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Phil Spector convicted of second degree murder

Guilty verdict in shooting of Lana Clarkson means Spector may face 15 years for murder and at least 3 for gun enhancement.

April 14, 2009|Harriet Ryan

A Los Angeles jury convicted Phil Spector of second-degree murder Monday, making the legendary record producer who worked with the Beatles and a host of other pop stars the first celebrity found guilty of murder on Hollywood's home turf in at least 40 years.

The verdict read in a tense, standing-room-only courtroom came six years and two trials after police found Lana Clarkson, a statuesque blond actress, shot to death in a chair in Spector's 30-room Alhambra mansion.

As a Superior Court clerk pronounced the word "guilty," Spector's mouth gaped slightly, but he quickly returned to the stoic expression he has worn throughout his legal proceedings. His wife, Rachelle, who is 41 years his junior, began weeping in the front row of the spectators' gallery.

The verdict of second-degree murder -- the most severe option offered to jurors -- with the use of a firearm means the 69-year-old Spector faces a mandatory life prison term when he is sentenced May 29. He must serve at least 18 years before being eligible for parole.

The verdict was a cause for rejoicing in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, where high-profile defeats in the murder trials of O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake still sting.

Though not a current A-lister -- Spector's renown derived from behind-the-scenes work that peaked in the early 1970s -- he had the deep pockets and glamorous connections frequently cited when celebrity cases fall apart

"Celebrity cases are always a little different," said Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who called the Blake jurors "incredibly stupid" after the actor's 2005 acquittal. "Sometimes the laws of gravity as we know them don't work in celebrity cases."

Asked to recall the last celebrity convicted of murder, district attorney's office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said, "I know there has not been one in the last 40 years and beyond that, I cannot say."

Spector's attorney immediately said he would appeal. The lawyer asked that Spector remain free on $1-million bail until the sentence was imposed, but a prosecutor protested, citing Spector's history of menacing people with guns and his incentive to flee the jurisdiction.

During the trial and a 2007 proceeding that ended in a hung jury, Judge Larry Paul Fidler heard extensive testimony from women who said Spector terrorized them at gunpoint, and he ordered that Spector be taken into custody immediately.

"Public safety and public protection are paramount," Fidler said.

Spector, dressed in one of his trademark knee-length suit jackets with a "Barack Obama Rocks" pin on his lapel, spoke only once in the courtroom -- a hoarse "yes" in response to whether he agreed to the date of sentencing. He shuffled out of the courtroom surrounded by half a dozen uniformed court officers. He looked briefly in the direction of his wife before the door closed behind him.

His attorney said Spector knew a conviction was likely.

"Mr. Spector is a realistic man," said lawyer Doron Weinberg, who added that the producer's reaction to the verdict was to ask, "what was next."

The verdict was an endorsement of the prosecutors' theory that Spector pulled a snub-nosed .38 Special revolver on Clarkson when she tried to leave his residence after several hours of drinking. During the trial, jurors heard from five women who said the producer drew weapons on them when he was drunk.

Weinberg said the judge's decision to allow those women to testify about events stretching back three decades would be among the grounds for appeal.

"We believe analytically there is absolutely no legal basis for the admissibility of that evidence," the lawyer said.

The defense had depicted the 40-year-old Clarkson, whose career had flagged after a starring role in the 1985 cult film "The Barbarian Queen," as psychologically fragile and pathetically obsessed with fame, and suggested she shot herself in a spur-of-the-moment suicide.

Her mother, Donna, and sister, Fawn, declined to comment after the verdict, but John Taylor, a lawyer handling Donna Clarkson's civil suit against Spector, said, "The family is pleased that the jury rejected the distortion and trashing of Lana Clarkson's life."

At a news conference after the verdict, the jury forewoman said the panel was swayed by the "totality" of the evidence laid out during five months of testimony rather than any individual pieces.

Prosecutors and the defense presented dueling scientific cases with both sides insisting bloodstains and other evidence supported their version of the shooting. But the forewoman, who declined to give her name, shrugged off the science.

"Each side had their experts," said the 48-year-old, who works as a paralegal in the court system.

Clarkson's mental state was a trial battleground, with prosecutors saying she was upbeat and happy and the defense insisting she was despondent. The forewoman said despite all the evidence, they remained unsure.

"None of us were psychologists. None of us could evaluate a person we never met," she said.

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