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Defense attorneys in Phil Spector’s murder trial surprised a courtroom Tuesday by saying they were eliminating a number of anticipated star witnesses and plan to close their case Wednesday.
As late as Monday night they had listed upcoming witnesses including Dr. Michael Baden, Cyril Wecht and Henry Lee, three stars of the forensic evidence world. They changed their minds during a conference over the lunch hour Tuesday, they said.
“Are you ready to rest?” asked Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler.
Defense attorneys said they would have a few minor witnesses Wednesday morning and then would conclude, pending admission of exhibits and a planned jury tour of Spector’s home on Aug. 9. Attorneys want jurors to stand in the foyer where actress Lana Clarkson died of a gunshot wound through the mouth on Feb. 3, 2003. Spector is accused of murdering her. Defense forensic witnesses have said she killed herself.
Prosecutors said they were unprepared for the abrupt end of the defense case and would have to start juggling schedules to bring in rebuttal witnesses who could begin testifying Wednesday afternoon. The defense may respond with what is known as surrebuttal.
With jurors absent from the courtroom, the defense made a final bid to let them hear a transcript of earlier testimony by renowned forensic expert Lee, who was retained by the defense and testified at a hearing on disputed evidence outside the jury’s presence. Attorney Bradley Brunon said Lee is in China and unavailable to testify.
Fidler said the defense could have subpoenaed Lee before he left the country but did not do that. He said the defense must have read the newspapers, as he did, and knew that Lee announced he was leaving the country and would not testify because he felt other experts could provide the same information he would.
Prosecutors Alan Jackson and Pat Dixon objected to using the transcript which focused on an allegedly missing piece of evidence and did not address other issues.
Fidler sternly lectured the defense on not having exerted “due diligence” to bring Lee to court.
“You knew he was leaving the country. Any time you wanted, you could have had a subpoena issued,” said Fidler. “His trip does not take precedence over this trial.”
Lee was stung earlier in the trial when the judge issued a ruling that his testimony outside the jury’s presence was not credible on the issue of whether he found a white object at the scene that might be a missing shard of Clarkson’s fingernail. Lee suggested his career and reputation were being damaged by false accusations.
The judge said the defense case will not officially rest Wednesday because of the pending jury tour but prosecution rebuttal testimony can proceed in the meantime.
Before court recessed for the day, the judge raised another sensitive issue involving Spector’s onetime lead lawyer Bruce Cutler, who bowed out of the trial for three weeks to film a TV show and said Tuesday he was leaving again to tape more episodes.
The judge noted that Cutler has said he planned to return to do closing arguments. Fidler suggested this may be a problem legally “inasmuch as you have not been present for much of the trial.”
The New York lawyer protested that he’d only been absent for 11 days of the defense case.
“Even one day,” the judge said, could be a problem.
Fidler cited the precedent of the Charles Manson murder trial in which a lawyer for one of four defendants drowned while preparing for closing arguments. In that 1970 case, he recalled, the judge ordered the appointment of another lawyer to argue the case on behalf of defendant Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted of murder along with Manson and two other women. As a result, he noted, Van Houten’s conviction was overturned on appeal for inadequate assistance of counsel. He said this case was different in that the decision is up to the defendant.
“Mr. Spector,” Fidler said, “If you choose to have Mr. Cutler argue this case and if there is a conviction, you give up the right to come back at a later time and say my attorney wasn’t there.”
He asked Spector specifically if this is what he wants and Spector, in his first comment during the trial, said, “I’ll discuss it with him.”
Spector has been represented by four other lawyers who took over after Cutler delivered a bombastic opening statement that drew poor reviews in the legal community. He cross-examined one key witness, eliciting potentially damaging testimony from her and then sat silent for the rest of the case.
Spector, 67, is a legendary music producer whose “wall of sound” recording technique revolutionized rock music. Clarkson, 40, onetime star of the cult movie “Barbarian Queen,” was a down-on-her luck actress working as a hostess at the House of Blues nightclub when she met Spector and went home with him for a drink.
One of the last pieces of evidence jurors saw Tuesday was her time sheet from the club showing the hours she worked and her wage of $9 an hour.
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