Lawyers for Phil Spector have asked an appellate court to throw out his second-degree murder conviction on grounds of judicial error and prosecutorial misconduct.
In an extremely detailed 148-page brief filed Wednesday (March 10), the attorneys cited multiple reasons they believe Spector was denied his right to a fair trial. They asked the California Second District Court of Appeal to reverse the jury verdict and order a new trial.
Among the issues raised was the admission of testimony from five women who claimed they were threatened by Spector with guns in years past and the prosecution’s use of a videotape of the trial judge commenting on evidence in the case. They said prosecutors improperly used the women’s testimony to persuade jurors to convict Spector “based on his bad character and evil propensities.” They said that was impermissible under the law.
Spector, the 70-year-old rock music producer, is in prison serving a sentence of 19 years to life for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, who was shot through the mouth in Spector’s castle-like mansion seven years ago. Spector’s defense team argued that the one-time star of “Barbarian Queen,” was depressed and shot herself.
It took prosecutors two trials to convict Spector. The first trial ended in a jury deadlock.
In the appeal, attorney Dennis Riordan outlined errors he said were committed by Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler in both trials, calling one of the judge’s actions “startling.”
The appeal said that occurred when Fidler allowed prosecutors in the second trial to show jurors a videotape from a hearing held outside the presence of Spector and his jury in the first trial. On the tape, they said, the judge was seen interpreting the action of a key forensic witness testifying about the position of blood spatter on Clarkson’s body.
Riordan said that in final arguments prosecutors showed side-by-side photos of the forensic witness and the judge and pointed to them as “persons who supplied crucial evidence supporting a guilty verdict.”
They quoted from a transcript in which the judge resolved a conflict over where a blood spot was located. The judge later refused to exclude his own comments saying he had the right to say what he observed in court.
“Under California law, a judge may not offer evidence in a trial over which he presides,” said the appeal, adding that Fidler could not be cross-examined by the defense on what the prosecution told jurors was the most crucial issue of the case — whether blood spatter evidence showed who pulled the trigger on the gun.
“The evidence was profoundly conflicted on the one issue at the center of the case: who was holding the firearm when it discharged” the appeal said.
Riordan, a highly regarded San Francisco appellate lawyer, was joined by his partner, Donald M. Horgan and well-known San Diego attorney Charles Sevilla in filing the appeal.
Among their arguments were claims that the prosecutors’ inflammatory language in closing arguments and their “vituperative attacks on the integrity of defense counsel and the expert witnesses…passed over the line separating aggressive advocacy from prosecutorial misconduct.”
They cited Deputy District attorney Alan Jackson’s final argument in which he accused defense attorneys of soliciting untruthful testimony from expert witnesses by paying them huge fees. They called that egregious misconduct.
The appeal quoted Jackson as telling jurors: “How does homicide become a suicide? Just write a big fat check… Just go out and buy yourself a scientist.”
After those comments to the jury, defense attorney Doron Weinberg moved for a mistrial claiming the remarks were prejudicial, saying Jackson was accusing him of paying people to lie.
The judge turned down the motion and commented it was “a fair inference that if you pay them enough they will say anything,” the appeal said.
The appeal focused heavily on Fidler’s decision to allow testimony from five women who had dated Spector in the past, some in decades before, who told of his penchant for threatening women with guns. The lawyers said the incidents they described did not meet the test of similarity to the events surrounding Clarkson’s death: “None of the… evidence involved events in which Mr. Spector put a gun in someone’s mouth, much less fired it.”
The appeal said the judge also improperly allowed the prosecution to assert that Spector “had a history and propensity of violence against women and thus should be convicted based on his bad character and evil propensities.”
The lawyers said there was “a cumulative prejudicial impact” on jurors which “cannot be deemed harmless given the inflammatory and lurid manner in which the prosecution made use of the material in closing arguments.”
They noted that Jackson and Deputy District Attorney Truc Do used the term “pattern” 40 times in closing arguments to describe Spector’s behavior.
The state attorney general’s office, which is to file a reply brief next month, did not return a call seeking comment.