Phil Noir: Spattered
During this past week’s testimony of forensic scientists, Phil Spector attorney Linda Kenney Baden made several solemn references to “the blood-spatter community.” Now that’s one crowd whose Labor Day picnic I’ll skip, I thought. Then it occurred to me that perhaps we’ve all been sitting in the morgue-like chill of Department 106 a little too long.
By the end of August, the Spector proceedings will have gone on longer than Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity — the world’s first trial broadcast on live television, which lasted just over four months. Of course, legal commentators in 1961 didn’t spend much time discussing Eichmann’s hairstyles.
This past week’s testimony in the second-degree murder case against Spector was dominated by Dr. Werner Spitz, a onetime Jerusalem medical examiner and retired Detroit coroner with international cachet. Spitz has served on federal commissions investigating assassinations, including those of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Closer to home, he played a key role against O.J. Simpson in Simpson’s civil trial, in which Spitz was pitted against his good friend Michael Baden.
If the prosecution’s key autopsy witness, Dr. Louis Peña, was an affable Mr. Science, then the frowning Dr. Spitz was the Anti-Peña. Or, as Spitz once reminisced to The Detroit News, “I guess you could say I was a doctor of death.”
Born in Germany in 1926, Spitz and his Jewish family fled the country after Hitler’s takeover. He is credited with initiating badly needed reforms at the Wayne County morgue in Detroit, but earned his share of detractors for his caustic demeanor. When Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson made remark after remark about the $45,000 fee Spitz was charging the defense, Spitz’s mouth buckled into a mirthless smile as he said, “I’m so grateful to you that you are so concerned about my income.”
Spitz, with his close-cropped white hair and gravely articulated sentences, delivered in a mitteleuropäische accent, was not going to be anyone’s piñata on the witness stand. The Texas-born Jackson, a prosecutor not entirely unaware of the power of courtroom theatrics, quickly found that his “Aw shucks, y’all” line readings were going to bounce off Spitz, as when the prosecutor once again suggested Spitz was merely a hired lab coat.
“Mr. Jackson,” Spitz exhaled with Old World weariness, “I have plenty of money. It’s time I don’t have.” Suddenly Jackson was talking to Thomas Mann.
Spitz is key to the defense theory that Lana Clarkson shot herself in the mouth, either accidentally or intentionally, and that music producer Phil Spector was only a bewildered witness to the event. The doctor stated unequivocally that, based on his 54 years of experience and 60,000 autopsies, he believed Clarkson had pulled the trigger of the .38 special that ended her life.
Like other defense expert witnesses, Spitz stated that the blood spatter from the back of Clarkson’s mouth could have traveled about six feet, a distance at which it would have been impossible for Spector to have been the shooter. Spitz also claimed that Clarkson, even after the bullet severed her spinal cord, had exhaled, and that purged blood and tissue could have collected on her dress — explaining why the gore stopped at her hemline while the spatter traveled its six-foot odyssey across Spector’s foyer. Finally, he contended that the bruises on Clarkson’s tongue were not the result of Spector ramming a gun against it but from cartridge gases slamming her tongue against teeth.
(Ironically, Spitz’s testimony in a Michigan cold murder case helped convict a man last year of shooting his wife in the head — a 1998 case that had first been ruled a suicide. Among other things that convinced Spitz of the husband’s guilt was the fact that women usually don’t shoot themselves in the head.)
Spitz, who is known for slighting what he regards as the sloppy work of autopsy hacks (he’s derided Dallas medical authorities for obeying Jackie Kennedy’s wish not to shave the back of John F. Kennedy’s head to further examine his fatal bullet wound), merely rejected Peña’s findings as a “hasty conclusion.” Jackson did score points, as he did against Dr. Vincent DiMaio, by getting Spitz to acknowledge he dismissed as irrelevant Spector’s storied past of holding women against their will at gunpoint. Still, Jackson never did get Spitz to budge from his core opinion, or even to curtail his elliptical answers.
“There are no secrets in medicine,” Spitz had proclaimed early on — a statement that seems to brim with irony in a trial whose scientists’ conflicting testimony has made a mystery of everything.
Last month, Sara Caplan, who’d briefly represented Spector, was compelled to answer questions about defense criminalist Dr. Henry Lee’s handling of what may or may not have been a shard of acrylic fingernail belonging to Lana Clarkson. The disappearance of this fragment could well scuttle Lee’s effectiveness if he is ever called as an expert witness. After answering questions at an evidentiary hearing in May, Caplan later refused to testify before the jury, claiming this would violate her attorney-client privilege with Spector. Judge Larry Paul Fidler cited Caplan for contempt. When the state Supreme Court refused to consider her appeal, Caplan reluctantly appeared before the jury to answer fewer than 10 questions about the alleged nail. She spoke about the ordeal at her Koreatown office. A former Detroit social worker, the 51-year-old Caplan still speaks with a Midwestern twang and with the same emotion she displayed in court.
L.A. WEEKLY:How were you first ordered to testify?
SARA CAPLAN: I received a faxed subpoena. But I thought it was for a defense discovery motion. [At the evidentiary hearing] I was waiting in the hall and hadn’t heard what was going on inside the court. I had no idea I was about to be asked the kind of questions I was. Afterward, Phil Spector invoked his right of attorney-client confidentiality.
Why did you eventually testify before the jury?
I am obligated to follow the order — I would face disbarment. I worked so hard to put myself through law school and I’ve always loved being a criminal-defense lawyer —it’s what I care about.
Some legal experts said you would not have had to serve much time, if any, had you refused to testify.
That’s all very nice for people to think that, but [Judge Fidler] was going to keep me in jail until the end of the trial — he made no bones about it.
What were the worst moments for you during this time?
This terrified the hell out of me. I’m a single mother, and every day I’d come home and my son, who was finishing fifth grade, would ask, “Are you going to jail?” After it was all over I became very ill.
How was your role perceived?
I was so disappointed by the commentators and so-called experts on TV — all they did was trash the personalities involved. Nobody understood or even cared about the issues.
Why are you speaking out about your experience with the trial still on?
I’m very concerned the way the prosecutor’s office handled this matter, with how government overreaching has become the norm. I don’t want people to become complacent and accept it. It’s beyond Big Brother.
What could be the long-term fallout from your having to testify?
When you ask an attorney to testify for the prosecution for a former client, you’re not only lightening the prosecution’s burden of proof, you’re creating an irreparable taint against the defense — a jury could think there’s something wrong with the accused and his case.
I’m proud of what I did. I’ve always been a rebel — I fight, I don’t just roll over.
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