Fidler’s supposed bias came only that morning, when he twice claimed the sole reason Spector’s lawyers planned to call Hollywood madam Jody Babydol Gibson was “to dirty up” Clarkson, since Gibson, in her memoir, Secrets of a Hollywood Super Madam, claims she employed a call girl very much fitting Clarkson’s description. It was an eyebrow-raising pronouncement from the judge, and offered the day’s only real drama.

In fact, since Fidler, at the start of the trial, declared there would be no theatrics in his courtroom, the spotlight has mostly been trained on the bench. As the court’s dramaturge, Fidler has pre-empted Spector’s most theatrical lawyer, Bruce Cutler, from turning the cross-examination process into lush melodrama along the lines of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, and instead imposed an anti-drama regime of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. And so, while Spector’s DNA might have been on Lana Clarkson, it is Larry Paul Fidler’s fingerprints that remain all over this trial.

More Phil Noir:

Like Watching Blood Dry  A slow trial suddenly goes ballistic

The Tooth of Crime A coroner gets examined and cross-examined

Doth the Doc Protest Too Much? Criminalist Henry Lee lashes out at critics

Hassle in the Castle The night the cops had Phil Spector by the short hairs

Murder As a Second Language As questions about defense attorney Bruce Cutler’s effectiveness circulate, immigrant witnesses place new accents on shooting timeline

Marlowe vs. CSI? The Tycoon of Teen’s Gun Problem The Phil Spector verdict is months away and Bruce Cutler’s wardrobe has not yet begun to fight.Accidental Suicide Guns, slips and semioticsA Spectator at the Spector Trial Tell it to the judge: Bruce Cutler's California adventure