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Smith case is more than just theatrics

Beneath the spectacle of the model's death are vexing legal questions.

February 18, 2007|Maria L. La Ganga, Evelyn Larrubia and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — A judge mediating among lawyers fighting over the now-embalmed body of Anna Nicole Smith said he hoped to "retain the beauty and dignity" of the former Playboy Playmate at the center of a legal and tabloid extravaganza.

Judge Larry Seidlin may succeed at preserving the busty blond's beauty to her grave, but dignity appears more elusive.

In the 10 days since Smith died of unexplained causes, the theater of it all has, at least occasionally, eclipsed the 2008 presidential race and the war in Iraq. CNN even did a story about why Americans feel compelled to lie to pollsters that they don't care about Smith's death when, by every measurable standard, they are riveted.

But beneath the spectacle, experts say Smith's roller-coaster life and death have raised legal questions that could reverberate for years and even alter federal bankruptcy law.

Alex Ferrer, a former Florida state judge, likened the case to "a difficult law school exam," with its battles over a body, paternity and an estate raging on both coasts and in two countries.

For now, center stage in the legal fight is the Broward County, Fla., courtroom of a circuit judge basking in the TV camera aimed at his bench, with his wife and child in attendance.

Along the way to deciding who gets Smith's body, Seidlin on Friday gave permission for the embalming, but not before telling the feuding lawyers that he had enjoyed the intimacy he thought had developed among them.

"I want to use the word 'bond,' we were bonding," he told a courtroom that included well-groomed tabloid reporters clicking away at their BlackBerrys and giving chase to Smith's estranged mother as she tried to slip out of the courtroom.

Smith's body was finally embalmed Saturday, but not until the two embalmers agreed to keep confidential the details of their work on the body.

Other highlights from the spectacle last week:

* Lawyers circling the medical examiner's office to supervise the swabbing of Smith's cheeks for DNA.

* Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband leaving the side of his wheelchair-using wife to declare that he may be the father of Smith's 5-month-old daughter -- one of three prospective papas who have come forward in the last few days to join ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead and her legal advisor and most-recent boyfriend, Howard K. Stern, in claiming paternity.

* An aged government minister in the Bahamas coming under fire after a newspaper published photos of him in bed with Smith, prompting opposition leaders to accuse him of granting the former stripper's legal residency for inappropriate reasons.

Friday brought a new legal shocker: the dramatic unveiling of Smith's 2001 will, which named her recently deceased son as her only heir and omitted any future children. The will also named Stern as executor. The death of her 20-year-old son three days after the birth of her baby, however, has thrown the state of her will into confusion.

And that produced yet more theatrics in Seidlin's courtroom. The lawyer for Smith's mother, Vergie Arthur, flailed his arms and angrily demanded that lawyers for Stern and Smith produce the will. "I want to see it. Now," he said.

Stern's lawyer then pulled out the will and prepared to hand it over just as Smith's lawyer, who did not want it to be public, blurted that he had thought about tackling Stern's lawyer to keep the copy under wraps.

Too late. Within hours, the will was the top story on multiple cable television stations.

Legal experts predict the litigation will go on for years and could wind up back before the U.S. Supreme Court, or even create a dispute between the U.S. State Department and the Bahamas.

Some see it as a fitting legacy for a woman who was almost as famous for her court fight over her aged husband's estate as she was for her buxom figure and platinum tendrils.

Even the wrangling over Smith's body echoes the fight she herself waged when her octogenarian husband, oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, made her a young widow. Eventually, she and his son split the cremated ashes and held two funerals.

This time, Arthur wants to bury her daughter in Texas; Stern claims she wanted to be buried next to her son in the Bahamas.

Smith would have found it all sad, said her lawyer, Ronald Rale, who added that her endless court battles upset her.

But they are unlikely to conclude any time soon. Next up: the paternity fight.

Baby Dannielynn could inherit tens of millions, meaning her father would probably become rich as well.

There's Birkhead, who filed the original paternity suit in Los Angeles; Gabor's husband, Prince Frederick von Anhalt, who filed his own papers last week; and Stern, who is named as father on the birth certificate.

And then there are the other contenders, including Smith's former bodyguard, Alexander Denk, who said on a TV talk show that he could be the father; and a man who e-mailed websites saying that he had also given her sperm.

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