Theater of Pain

After a weeklong recess, the Phil Spector trial exploded with impassioned defense testimony and an emotional new Spector hair style. Court watchers also witnessed the return of former Spector lawyer Sara Caplan, who, after the state Supreme Court refused to overturn the contempt citation Judge Larry Paul Fidler had handed her, caved in and sulkily testified in open court. (At one point she answered a yes/no question from prosecutor Alan Jackson with a dismissive “Whatever.”) Her story, previously told under oath but out of the jurors’ presence, was that defense criminalist Dr. Henry Lee took from the crime scene a piece of potential evidence that has since vanished. Dr. Lee’s sleight of hand is widely expected to be used by prosecutors to batter his credibility should the famed forensics expert take the witness stand.

Everything about Team Spector’s witnesses has so far been radically different from the prosecution’s parade of taciturn cops and mild-mannered criminalists. Even the defense’s first responders are planets apart: L.A. Fire Department ambulance driver Daniel Stark didn’t merely have tattoos covering his arms, throat and the back of his buzz-cut head, he wore them with short-sleeved bravado and often contradicted Deputy D.A. Alan Jackson’s interpretation of the paramedics’ report on Clarkson’s Christmas Eve 2001 accident. At a Hollywood Hills party, the struggling actress broke both wrists while dancing and required a moderate amount of morphine to tamp down her pain.

But the morphine, along with that night’s booze-irrigated saturnalia and a photo showing Clarkson partying down with a bare leg boldly hiked onto a table, quickly revealed the defense team’s nostalgie de la boue and how this will shape its presentation of the woman whom Spector is accused of murdering in 2003 with a gunshot in the mouth. Clarkson is to be the village whore whose self-destructive impulses led her to commit suicide at Spector’s Pyrenees Castle after a brief encounter with the music producer at the House of Blues, where she worked as a hostess. There were more photos of Clarkson and her girlfriends, invariably holding wine glasses or splayed out on couches and in the back seats of cars. One showed Clarkson in a seductive red dress and with a tequila lime stuck in her mouth. The picture didn’t say Come Hither as much as Come and Get It.

Just how mad Clarkson was could supposedly be gauged by her determination to appear in a Hollywood Theater Row play for $5 a performance. Author-producer John Barons, who’d taken a bus from Atlanta to testify because he hates flying (and, apparently, is afraid of trains), told of how Lana tried to hijack his production of Brentwood Blondes once she landed the part of Marilyn Monroe in a suite of monologues delivered by murdered blondes. Barons, an imposing-looking figure with shaved head, massive beard and a subtle lisp, stuck to his story about how thoroughly depressed Clarkson was, even as Deputy D.A. Pat Dixon gently suggested that she may have had her up days too. In fact, now that testimony has shifted from technical experts to artistic screwballs, the patrician prosecutor has dropped his suave inquisitor role to become the perplexed Patrick Dixon, Visitor to Earth. (“A play? What is that? How do those work? Nightclubs — please explain to the jury what those are.”)

Easily the most riveting personality has been Clarkson gal pal Jennifer Hayes-Riedl, who, like Clarkson, is a big, deep-tanned blonde and who described herself and Clarkson as “the tall bookends” who held up the third member of their tight sorority, nightclub promoter Punkin Pie Laughlin. Under defense attorney Roger Rosen’s questioning, Hayes-Riedl allowed that Clarkson had a passion for mixing pills and alcohol, with ugly results. Clarkson, claimed Hayes-Riedl, was also profoundly depressed by her career’s cartwheeling descent from Roger Corman actress to a $9-an-hour House of Blues gig that might as well have been at the House of Pancakes.

Hayes-Riedl spoke lovingly of Clarkson but suddenly reared back and acted as though under personal attack during Dixon’s cross examination. She began answering his questions with her own questions, kept mentioning her three children and the matriculation of two of them to a rehab center, all the while lamenting her lot in life as the owner of an interior-design business. Dixon apparently had left his lion tamer’s chair in his car and was no match for Hayes-Riedl, who, despite her emotional defensiveness (or, perhaps, because of it), seemed to connect with the jury. Here was a single mom trying to hold onto her family, house and business in a world ruled by men in suits.

Oddly enough, neither Rosen nor Dixon asked Hayes-Riedl if her friend Lana was capable of suicide. Rosen seemed satisfied with merely getting her to identify the type of drinks that appeared in photographs of Clarkson and to repeat how miserable her friend was, as though the link between champagne drinking and suicide is a well-known law of biophysics. Rosen, who pounced on any recorded utterance of Clarkson expressing the need to “chuck it” as proof of suicidal tendencies, completely overlooked an e-mail in which she said she’d “just have to bite the bullet” — which is, after all, exactly how she died.

Courtrooms are part community theater, part science fair and part debate club. I was 17 when I first stepped inside one. My father, a night janitor at the Marin County Civic Center, was showing me around the building one day and as we sat in on a hearing I was surprised by the room’s wood-paneled intimacy — it was nothing like the cavernous courtrooms of the movies. What really struck me was how the court’s lawyerly rituals were so mundane, yet the voyeuristic thrill of observing strangers in trouble was intoxicating. What also should’ve impressed me at the time was how easy it was to enter the Hall of Justice. About a month or so later a bloody shootout involving black militants erupted in one of the courtrooms and ended in four deaths. From that day, America’s casual, walk-in access to its courtrooms would never be the same.

If Frank Lloyd Wright’s airy, light-filled Marin County monument is one of the most hospitable gestures of modernism, then L.A.’s Clara Foltz criminal courts building must be one of its rudest. The façade’s dense brutalism is matched inside by Soviet-style workmanship and the fascist chaos of the building’s public spaces. Lines of visitors can stretch out the door to Temple Street and up to Broadway while those inside await in sweltering heat to pass through whichever two of the first floor’s three functioning security checkpoints happen to be operating. Jurors, lawyers and cops are all sardined into similarly stifling elevators that are infuriatingly slow to arrive, and a second security check awaits arrivees on the ninth floor, where the Spector trial is held in Department 106.

The courthouse’s air conditioning is generated a block away and its chilled air seems to be entirely concentrated in Department 106, where spectators shiver on wooden pews. During breaks we spill out in the crowded, windowless hallway to bad cell phone receptions or flooded bathrooms. There never seems to be enough oxygen, let alone privacy, to hold a conversation out of earshot of jurors or the defendants’ retinue of lawyers and bodyguards. This has its benefits, though.

Last Thursday during the afternoon break, I watched Spector’s young wife, Rachelle, corner Court TV reporter Beth Karas.

“Just so you know?” Rachelle informed the reporter. “Phil doesn’t wear a hairpiece.”

Clearly the Spector camp had been miffed by what it had been reading on Court TV’s Web site about his new ’do — which looks as though it could be the old wig that had accidentally gotten sent out with the dry cleaning and came back all ruffly.

“I do Phil’s hair every day,” Rachelle said.

“What is it then?” asked Karas.

Hair!” said the wife of the accused, and the impromptu press conference was over.


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