Before his midlife career as a novelist and celebrity murder-trial correspondent for Vanity Fair, Dominick Dunne was a Hollywood TV and movie producer. He regularly flies into Los Angeles for the Academy Awards (he’s an Academy voter) and for his magazine’s post-Oscars party. This year was no different. But in between Oscar events and visiting friends, he checked in on the recent resumption of the murder retrial of music-producer legend Phil Spector and found a changed landscape.
Dunne arrived at Department 106 of the Los Angeles criminal-courts building solely for pleasure. After sitting through the first trial in all its melodramatic glory in 2007, he has no plans to report on the new proceedings. Instead of speculating on Spector’s chances of acquittal, he shared his thoughts on Barack Obama (he’s an ardent supporter — “and I’m going to keep backing him!”), on Sean Penn’s podium comments after winning Best Actor (“It was a great speech. He didn’t make a meal out of it”), and on the Academy’s decision to play down glamour at the Oscars (a mistake — “This is when we need it the most”).
In a way, the Vanity Fair party’s new venue (the Sunset Tower on the Sunset Strip) reflected the changed Hollywood that Dunne found upon his return — long-standing VF party haunt Morton’s of Beverly Hills has closed down, like so many other businesses in L.A. And on some levels the second Spector trial represents more of the same diminution of glamour and expectations that greeted Dunne during his visit. This is, after all, a recession-era sequel that promises few of the kinds of surprises unveiled in the first trial.
Spector and his young wife, Rachelle, appeared in court for the first day of the retrial at 9:45 a.m., accompanied by only one bodyguard, and not the two or three who followed them everywhere in 2007. (To get an idea of his incongruous entrances during the first trial, picture the tiny Spector flanked by a trio of Notorious B.I.G. impersonators.)
Then again, Spector only has one lawyer, Doron Weinberg, instead of the five who won him a hung jury two years ago. There are seldom any reporters present from the mainstream media, with the job of recording the trial falling to the Trials & Tribulations blogger known as Sprocket. Even the newer jury seems to lack the interesting idiosyncrasies and interpersonal dynamics that marked its predecessor.
Jury trouble, however, occupied the start of the morning session. Juror No. 5, a 30-something man who last week requested to be cut from the panel on financial-hardship grounds, answered a few questions by Judge Larry Paul Fidler before being thanked for his time and sent home. He was replaced through a random draw by Alternate Juror No. 3, a woman. How this gender balancing of the panel might affect Spector’s chances is unclear.
“If the defendant is a classically handsome guy, women might be sympathetic to him,” says USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth. “But it depends on the crime. Spector definitely doesn’t want women on the jury, with what he’s charged.”
Spector, remember, is accused of the murder of bit actress Lana Clarkson in the wee hours of a February night in 2003. And he is being painted by prosecutors Alan Jackson and Truc Do as a violent misogynist who had a habit of threatening dates with guns. Over Weinberg’s objections, Do was allowed to play a recorded telephone interview between Sheriff’s Department detective Richard Tomlin and Vince Tannazzo, a former New York detective who worked as Joan Rivers’ personal-security aide. During one memorable encounter in the mid-1990s, Tannazzo was called upon to escort Spector from a Christmas party after Spector began brandishing a gun.
On the audio CD, Tannazzo says that during the elevator ride down from Rivers’ apartment, Spector confided to him his innermost feelings toward Rivers’ manager, Dorothy Melvin, and the fair sex in general:
“These fucking cunts all deserve to die! I should put a fucking bullet in this cunt’s head!”
The interview’s sound quality was on par with that of a flight-recorder box recovered from an airliner crash, but jurors followed along with a transcript and heard the hardened ex-cop marvel, “Every other word out of his mouth was ‘this fucking cunt!’”
Spector stared at the table in front of him as the recording was played in court, occasionally sipping from a bottle of orange drink.
During redirect, after Do finished playing the interview, defense counsel Weinberg went to town on Tomlin for not checking out Tannazzo’s story (which the ex–New York detective had suddenly offered shortly before the first trial began) and accepting it at face value — even though Melvin, in several interviews with Tomlin, had never mentioned the incident. Then Weinberg, who has proven himself a master of sowing doubt, asked Tomlin to explain some discrepancies in the testimony of Spector’s Brazilian-born driver, Adriano De Souza, regarding the chaotic moments following the gunshot that killed Clarkson — a gunshot Spector claims was self-inflicted but that prosecutors allege Spector fired.
