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Jury Acquits Alec Baldwin of Battering Photographer

March 23, 1996|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VAN NUYS — Actor Alec Baldwin was acquitted Friday of misdemeanor battery charges by a jury which accepted that he acted in self-defense when he struck a celebrity photographer trying to videotape his wife and newborn child, allegedly breaking the man's nose.

The trial pitted the celebrity's privacy and safety concerns against the photographer's argument that he was assaulted while taking pictures in a public street--a right protected under the First Amendment.

"This is something this guy invited," a smiling Baldwin told reporters outside a Van Nuys Municipal Court room moments after the verdict.

"He wanted it to happen," Baldwin said, pointing out that the photographer, Alan Zanger, filed a $1-million lawsuit against him the next day.

Saying he was glad the stresses of the trial were over and he could spend more time with his wife, actress Kim Basinger, and their 5-month-old daughter, Baldwin added that if he is bothered by photographers again, he will act differently: "I'm going to call the police."

Zanger, a self-described celebrity stakeout specialist, protested that the eight-woman, four-man jury was swayed by Baldwin's glamour, despite juror statements that they ignored it.

"He's smooth," the photographer said in a phone interview. "He appealed to the jury. He's an actor."

The confrontation between Zanger and Baldwin sparked a debate about the right to privacy in the information age. Baldwin said that after the confrontation he had to change his lifestyle, moving out of his ungated Woodland Hills house to a new residence outside the city.

Other celebrity photographers expressed shock at the verdict.

"It looks like it's open season on paparazzi," declared veteran paparazzo Roger Karnbad, who earlier in the day was shooting stars at the Publicist Guild luncheon in Beverly Hills.

"It's really upsetting. [Zanger] was on the street. He was not on private property. . . . What the hell was the jury looking at?"

Baldwin should not have been surprised to encounter Zanger when he and Basinger arrived at their Woodland Hills home with the newborn infant, said celebrity photographer Scott Downie.

"Any celebrity who is having a child in this town is very, very aware of the fact that there is a photographer who is looking for the first photos," said Downie.

"He was acquitted?" Downie asked.

"So was O.J."

"It sends a message of some kind," said Chris Connelly, editor in chief of Premiere Magazine, which covers entertainment.

"It's an indication of how the press is capable of being viewed by a group of people. I suppose it's worth looking at that at some level a jury would find his actions defensible."

Baldwin was charged with one count of battery for the fracas last October when Zanger tried to videotape the homecoming of Baldwin, Basinger and their daughter, Ireland.

It took the jury less than seven hours of deliberations over two days to acquit Baldwin, star of "The Hunt for Red October," "The Juror" and "The Getaway," among other films.

When the verdict was read, Baldwin slowly broke into a wide smile and hugged his attorney, Charles English. Resting his head in his hand, he mouthed words of thanks to the panel.

"We just couldn't believe beyond a reasonable doubt that he had done this," said jury forewoman Susan Amroyan, 27, of Granada Hills.

The defense did not deny that Baldwin struck Zanger or at least pushed Zanger's camera into his face. But whether the actor was guilty of battery, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, hinged on whether he was reasonably fearful for his safety at the time.

Baldwin said he was highly emotional at the time and trying to protect his newborn from a man he feared could be a stalker or kidnapper.

To decide whether the blow was justified, jurors had to choose between conflicting stories told by two very different men: The gravelly-voiced Baldwin, decked out in tasteful suits and wreathed in a movie-star aura that packed the courtroom with spectators, and the rumpled Zanger, who recounted his tale in a nasal New York accent while garbed in a blazer, jeans and cowboy boots.

Zanger, 51, of Altadena, parked his 1984 Dodge pickup across the street from Baldwin's house in a quiet, residential Woodland Hills neighborhood on Oct. 26. Hunched under a camper shell with tinted windows and hefting a new $2,000 video camera, the photographer recorded the arrival of the Baldwins in a black Chevy Blazer.

Baldwin testified that he spotted the camera's light inside the truck and smeared shaving cream on the windows to block Zanger's shot. As Baldwin walked back to his house, Zanger climbed out of the back of his truck.

Here the accounts diverge.

Zanger claimed to have left the truck for his own safety with his camera off, lens pointed to the ground. Baldwin, Zanger testified, stormed up and eventually smacked the photographer in the face, knocking off his glasses.

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