In his 2003 autobiography, Closing Argument, New York lawyer Bruce Cutler spoke of the aphrodisiacal thrill he felt defending the late mobster John Gotti in federal court. “It’s been said that a man’s sexual potency and feeling of physical invincibility are inextricably linked with his sense of his own power,” he wrote with co-author Lionel René Saporta. “Whatever spot in my brain these heady times were touching was dangerously close to where my sense of true virility lies.”
Last week, Cutler was certainly looking tan, fit and virile as he walked into Judge Larry Paul Fidler’s Los Angeles courtroom — a change from his pre-trial appearances in April when he seemed paler and slightly heavier — but his client was another story. Snickering rippled through the press gallery as a pallid Phil Spector floated toward the defense table, dressed in a kind of tan Edwardian frock coat and vest, deep purple shirt and matching kerchief — topped by a bowl-cut wig that resembled the blond mops of the Eloi in the old movie The Time Machine.
It was the first day of the big trial in L.A. County Superior Court’s Department 106, and the spectators could be forgiven for forgetting that Spector, 67 and fancy free on $1 million bail, was not on trial for fashion crimes but for murder — specifically, that of sometime-actress Lana Clarkson, whose mouth he is accused of exploding with a .38 Colt Cobra at his Alhambra mansion on February 3, 2003. His contention — and that of his formidable defense team — is that the 40-year-old Clarkson killed herself. This, even though Spector’s chauffeur reported that his boss exclaimed, shortly after the shooting, “I think I killed somebody.”
It’s an odd fact of the trial that Spector looks too guilty to be guilty. His hollow Nuremberg stare, the frozen posture and the twitch above his lamprey mouth all belong to a noir movie villain — which is why Gotti’s old lawyer was called to work his transformative magic.
Deputy D.A. Alan Jackson laid out the prosecution’s case in a 110-minute preview. Jackson, a slight, boyish figure with Steve McGarrett forelocks, is not the smoothest or most dominating orator, yet doggedly pressed home his points to the jury Wednesday. Spector, he claimed, had a history of getting blackout drunk and angrily pointing guns at women who, at the end of an evening of food and drink, tried to take a powder rather than spend the night with the Wall of Sound legend.
Cutler complained to Judge Fidler that he had been blindsided by unexpected omissions in Jackson’s opener — defense attorneys can only respond to prosecutors’ accusations — and needed another day to “regroup” and prepare a new statement. Fidler, however, told Cutler to roll out as much of his theory as he could pack into the last 45 minutes of the afternoon. Cutler stalled and played the role of stranger in a strange land (or, at least, a stranger to California law), but the judge sent him to the plate anyway.
When he did get on with it, Cutler cut an impressive figure, in a TV sort of way — with his barrel-chested frame, bullet-shaped head and Flatbush accent, he resembles an older, avuncular version of The Shield’s Michael Chiklis. (Illness has since kept Cutler — and the trial itself — on hiatus until May 7.)
Cutler, a lifelong body builder, began his remarks by placing an enormous hand on the arm of the diminutive Spector, whom he and others on his team always call “Phillip.” The two men’s apparel alone made a striking contrast. Much has been written of Cutler’s sartorial flair, which dates back to the time Gotti introduced him to Brooklyn shirtmaker David Nadler. Last Wednesday, however, he was attired for the delicate task at hand in somber navy blue with the black loafers he seems to favor even in formal settings. Somehow he and his colleagues are going to have to prove that Clarkson, a House of Blues hostess whom Spector had invited to his home on a whim, had ungratefully imposed upon her illustrious host by committing suicide with his own gun.
Cutler will also have the daunting job of tearing apart Clarkson while swearing he is respecting her memory. (Her family members sit in the front row, wearing leopard-print memorial ribbons.) He described Clarkson as a 5-foot-11, 161-pound Amazon whose acting career had made her a weapons expert. By Day Two of Cutler’s statement she had grown into a giantess standing “over 6 feet in heels.” More alarming, perhaps, to the nearly all-male jury, “she was a big, strong woman, a take-charge woman.”
Cutler had no problem ridiculing Alan Jackson, however, contending his assertions were part of a distorted portrayal that made Spector a victim of his own fame and success. So fulsome did Cutler become in argumentatively describing Spector as a “street kid” from New York who worked his way to the top of the pop-music world that Fidler sustained no fewer than 12 prosecution objections in 45 minutes.
Cutler had even less difficulty heaping scorn on witness Adriano De Souza, the Brazilian national who’d been hired by Spector to drive him in his new Mercedes-Benz that fatal evening. De Souza was, Cutler noted, “here illegally,” had “a language problem” and had been taking “a siesta” in his boss’s car at the time of the gunshot. This coded ethnic ad hominum might resonate in Great Neck, but a glance at Spector’s jury box showed only four white faces among the panel of 18 jurors and alternates.
Whether or not Cutler’s attacks (which were echoed the second day by co-counsel Linda Kenney Baden) will backfire is uncertain. The jurors listened to Cutler attentively, some taking notes in the steno pads they’re all provided. These are similar to those used by many of the press that crowded in the court that first day, although none had notebooks like Dominick Dunne’s, whose face is screened onto each page. (When ribbed by some of his colleagues, the Vanity Fair correspondent said they were a swag item produced by Court TV for his Power, Privilege and Justice show, and that he was a little embarrassed by them.)
Although Day One produced courtroom waiting lists for media members and public looky-loos alike, the next afternoon saw a falloff in interest, except for the usual old men in Members Only jackets who prowl courthouse hallways looking for interesting cases to occupy their time. They had a special interest in Spector though, for despite his money and fame, age made him one of them. Like Robert Blake, accused of murdering his wife in 2001, and octogenarian George Weller, who stood trial for plowing his car into a Santa Monica farmers market and killing 10 people in 2003, Spector was a man who should have been enjoying the dignity of retirement. Instead, his trial placed him in the overlit diorama of public spectacle — one whose ultimate indignity may well be the ebbing interest in it.