Jury deliberations in Phil Spector’s murder trial remained suspended today (Sept. 20) as the judge struggled to help the deadlocked panel reach a verdict.
With jurors split 7-5, Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler listened to detailed arguments by lawyers about how to give the panel a new instruction after he withdraws one that some panelists cited as a point of dispute when they announced the impasse.
The instruction concerns the prosecution’s theory that Spector held a gun to actress Lana Clarkson’s mouth, and that the weapon discharged, causing her death. It says jurors must find Spector committed that act if they convict him of second-degree murder.
Fidler said yesterday he reread the instruction and decided it should not have been given because it misstated the law. Some legal experts say the change could make a conviction easily reversible on appeal.
“It sort of takes your breath away,” said attorney Harland Braun, who is not involved in the Spector case but has represented Robert Blake and other high-profile clients. “I’ve never heard of withdrawing an instruction after deliberations started.”
Spector, 67, is charged with killing Clarkson in his Alhambra, Calif., mansion on Feb. 3, 2003, a few hours after she met him at her job as a nightclub hostess and went home with him. The defense maintains that Clarkson, 40, was depressed and shot herself, either on purpose or by accident.
Jurors were in their seventh day of deliberations Tuesday when they said they were at an impasse. The judge offered the defense the opportunity to reargue the case in an effort to break the deadlock, but Spector’s lawyers declined, saying it would just give the prosecution a chance to argue a new theory.
The judge also proposed giving jurors an instruction on a new legal option: finding Spector guilty of the lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter. But he rejected that idea yesterday, saying it might be perceived as telling them what to do.
Loyola University Law Professor Laurie Levenson called Fidler’s plan “a high-risk move.” She said jury instructions are “the tea leaves jurors read in reaching their verdicts.”
“It would have been proper not to give the instruction in the first place,” Levenson said. “It’s more problematic to withdraw it. He may be doing it to get a verdict, but the irony is if there’s a conviction, we may be trying this case again after it gets to the appellate court.”
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