Accidental Suicide? New Involuntary-Manslaughter Option in Phil Spector Murder Retrial
When Phil Spector, his wife, Rachelle, and Spector’s bodyguard emerged from a black Lexus last Monday morning, it was, finally, to an awaiting squad of TV-news cameramen huddled at the top of the L.A. Superior Court’s pedestrian ramp. After half a year of testimony that went largely ignored by the media, Spector’s second trial for second-degree murder was concluding with final arguments. Spector and his wife entered a packed courtroom, whose tiny door windows were covered with black paper; after a few comments from Judge Larry Paul Fidler, the prosecution began its close.
Deputy District Attorney Truc Do, dressed in somber charcoal, began by stressing the two worlds represented in the trial: One, Phil Spector’s, was a world of wealth, power and, Do implied, male privilege. The second belonged to Lana Clarkson, a 40-year-old woman eking out a living as an actress, and a hostess at the House of Blues. This was a world in which working people, especially working women, were always at the mercy of the rich, even in death.
In a startling coup de théâtre, Truc Do’s PowerPoint presentation included slides of the Mui Ne sand dunes, located, she said, in the part of Vietnam her family is from.
“This is not a screen saver,” Do said. More pointedly, she likened the slides’ shifting sand mountains to what she claimed were defense attorney Doron Weinberg’s ever-changing position regarding the trial’s expert-witness testimony. Again and again she hammered home her belief in the reliability of witness Adriano DeSouza, Spector’s driver on the night of Clarkson’s death, who told police Spector emerged from his mansion holding a gun and uttering the words, “I think I killed somebody.”
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Do, who has co-prosecuted several high-profile cases over the past few years, including the Golay-Rutterschmidt Black Widows murder case and the Chester Turner serial-killer trial, undeniably made some good, subtle talking points. Spector, in Do’s portrait, was a venomous old toad who had snatched Clarkson, a total stranger to him, away from her late-night shift at the House of Blues and whisked her to his Alhambra “castle,” where, Do asserts, he fatally shot her in the mouth during the early-morning hours of February 3, 2003. You could practically hear Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” playing in the background. Spector has had similar gun dates with five other women over the years — women who were lucky to have escaped with their lives, according to Do, in what she likened to a sick game of Russian roulette.
And yet I wasn’t feeling Do’s star power. She appeared tentative at the opening of her peroration to the jury. But her argument seemed to have some effect on Weinberg, who asked for, and was granted, a delay until the next day to begin his final argument.
The following morning, Weinbergbegan his presentation in a slow, methodical voice, facing the jurors about six feet from the jury box.
He opened by countering Do’s image of Spector as some kind of Alhambra royalty who believed his droit du seigneur included shooting women in the mouth. The rich, Weinberg said, are not different from you and me, and they do not enjoy an unfair advantage when cornered by the law. Nor, he said, were the defense’s expert witnesses hired mercenaries willing to say anything for a paycheck.
“The case that Miss Do argued before you yesterday had nothing to do with the case the prosecution has made,” Weinberg told jurors. “It relies on the starting proposition that [Spector] is a bad person and must have done it. They then set out to prove he did it.”
Throughout the morning Weinberg, in his deep, mellifluous voice, drove home his theme that lazy county criminalists had found themselves with a body on their hands, in Spector’s home, and did everything they could to skew their analysis away from a theory of Clarkson committing suicide (the defense’s position) and toward second-degree murder committed by Spector. In other words, according to Weinberg, the county lab coats wanted the facts to conform to a homicide so they could then turn over the findings to their law-enforcement colleagues.
“Crime-lab investigators work with the Sheriff’s Department,” Weinberg said. “They are a team, and this influences the opinions and the judgments they make. It’s not dishonesty but it’s bias — institutional bias.”
As Weinberg laid out what he considered 14 factual points that exonerated his client — which by now, in this second trial, has taken on an almost folkloric recitation of blood spatter, gunshot residue and tooth-fragment trajectories — he seemed eager to accent or ignore certain bits of scientific evidence. At one juncture, he showed a slide projection of Clarkson’s wrists, with red circles superimposed over what he claimed were blood flecks, which caused co-prosecutor Alan Jackson to interrupt him. Jackson pointed out to Judge Fidler that not only did this particular photograph not have those helpful circles Photoshopped over it when it was introduced during the trial but that the concomitant testimony at the time made no acknowledgment that there was blood where Weinberg said there was.
