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Forensics key in Spector trial

The verdict could hinge on the motives, loyalty and competence of a slate of expert witnesses with divergent opinions.

August 02, 2007|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Phil Spector's murder defense began three months ago with a vow by attorney Linda Kenney Baden to produce an "unimpeachable witness" with "no motive to lie for or against any person."

The witness would have "no memory problems ... no language problems," she told the jury.

"That witness," she said, "is called science."

But now, with the defense case all but completed, its science experts have proved as open to attack as any other witnesses. They have been fiercely questioned about their motives, objectivity and competence. They have disclosed their pay -- $5,000 a day in one case -- and, in describing their scientific findings, illustrated the subjectivity underlying their judgments.

Spector is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Lana Clarkson at his Alhambra mansion on Feb. 3, 2003. Spector's defense team says the 40-year-old actress, distressed by her waning career, her judgment impaired by alcohol and drug use, made a spontaneous decision to shoot herself while in his home.

By staking their case on forensic science, Spector's defense team has added an intriguing subplot to the first televised celebrity murder trial since the 1995 O.J. Simpson case. The defense has gathered a "dream team" of experts, two of whom have had their own television programs. In an era in which audiences are transfixed by "CSI" television shows and teenagers attend criminalist summer camps, forensic science and some of its most famous practitioners, in a sense, are also on trial.

The Spector case is unfolding against a backdrop of growing national scrutiny of forensic science. With hundreds of convictions nationwide overturned in recent years by DNA evidence, the reliability of forensic science is the subject of studies and conferences by bodies including the National Academy of Sciences and the recently formed California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

"What you don't see" in forensic science are "the kinds of standards you see in university science. That became really obvious once we started using DNA," said Case Western University law professor Paul C. Giannelli, an evidence specialist.

"There is a need for elevating the standard of practice," said Bruce A. Goldberger, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a professor at the University of Florida medical school. Funding shortfalls and variations in training are among the problems hampering forensic labs, he said.

Spector's defense has centered on an area of forensics known as bloodstain pattern analysis. His lawyers have argued that up to 18 blood spots, some less than a millimeter in diameter, that sprayed from Clarkson's wound onto the music recording legend's white jacket show he was standing too far from the actress to have shot her.

The fatal shot was fired with the gun barrel inside Clarkson's mouth. Therefore, the shooter would have had to be within arm's length of the actress when the gun went off. If Spector had fired the gun, his jacket and other clothing would have been far bloodier, defense experts say. They argue that Spector was standing as far as six feet from Clarkson.

The prosecution's scientists claim just the opposite: The spots prove Spector was within three feet of Clarkson, well within shooting range, they say. Lynne Herold, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department criminalist, testified that blood could fly only three feet before gravity and air resistance would break it up.

Two forensic pathologists, Vincent DiMaio and Werner Spitz, said that in their work as public medical examiners they had witnessed many cases of blood traveling farther than three feet. DiMaio is the retired medical examiner of Bexar County, Texas, and Spitz retired as the medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich.

Other defense experts have cited experiments that they said showed blood could travel farther than three feet. Stuart James, a Florida consultant, told of a study in which blood dropped onto a spinning fan blade spattered onto a sheet of paper six feet away. James Pex, a retired Oregon crime lab director, told the jury of an experiment he conducted in which spray paint traveled seven feet when dropped in front of a fan.

But the experts also conceded the limitations of blood spatter experiments. No researcher can fire a bullet into the mouth of a human to see what happens, they acknowledged. The better-known experiments include some in which a bullet was fired into a blood-soaked sponge; another, performed in Germany, involved shooting calves in the head.

Under cross-examination, two of the forensic witnesses acknowledged that the blood spatter did not conclusively prove Spector was six feet from the actress when the gun was fired, only that they believed it was the most likely interpretation.

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