Criminalists made mistakes in evidence collection and handling in actress Lana Clarkson’s shooting death, including the loss of a piece of one of her teeth, a medical examiner conceded today (May 30) in music producer Phil Spector’s murder trial.
Dr. Louis Pena, a deputy medical examiner, acknowledged in cross-examination by defense attorney Christopher Plourd that the mistakes also included moving Clarkson’s body, which caused blood to flow out of her mouth, compromising evaluation of her dress for blood spatter.
Pena yesterday forcefully testified under prosecution questioning that Clarkson’s death was a homicide and cast doubt on defense claims that Clarkson committed suicide at Spector’s home.
Spector, 67, is accused of shooting Clarkson, 40, on Feb. 3, 2003, after she agreed to accompany him to his mansion from her job as a hostess at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip.
Pena said the lost tooth fragment was the fault of an odontologist (a forensic dentist) who was called in on the case. “There were three vials collected to be examined by the odontologist,” Pena said. “What happened is on review in meeting with the odontologist he admitted he broke one of the vials and the tooth fragment was lost. It flew around the room somewhere.”
Asked how this happened, Pena said, “When my back was turned he took it out, cracked the vial, panicked — as he told me — and sealed it again.” Pena said the fragment was never found.
The coroner said he had found some of the tooth fragments on a red carpet in front of Clarkson’s body and some on a staircase nearby, indicating that the force of the gunshot fired inside her mouth sent her two front teeth flying out.
The missing tooth fragment was among items in an in-house coroner’s office memo about concerns in the case. In addition, the memo said a criminalist used lift-off tape on Clarkson’s dress to collect samples of evidence and inadvertently compromised the ability to evaluate blood spatter on the dress.
As for the blood from the mouth, the memo said, “Body movement caused oral purge which soaked the side of the dress and also compromised evaluation of the dress for blood spatter.”
In other testimony, Pena said he was aware at the death scene that a piece of acrylic nail was missing from Clarkson’s right thumb. Plourd asked Pena if he knew whether criminalists had looked around the body for the acrylic nail.
“Yes,” he said. “It was the sheriff’s crime lab.” “How did they know the nail was missing?” asked Plourd. “I told them,” he said. The prosecution claims that defense experts later found the piece of nail when they searched the scene but withheld it from authorities.
Yesterday, Pena testified that Clarkson had a bruise on her tongue indicating a trauma, possibly from the barrel of a gun being shoved in her mouth. He also testified she had bruises on her right arm and hand.
Pena said there was no evidence that Clarkson had been putting her affairs in order in advance of a suicide, and he described the actress as a hopeful person with no history of depression or suicide attempts. Clarkson had been taking two drugs generally given for depression, but her neurologist had prescribed them for her chronic headaches, the coroner said.
He said she died with a purse on one shoulder in a stranger’s home, which he said is not typical of someone taking her own life. He also cited evidence that the gun had been wiped and a large amount of Clarkson’s blood was in the left pocket of Spector’s pants, which could indicate the gun was placed in the pocket.
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