Weinberg, nevertheless, was a somewhat more effective presenter than Truc Do — hardly surprising, given the decades of courtroom experience he has on her. Debonair, straightforward and seemingly candid, Weinberg was at ease moving around the podium and handling the gun that killed Clarkson. While he seldom raised his voice to any dramatic intensity, he took direct aim at Do’s PowerPoint photographs of those sand dunes.
“I was born in Haifa,” Weinberg tartly said, “at the foot of Mount Carmel. We have rock-solid mountains, they don’t shift.”
The courtroom remained packed during the third day of closing arguments, with three rows of seats filled by Spector’s friends and supporters. It was also, apparently, the Associated Press’ turn to provide the pool images — the mike attached to the court podium had a large AP logo wrapped around it. Great branding idea, I thought — will we see a Nike “Swoosh” on the podium next? But the logo fun didn’t last long. Perhaps fearing that the podium would soon resemble a NASCAR pace car, Alan Parachini, the chief public-information officer for the Superior Courts, had the video cameraman remove the fire-red icon from the mike during a momentary pause in the second day of Weinberg’s defense presentation.
“Some of you may wonder why I’m up here,” Weinberg said by way of opening the morning. He revived “satellite blood spatter,” one of the forensic tropes from Spector’s first trial, and again explained why Spector didn’t call 911 after he allegedly discovered Clarkson’s body in the foyer of his Alhambra mansion, known as the Pyrenees Castle. Co-prosecutor Do had previously made hay over Spector allegedly allowing Clarkson to bleed to death without seeking medical attention for her — even though he had 14 phones in his home. Weinberg tried to sow doubt in jurors’ minds about Spector’s intentions by suggesting Spector had reasonably expected his driver, DeSouza, to make the 911 call, which he eventually did. Weinberg also said that DeSouza, a Brazilian national, may have misunderstood Spector’s English when the record producer allegedly announced to him upon emerging from his house, gun in hand, “I think I killed somebody.” The defense attorney’s spin is that Spector may have said, “Call somebody.”
As for the women who testified they’d had nightmare dates with Spector that ended with him becoming violently drunk and brandishing guns at them and/or forcing them to remain with him for the night, Weinberg questioned their motives. Weinberg claimed that Joan Rivers’ one-time manager Dorothy Melvin had come forward out of “continuing anger over disappointment with her relationship with Phillip.”
And like the defense lawyers from the music producer’s first trial, Weinberg pointed out inconsistencies in the women’s statements or, simply, enumerated the times in their lives they’d been caught perjuring themselves. The most obvious case of the latter was Melissa Grosvenor, who was busted for bank embezzlement and later lied about it on a job application. The problem with this strategy is that it can cause jurors to think back, sympathetically, to all the times they may have uttered white lies, or even not-so-white ones. Does lying on a job application mean one can’t be trusted to ever tell the truth again?
It’s a question that may have run through jurors’ minds in a later Weinberg argument, when he again turned his attention to Spector’s hired driver, DeSouza. Unlike his ham-fisted predecessors in the first trial, Weinberg has approached DeSouza sensitively but has still zeroed in on three things: the driver’s command of English, his second language; his ability to have accurately understood Spector, given that DeSouza had not slept in 22 hours; and finally, Spector’s drunken syntax and the background noise of a nearby outdoor fountain.
Weinberg also strongly implied that DeSouza, who was living here on an expired visa, was more than eager to tell his cop interrogators what he believed they wanted to hear about his boss. For example, Weinberg showed a photographic blowup of a page of an interview in which a detective disclosed to DeSouza that Spector may have worn a white or cream jacket the night of Clarkson’s shooting — a statement DeSouza then agreed with, even though he’d previously told police Spector had worn all black that night.
Finally, though, Weinberg — sensitively, to be sure — reminded jurors that for four years DeSouza had misstated on his applications for visa renewals that he was a student not holding employment here. In other words, Weinberg said, DeSouza had lied four times.