Weinberg hammered home the point (if indeed it was a point) that it was only later police summaries of interviews with De Souza that present him as saying he found Clarkson’s body slumped in a chair in the foyer of Spector’s home — when he was directly quoted in the police report as saying he discovered Clarkson lying on the floor. By the close of morning testimony, all the beleaguered Tomlin could do was say that in his experience, “people in the Hispanic culture” often use the words “ground” or “floor” when they mean to describe sitting positions.
With this hairsplitting finished for the morning — and revelations that the trial will last a few more weeks before it goes to the jury — Dunne said goodbye to Clarkson’s family and left. He would not be coming back.
For more than a month now, there’s been courthouse buzz about a development brewing in the completed trial of fashion designer Anand Jon Alexander, who was convicted last November of 15 counts of sexual abuse and one count of rape. The word was that lawyers for Anand Jon, as he is known professionally, would bring startling new evidence to his January 13 sentencing hearing that would warrant a new trial. But that date came and went, with nothing more than an agreement from both sides to reconvene in Judge David Wesley’s courtroom February 27.
Last week, however, with Jon appearing in court wearing an orange prison jump suit, reporters got a glimpse of the new evidence, and it is indeed dramatic. Although the defense motions are currently sealed, along with the lips of attorneys and prosecutors alike, some details emerged in court and were later amplified during a defense news conference held outdoors. Jon’s defense is basing its request for a new trial on two foundations.
The first is a bizarre incident that occurred when the trial was, as new defense lawyer Ronald Richards put it, “a live situation during deliberations.” This involved an attempt by Juror No. 12 to speak to Anand Jon’s sister, Sanjana, during verdict deliberations. The man, about whom the original jury’s foreman had complained to Judge Wesley because of his unwillingness to deliberate, contacted Sanjana during this time and requested to speak to her. She agreed to meet him at a Starbucks. Since Sanjana Jon was neither a witness nor a member of the defense team, she was free to speak to the juror without informing the court — although her brother’s lawyers immediately told the judge once they learned of the meeting.
Jon’s lawyers also claim they informed the prosecution team of Mara McIlvain and Frances Young of their intention to carry out a “sting” by secretly wiring Sanjana in order to record what was on No. 12’s mind. They never got the chance — District Attorney’s investigators intercepted the juror just as he was about to enter the coffee shop and prevented him from meeting Sanjana Jon.
“But for the District Attorney’s blocking the door to justice” — this would be the door to Starbucks — “we would have found out why the juror contacted Sanjana,” Richards said at the news conference.
Jon’s lawyers don’t merely want to learn what No. 12 wanted, they are also asking, through interviews and e-mail records, to find out who in the D.A.’s Office authorized the interception. If the names extend high enough to disqualify the entire office from prosecuting a new trial, Richards said, the case would be tried by the state Attorney General’s Office. That event is by no means certain, though, and Judge Wesley has set April 1 as the next hearing date. In the meantime, the defense team will try to persuade the juror to be interviewed by its members. Eventually, it seems, No. 12 will have to appear once before Judge Wesley in open court — either on April 1 or at a later date.
One question that needs to be clarified for the public is whether or not the juror’s conduct was brought to Judge Wesley’s attention at the time it occurred, and, if it was, why the judge didn’t feel the deliberations were compromised by the incident.
“If it happened during deliberations,” says USC law professor Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor, “it would have been unheard of for the court not to know — and for the judge not to have questioned the juror. Either the juror did something wrong or he didn’t. The judge must have thought nothing bad had happened because he let deliberations go on.”
The defense’s second grounds for a new trial were what it called “prosecutorial misconduct.” Jon’s attorneys claim that during the trial, prosecutors twice threatened a member of their team, Eric Chase — once with arrest and, at another point, with disbarment. The defense contends that the alleged threats were acts of intimidation that subdued Chase’s aggressiveness during cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.
Prosecution lawyer McIlvain stood quietly through most of the proceedings. Her face was drawn as she left the courtroom and, outdoors, McIlvain appeared somber as she walked past the place where Jon’s supporters would gather to meet the press. During that press conference, new lawyer Richards, who had once represented Jon before his trial began, said he and his colleagues hope to prove Anand Jon’s verdict was tainted and that some jurors were addressing issues other than the charges they were tasked with evaluating. Suddenly a trial that had seemed like history gave the appearance of being very much alive, at least until April Fool’s Day.