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Celebrity status a key issue for jurors

Phil Spector's fame and wealth have become an integral part of music producer's murder trial.

September 10, 2007|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Is pop music pioneer Phil Spector a murderer trying to use his wealth to buy an acquittal? Or did prosecutors, eager to put a celebrity behind bars, ignore proof that a troubled Hollywood hanger-on took her own life in Spector's Alhambra mansion?

As a Los Angeles jury begins deliberating Spector's fate, it will face these questions that evoke both film noir motifs and the recent history of celebrity justice in Los Angeles. The eccentric 67-year-old producer, once known as a boy genius who created early rock's "Wall of Sound," is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Lana Clarkson on Feb. 3, 2003.

The case is slated to go to the jury today after more than four months of testimony and more than four years after Clarkson, 40, an actress who appeared in the Roger Corman cult film "Barbarian Queen," was found slumped in a chair in the foyer of Spector's faux castle, shot through the mouth.

Prosecutors say Spector had a long history of gun threats against women and put a loaded snub-nosed revolver in Clarkson's face when she tried to leave. Whether he meant to kill her is irrelevant, they argue; his knowing disregard for life would constitute murder under California law.

The defense, backed by celebrity forensic experts, argues that Clarkson, facing fading acting prospects and mounting financial problems, shot herself. She was working a $9-an-hour job as hostess at the House of Blues when she met Spector and agreed to accompany him home the night she died.

Before the Spector case, which has been carried on television and the Internet, O.J. Simpson's was the last televised murder trial of a celebrity. Simpson's acquittal was followed by that of actor Robert Blake, who had been accused of killing his wife. Commentators said Los Angeles prosecutors weren't able, or star-struck Los Angeles juries weren't willing, to put wealthy celebrities in prison.

The diminutive Spector, who produced music for John Lennon, Ike and Tina Turner and the Ramones, is better known to music makers than to music fans. But for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, a win in the televised trial would dispel perceptions that famous defendants here can beat the system. The Spector trial judge, Larry Paul Fidler, said one reason he decided to allow cameras in his courtroom was to show the public that justice in Los Angeles is dispensed fairly.

From the beginning, prosecutors laid out a case based on character and motives. Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Jackson called Spector a "sinister and deadly" drunk with a "very rich history of violence."

After shooting Clarkson, Jackson said, Spector tried to clean up the scene, wiping her with a cloth diaper, and spreading her blood around the house -- it was found on a banister and a doorknob. He described Spector's statement to his driver as a confession.

Spector launched his case with a fearsome -- and large -- defense team.

After falling out with two high-profile Los Angeles attorneys, Robert Shapiro and Leslie Abramson, Spector hired Bruce Cutler, a New Yorker and a bit of celebrity himself for his representation of mob boss John Gotti. Cutler led off the defense by saying his client had been set up by police with "murder on their minds" and railroaded by spiteful women and a disgruntled employee, driver Adriano DeSouza.

Cutler, however, was soon sidelined by other lawyers, and as testimony concluded, he stepped down from the defense, saying his strategy and that of Spector and the rest of the team had diverged.

Into the breach stepped Linda Kenney Baden, one of Spector's three lawyers specializing in scientific evidence. Kenney Baden, in her opening statement, said science would refute the prosecution's emotionally charged tale of a mad, murderous Spector.

The defense, she said, would call eminent forensic scientists, including famous Connecticut criminalist Henry C. Lee, to prove with physical evidence what the prosecution could only allege through testimony from mistaken or biased people.

Prosecution testimony began in late April with the chilling accounts of four women who said they had faced a gun-wielding Spector. They each described incidents in the 1980s and '90s in which a drunk Spector pulled guns on them when they tried to leave his home or refused to join him in his hotel room. One said she was pistol-whipped.

Dorothy Melvin, a former manager for comedian Joan Rivers, said the normally charming Spector, when drunk, "turns on a dime and becomes a lunatic." The other women told similar stories.

Last month, prosecutors called a fifth woman, former Spector assistant Devra Robitaille, who also said Spector had pointed a gun at her when she rejected his advances.

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