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Lesser charge gives jury breathing room

Manslaughter or murder is a fine line for Spector jurors to consider.

September 19, 2007|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

In his 11th-hour reconsideration of a manslaughter charge Tuesday against Phil Spector, Judge Larry Paul Fidler helped illustrate the thin line that can separate one crime from another.

Fidler decided three weeks ago that jurors would face a single up-or-down proposition in determining Spector's fate -- guilt or innocence of second-degree murder in the death of actress Lana Clarkson.

But after at least five jurors said Tuesday that they would acquit the music producer on those terms, Fidler, in an unusual move, said he may tell them to consider lesser manslaughter charges.

In many California murder cases, jurors have the option of convicting a defendant of a lesser crime.

Jurors were told that in order to find Spector guilty of murder, they had to conclude he acted "deliberately with conscious disregard for human life" when he allegedly stuck a gun in the face of Clarkson, who died of a gunshot wound in the mouth.

Manslaughter requires recklessness, but knowledge of the threat to life is not required, experts said.

Distinguishing between murder and manslaughter can be difficult.

"That's one of the real problem areas in criminal law," said Harry M. Caldwell, a law professor at Pepperdine University and a former prosecutor. "We're talking fine gradations."

To help them fix criminal responsibility, California jurors often look for the "I don't care" attitude, Caldwell said.

"If you can show they were aware a life could be lost, yet in the face of that, exhibited that 'I just don't give a damn whether this person dies or not' attitude, then a [murder] conviction becomes a real possibility," Caldwell said.

If jurors can see reason or logic, despite recklessness, they often opt for manslaughter, rather than murder.

Caldwell gave the example of a driver along treacherous Malibu Canyon Road, late for a job interview, who tries to pass a car on a blind curve across a double yellow line. He collides with an oncoming car and kills the driver.

"That's terribly reckless conduct, but not murder. We can at least understand what he was trying to do," Caldwell said.

He contrasted that with a survivor of a game of Russian roulette, where the clear awareness that a life could be lost makes the crime murder.

Legal scholars said they were surprised by the possibility that the judge, in the middle of deliberations, would tell jurors they could convict Spector of a new crime.

"I've never heard of it," said Loyola Law School professor Stanley Goldman.

Fidler finds himself in a legal bind largely because the Spector defense gambled that jurors might be inclined to acquit him of murder, punishable by life in prison, but possibly convict him of manslaughter, with a prison term of up to four years. Apparently to avoid that, the defense embraced the murder-or-nothing option, experts said.

"The defense didn't want to run the risk of one of those compromise verdicts, and didn't feel the prosecution had proved murder beyond a reasonable doubt," said USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth, who has regularly attended the five-month-long trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Prosecutors won't discuss their strategy, but they did not publicly ask for manslaughter instructions.

Some experts suggested that prosecutors might also have favored the all-or-nothing instruction, figuring it would force jurors to convict rather than set Spector free.

"Giving jurors a compromise position is almost encouraging them to compromise," Caldwell said. "If I were the prosecutor I'd want all or nothing in this case. I wouldn't want to give the jurors an out."

Goldman called it "a roll of the die by both sides. It's a little surprising. You would think the prosecution would have been perfectly willing and eager" to let jurors consider manslaughter.--

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