Will a jury convict Phil Spector of murder? The legendary rock and roll producer goes on trial Wednesday in Los Angeles, charged in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson, 40, more than four years after he emerged from the back door of his hilltop California mansion holding a revolver and blurting to his startled chauffeur, “I think I killed somebody.” The televised trial, which was delayed by a cautious investigation—the coroner took eight months to declare Clarkson’s death a homicide—and Spector’s decision to change lawyers twice, promises to be equal parts L.A. noir and courthouse melodrama. Spector, 67, will be represented by mobster John Gotti’s former lawyer, Bruce Cutler, who is heading up a team that includes many of the forensic experts made famous during the O.J. Simpson trial. If convicted of murdering Clarkson, a struggling blond actress moonlighting as a nightclub hostess at the House of Blues, Spector—the architect of the “Wall of Sound” who produced hits for the Beatles and the Righteous Brothers—could face 15 years to life imprisonment.
Prosecutors say Spector killed Clarkson at 5 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2003, after sticking the barrel of a Colt Cobra .38 revolver in the actress’s mouth. They won’t claim the murder was intentional; rather, their theory is that he’s guilty of “implied malice.” They will argue that he brandished the loaded revolver when Clarkson wanted to leave, and either pulled the trigger or merely cocked the hammer before the gun went off, perhaps as Clarkson fought. Either way, prosecutors believe Spector knew these were acts “inherently dangerous to human life,” as the government lawyers told grand jurors in 2004.
Prosecutors intend to show that the mercurial producer had a pattern of threatening women with guns. Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler will allow five women to tell jurors that the reclusive rock and roll king brandished pistols when angry. (Most called police, but declined to press charges against Spector; although he did plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of waving a gun at an unnamed woman in 1975, according to news reports.) One of the women, photographer Stephanie Jennings, testified to grand jurors that a furious Spector barred her from leaving a New York hotel room by sitting in a chair in the doorway and waving a pistol at her. Establishing that Spector had intentionally used guns to threaten women would give the government “some of the most crucial evidence against him,” says Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson.
Defense attorneys hope to defuse the women’s testimony. “They will be thoroughly cross-examined,” promises Spector Defense Attorney Roger Rosen. “Their motives for coming forward and the actual circumstances of these purported or alleged incidents will be fully explored.” The defense contends that Clarkson, after drinking at Spector's, shot herself—either accidentally, or in a suicide brought on, supposedly, by despondency over her flagging acting career. They may even suggest that Clarkson herself brought the gun, which wasn't registered, with her.
At least one of Spector’s longtime friends may testify that the image of the gun-waving wild man was part calculated bluster and not just uncontrolled passion. David Kessel, a musician and producer whose family has known Spector since the 1950s, told NEWSWEEK that Spector kept unloaded “prop guns”—“real guns but with absolutely no ammo in them” that he used on people “when he wanted to evoke fear.” Kessel believes Spector publicized his own gunplay as a defensive reaction to being beaten up and urinated on by assailants in a nightclub bathroom while on tour sometime around 1957. “That’s where you got the whole persona of the bodyguards and the guns,” says Kessel. Rosen declined to comment on whether the defense planned to introduce the “prop gun” theory. But the names of Kessel and his brother, Dan, appear (their last name misspelled) on a witness list circulated to potential jurors.
There were no eyewitnesses to Clarkson’s death. So prosecutors will have to rely on blood and gunshot evidence and Spector’s own contradictory statements. Spector, who had downed at least six cocktails that evening, allegedly claimed to cops that the shooting was an accident; later, at the police station, he said Clarkson had committed suicide, according to grand jury testimony. Investigators found Clarkson’s blood on his white jacket, and small amounts of gunshot residue on his hands. They also found signs that Spector, alone in the house for about 20 minutes after Clarkson died, may have wiped blood from the gun with a diaper, later found in a bathroom, that was soaked with Clarkson’s blood. With the trial expected to last two to three months, there will be plenty of time to find out how it got there.