The jurors seemed to be attentive: Brows were knitted and chins were stroked during Weinberg’s argument, but there was no telling how much he was influencing them. Finally, Weinberg concluded his argument by portraying Clarkson as a deeply depressed woman who could no longer confront a life filled with professional and personal failure.
Clarkson, he told the jury, had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, suffered from chronic migraine headaches, had recently been dumped by a man with whom she’d hoped to form a new life, and was getting nowhere with the revival of her acting career. Then, gingerly addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Weinberg broached the subject of involuntary manslaughter, a lesser charge that Judge Fidler decided, in the trial’s waning days, to allow jurors to consider, should they find themselves unable to convict Spector on Murder Two. Involuntary manslaughter, Weinberg said, was no compromise for a jury to grasp at in case of a deadlock similar to the one that spiked Spector’s first trial in 2007. To “split the difference,” he said, was no option.
Weinberg concluded his argument at 2:14 p.m., after spending a full day and a half before the jury. At 2:15 p.m., without even a restroom break, Deputy District Attorney Jackson was at the podium to deliver the prosecution’s rebuttal. He immediately derided Weinberg and his protracted argument, describing the performance as “a filibuster” full of “parlor tricks” and likening Weinberg’s explanations of how the scientific evidence exonerated Spector (while proving how Clarkson had committed suicide) to a Rube Goldberg contraption.
Jackson, attired in a dark, chalk-striped suit that contrasted with Weinberg’s undertaker black, made good use of the floor space in front of the jury box, whether stepping toward jurors to drive home a point related to the discomfort Spector allegedly felt standing in front of Clarkson’s corpse, or rapping the witness stand to announce, of the previous six months of testimony, “If it don’t come out of this microphone, it ain’t evidence.”
The Texan Jackson can overplay his down-home y’all vernacular, but overall it was a vivid and welcome change from Weinberg’s dour recitation of his 14 points of doom. His storytelling talents fall somewhere between Horton Foote and Jim Thompson. And last Wednesday he was especially effective in excoriating Spector’s expert witnesses, whom he dismissed as “hired guns” whose testimony cost the defense $419,000 and who postulated, in order to prove Clarkson committed suicide, that blood spray from a gunshot wound could “loop around” a suicide’s wrists.
Jackson, attempting to disprove the defense thesis that Clarkson was a suicide waiting to happen, pointed to the eight pairs of shoes she had purchased the morning before she died. The very last words she wrote, Jackson noted, were in response to a party invitation and rang with expectation: “I can’t wait.”
The jury, however, had to wait until the next morning for the conclusion to Jackson’s argument after his rebuttal ran 35 minutes past the court’s normal closing time.
He opened the final day of his presentation with a baseball metaphor. And not just any metaphor but one using Joe DiMaggio’s record-setting 56-game hitting streak of 1941 to pooh-pooh what Jackson regarded as defense attorney Weinberg’s tortured use of statistics.
“Would you,” Jackson asked jurors, “turn away from your transistor radio when DiMaggio came to bat in that historic 56th game against Cleveland?” Notwithstanding that there were no transistor radios in 1941, it was a good rhetorical question, for Jackson’s point was that Americans were glued to that game not for the numbers but for the fact that a man with a bat in his hand could continue his hitting streak. Likewise, all the science Weinberg had thrown at the jurors, Jackson said, was either of the junk or meaningless variety.
“Every one of [his] points,” said Jackson, referring to Weinberg’s closing argument, “falls like [a] tin soldier.”
Jackson pounded Weinberg’s contention that, since none of Spector’s DNA had been found on the .38 Colt Cobra that killed Clarkson, it was obvious the famed music producer wasn’t holding the gun when it went off in the foyer of his home. Weinberg’s statement, Jackson said, was “a red herring” since the gun hadn’t even been examined for that DNA — the fact that the gun, like everything else in the house, belonged to Spector made testing it meaningless, and so it wasn’t.
In other words, Jackson was saying, Weinberg had taken the mere fact that the Colt Cobra had not been tested for DNA and turned this into a scientific statement that no such DNA had been found on the gun. Jackson noted that, while the county’s forensics specialists hadn’t bothered with what they regarded as a time-wasting DNA search, the defense’s experts could have subpoenaed the snub nose for their own tests but didn’t.
