crimesider

Day Of Reckoning For Phil Spector

(AP Photo/Lawrence K. Ho)
Phil Spector, March 24, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) Six years ago, Phil Spector was barely a blip on the American celebrity radar screen. Although his music lived on, his name and face were only dimly recalled by rock music aficionados until a shooting at his Alhambra mansion propelled him to notoriety.

Now he faces sentencing Friday on second-degree murder of actress Lana Clarkson, a conviction that suggests to some that California prosecutors have broken a decades-long string of celebrity murder case losses. The names O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake come to mind.

But Spector is in a class of his own. He was not a performer, not a sports star with a following or a singer who captivated the public. He was a music producer, a behind-the-scenes guy whose ideas changed the sound of rock music. He invented the "Wall of Sound," a revolutionary recording technique. And he was known for bizarre behavior. Famous, yes. A celebrity? Not in today's pop culture.

Spector is a frail and ailing 69-year-old for whom the mandated minimum sentence of 15 years would likely be a life sentence. His lawyer says he is enduring jail by focusing on his plans to appeal.

"He's doing fairly well," said Doron Weinberg. "He's adjusting to the circumstances and settling down to wait out an appeal with high hopes. He feels he will win the appeal."

Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler has little leeway in sentencing. The 15-years-to-life sentence is mandated by law. Fidler's only decision is whether to add three or four years for personal use of a gun. The prosecution has asked for four and the defense has said three years is appropriate.

Spector had two trials with essentially the same evidence. His first in 2007 was televised gavel to gavel and spectators flocked to the courtroom. But when the jury deadlocked after a five-month trial, his legal "dream team," which at times numbered half a dozen lawyers, bailed out.

By the time the second trial started in 2008, interest had waned. The judge ordered cameras turned off and only a handful of spectators and reporters stopped in sporadically to watch testimony.

The retrial lasted the same length of time as the first trial, but there was only one defense lawyer: Weinberg, a well-regarded veteran from San Francisco. A young woman prosecutor, Truc Do, was brought in to work with Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson. Most importantly, there was a new jury. The forewoman wept after the guilty verdict but gave no hint of what tipped the scales on the panel's decision except to say it was based on "all the evidence, all the testimony."

During jury selection, only a few panelists remembered Spector's heyday as producer of teen anthems including "To Know Him is to Love Him," The Ronette's "Be My Baby," The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" and The Righteous Brothers' classic, "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'." Spector also worked on a Beatles album with John Lennon.

Ironically, Clarkson didn't know Spector's music legacy either when she met him only hours before she wound up dead at his Alhambra "castle." The 40-year-old actress had starred in Roger Corman's 1985 cult film "Barbarian Queen," but in 2003 she was working as a hostess at the House of Blues nightclub, where she had to be told by a manager that Spector was an important man.

His time had passed. And Clarkson's career was also ebbing. Their fateful meeting, recounted in both trials, led to her death and the end of his life as he knew it. For the next six years he spent millions on lawyers as he sought to prove that Clarkson killed herself.

But what had happened inside his house was never clear. Clarkson's body was slumped in a chair in a foyer. A gun had been fired inside her mouth. Spector's chauffeur, the key witness, said he heard a gunshot, then saw Spector emerge holding a gun and heard him say: "I think I killed somebody."

Weinberg said forensic evidence proved that Clarkson shot herself and cited her desperation at not being able to get acting work. Jackson said the shooting fit the pattern of other confrontations between Spector and women, and Do said Spector would become "a demonic maniac" when he drank.

Much of the case hinged on the testimony of five women from Spector's past who said he threatened them with guns when they tried to leave his presence. The parallels with the night Clarkson died were chilling even if the stories were very old — 31 years in one instance.

Weinberg said Spector's appeal will assert that the judge erred in allowing the women to testify.

  • Ryan Smith

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