The Defense

03.22.13

Phil Spector’s Jersey Girl Lawyer: Meet the Real Linda Kenney Baden

No less than Helen Mirren will portray the rock icon’s defense attorney in Sunday’s HBO biopic. Linda Kenney Baden discusses the music legend’s ‘wrongful conviction,’ David Mamet, and her love of high-stakes poker.

“You know defense lawyers—they’re interesting creatures, aren’t they?” Helen Mirren tells me. “They have very strong personalities. They’re not gray people. Very often, what’s on the inside is not on the outside. In a way, they’re in disguise. And in a way, Linda is like that. She wears all this turquoise jewelry. And it really disguises the very sharp mind that’s in there.”

“Linda” is renowned defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden, a self-described “Jersey girl” with a weakness for flashy baubles. The celebrated British actress, best known for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen, plays Baden in Phil Spector, HBO’s biopic (premiering Sunday at 9 p.m.) that dramatizes the famed rock producer’s prosecution for murder in the February 2003 shooting death of a struggling actress named Lana Clarkson.

Mirren stepped into the role at the last minute after original cast member Bette Midler suffered a back injury “and had to be carried off the set,” says Baden, a consultant on the film, which was written and directed by David Mamet. (He sent Baden the screenplay after reaching her on her cellphone at the Golden Door spa; before long, she was being paid to vet the movie’s legal verisimilitude, though she resisted Mamet’s efforts to charm her into dishing and violating attorney-client privilege.) “When they told me Helen Mirren was gonna be my character,” Baden recalls, “I said, ‘That’s really great. Really cool. Yes! Helen fuckin’ Mirren!’ I’ve been working on my curtsies ever since.”

Mirren, who didn’t try to impersonate Baden, let alone reproduce her “Jersey Shore” cadence, reciprocates the compliment. “Being the very smart woman that she is, Linda realizes that drama is not real life,” she says. “Often when people are involved in the dramatizing of sequences from their own lives, they get understandably very controlling. Linda basically let the filmmakers do what they wanted.”

The circumstances of Clarkson’s death continue to provoke raw feelings a decade after Spector, an eccentric recluse (played to the freakish hilt by Al Pacino), met the pretty blond sci-fi actress and aspiring comedienne in the VIP room of West Hollywood’s House of Blues, where she was working as a late-night hostess. Around 1 a.m., he persuaded her to climb into his chauffeured Mercedes and ride to his castlelike mansion in far-away Alhambra. Depending on whom you believe, a drunken, drug-addled Spector either placed the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger, or witnessed what he claimed was her “accidental suicide.”

After his first trial ended in a hung jury in 2007—“a victory for any defense attorney,” Baden says—Spector was convicted in a second trial of second-degree murder in 2009, and is currently, at age 73, serving 19 years to life in a California prison. But Mamet’s screenplay, which focuses on the first trial, allows for the possibility that Spector is innocent. That has prompted a group calling itself “Friends of Lana Clarkson” to bitterly protest the movie, notably picketing a recent screening of Phil Spector at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden addresses the jury during the defense's closing arguments in music producer Phil Spector's murder trial in Los Angeles on September 6, 2007. (Paul Buck/AFP/Getty)

“That’s understandable,” Mirren says. “But the film does not remotely attack or criticize Lana. It is very respectful and loving of Lana.” She adds: “What had actually happened that night was so unclear. The film is very sort of multilayer, and really its central theme is not actually whether Phil Spector is guilty or not. It’s about something else. It’s about the nature of celebrity and the nature of paranoia.”

Perhaps so. But Baden—who defended former basketball pro Jayson Williams and former Florida mother Casey Anthony in homicide proceedings—is unequivocal in her insistence that Spector was wrongly convicted.

“I really felt terrible about his conviction,” says Baden, who was too sick to participate in Spector’s second trial, although she sat in on the closing arguments; Mirren’s portrayal features an alarmingly realistic bronchial cough, and Baden was indeed nursing a nasty case of mycoplasma pneumonia during the first trial and just about ruined her health. “Whenever I represent a client, I’m very passionate about it,” she says. “You really leave a piece of yourself with that client. My clients always know I will go 100 percent in my commitment when I believe in them. That’s why I select my cases carefully.”

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Helen Mirren and Al Pacino star in "Phil Spector," which airs Sunday, March 24.

Unlike many of her clients, including Casey Anthony—who ultimately couldn’t pay Baden’s expenses, let alone her fee, prompting Baden to drop out of Anthony’s defense for financial reasons—Phil Spector was rich, and willing to spend lavishly. The movie depicts the defense team staging expensive mock trials and focus-grouping stand-in jurors to test various courtroom arguments. “As I said to David [Mamet], I can’t tell you whether that did or did not happen,” Baden says. “What I can tell you is that any attorney going to trial without doing a focus group these days got their license out of a Cracker Jack box.”

But Spector’s money was less of an advantage than it appeared—and may even have been a negative in the court of public opinion. “No one ever has resources to match the state,” Baden says. “The state can spend $10 million and if you spend $600,000, all of a sudden you’re the evil defense group that spends money to buy a verdict.”

Spector’s storied career was full of iconic music and rock legends, from Ike and Tina Turner to the Beatles. He will forever be remembered for his innovative “The Wall of Sound,” a dense layering of orchestration in the recording studio, which he called “a Wagnerian approach to rock ’n’ roll.” At one point in the movie, Pacino as Spector boasts to Mirren as Baden, “First time you got felt up, guess what you were listening to? One of my songs!” To which the real Baden retorts: “You know that half the girls never get felt up when they’re growing up anyway. You go directly to Hell, the nuns told us.”

“Media attacks and the whole lynch-mob mentality seem to go along with our trials these days. That really gets me.”

As the movie notes, Baden ended up running Spector’s defense team after the lead counsel, Bruce Cutler, best known for winning acquittals for Mafia don John Gotti, abruptly withdrew from the case midtrial. “He rushed from the middle of the trial to go film a TV series,” Baden says witheringly. “I’m not saying I don’t have feelings or an opinion on it. I just have no comment.”

Phil Spector’s troubles, in any case, met Baden’s bottom-line criteria for taking a client on: “I have to believe that a client is innocent of at least the top charge. Most of the time I believe they’re innocent of most of the charges. Or I have to believe there’s like a lynch-mob mentality going after them. Media attacks and the whole lynch-mob mentality seem to go along with our trials these days. That really gets me.”

Baden attributes her sense of justice and fairness to her father, a career Postal Service employee, and her mother, whom she calls “a domestic goddess.” “Growing up, my father’s best friend was black, and we lived in a black area of town,” she recalls about her Red Bank, New Jersey, upbringing. “My best friend was black. I never knew about discrimination. Mom and Dad believed people should have a fair shake.” She spent her formative years getting a Catholic education and then obtained degrees from George Washington and Rutgers universities.

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Helen Mirren plays Linda Baden Kenney in "Phil Spector."

These days Baden—who for the past 13 years has been married to celebrity forensic pathologist Michael Baden, a television personality and frequent expert witness—divides her time between legal commentary and an active law practice, which handles both criminal and civil cases. She is a rabid fan of Georgetown University basketball, owing to her representation of Hoya assistant coach Kevin Broadus, who got into trouble with the NCAA in his previous job as head coach at Binghamton University.

Not surprisingly, given her risk-taking profession, Baden is a competitive poker player. She recently came out on top in a Friars Club poker tournament and claims that she would like to consult Mamet, who wrote and directed the 1987 movie House of Games. “David did the movie about poker, maybe he could give me some tips,” she says. “Playing in the World Series of Poker—that’s my goal in life.”