Similarly, Jackson took apart Weinberg’s reminder to jurors that no gunshot residue (GSR) had been found on Spector’s clothing and pointed out that, again, no such tests were conducted, since Spector owned so many guns that it would’ve been pointless to. Jackson also went after Weinberg’s statement that homicide investigators found no signs of a struggle in Spector’s foyer, suggesting this proved Clarkson had shot herself in the mouth with the gun rather than having had the revolver jammed between her teeth against her will by Spector before he fired it.
“No evidence of a struggle,” Jackson dryly announced, “except for a dead woman in your foyer.”
Jackson continued along these lines for close to 45 minutes, crossing off, on an easel, each of the 14 points of exoneration Weinberg had presented to the jurors. And, in what must have been an especially gleeful moment for him, Jackson dismissed a Weinberg point that a missing acrylic fingernail worn by Clarkson helped to prove that she had pointed the gun into her own mouth and pulled its trigger. That hypothesis had been presented by defense expert witness James Pex, who left the witness stand under a cloud of suspected perjury.
“I’ve just got one question for Mr. Pex,” said Jackson. “Where’s the nail? If it had broken when she was in that house, it would have been found.”
The meaning of Jackson’s remark was not lost on those in the courtroom, who had attended the first trial. The case of the missing acrylic fingernail was an explosive issue in Spector’s 2007 proceedings, which almost sent one lawyer to jail and could have cost forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee his reputation, as it is widely believed that Lee found and removed the nail fragment from Spector’s home during a defense-team search of the foyer. As it happened, the incident effectively prevented Lee, a well-known criminalist and media celebrity, from testifying on Spector’s behalf.
Also familiar to many today was Jackson’s conclusion, during which he invited jurors “to take a little journey with me,” on which Jackson walked them through the pivotal moment when Clarkson, against her best instincts, changed her mind and left the House of Blues after her VIP hostess shift ended, and accompanied Spector to his Alhambra mansion, where she would die. It was more or less the same speech Jackson had used on jurors in the first trial, and ended with him asking them what they would tell the wavering Clarkson had they been standing next to her when she was making up her mind. Still, it was an effective piece of narrative and, besides, this jury hadn’t heard it before.
Just before his speech, Jackson had pulled the stops out when he expanded on remarks that had been made Monday by Truc Do. In her closing argument Do had likened to empty chambers in a Russian roulette revolver the experiences of five women whom Spector had allegedly menaced with guns and violence following nights of heavy drinking. Clarkson, Do had said, was the sixth woman, unlucky enough to receive the bullet in the chamber.
For his rebuttal, Jackson intoned the names of each of these women who had testified, followed by the words, “A woman, alcohol and loss of control — Phillip Spector reaches for a gun. Click.” After each click, a photo of the woman appeared on a projection screen, so that the five formed the circle of a revolver’s cylinder. The courtroom cringed when Jackson got to Clarkson and repeated the formula for Spector’s behavior. Instead of saying “click,” he said “Pow!” and some spectators shuddered as though he’d fired a gun.
The jury panel of six men and six women then eased into deliberations. Friday would be their first full day of discussions, followed by the four-day Cesar Chavez holiday weekend. When they resumed Wednesday they would have a verdict option that jurors in Spector’s first trial did not: If they reject a second-degree murder verdict (or again deadlock on it), they have the opportunity to convict Spector of involuntary manslaughter. A devisive debate over this option raged at the end of Spector’s 2007 trial, when it occurred to Judge Fidler to suddenly throw this choice into the mix.
Yet Spector’s defense team strenuously objected. The arguments on that issue were led by San Francisco attorney Bruce Riordan, who’d been brought in to help craft jury instructions that would benefit Spector. Riordan won the day, in 2007, but a few weeks ago, Fidler reversed field and, apparently feeling more comfortable about adding involuntary manslaughter to the jury’s menu, did so. Needless to say, defense attorney Weinberg was apoplectic — for jurors could convict his client for basically causing a criminal accident. Ironically, it was one of Spector’s early lawyers, Bruce Cutler, who in 2007 termed Lana Clarkson’s an “accidental suicide.”
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