The Life and Trials of Phil Spector
On the 3rd of February 2003, Phil Spector emerged from his house in the early hours of the morning. Inside lay 40-year-old model and actress Lana Clarkson, her teeth scattered across the carpet of the Pyrenees Castle in Alhambra, California.
Clarkson had been killed by a gunshot to the mouth, which Spector and his high-paid defence lawyers would later claim occurred by suicide. The call to the police was made by Adriano de Souza, Spector’s chauffer that was standing in for his usual driver that night. Spector later said that Lana had “kissed the gun” and killed herself.
“I think I killed someone.”
The sound of helicopters soon filled the sky as the media caught wind of what was going down at the famed music producer’s home. Police also arrived at the scene quickly and were met with a dreadful scene.
Lana Clarkson was sat in a chair, fully clothed and unresponsive, with a gun near her feet. Her top row of teeth had been blown out by the shot and they now littered the carpet around her. Spector was stood nearby with his hands firmly in his pockets and when asked to remove them he refused and was shot with a taser gun.
The producer quickly hired celebrity defence attorney Robert Shapiro to represent him at the early pretrial hearings and Shapiro got Spector out on bail for $1million. But his stardom couldn’t protect him from what was about to come.
Early life and career
Born Harvey Phillip Spector on the 26th of December 1939, he began his music career in the Teddy Bears, a pop group with the hit single To Know Him Is to Love Him. The song title was taken from the words etched on his father’s gravestone.
From there, he co-founded Philles Records at 21 years old. During the ’60s, Spector co-wrote and produced music for the Ronettes, Ike & Tina Turner and the Crystals. In 1963, he married Annette Merar, who was the lead vocalist of the Spectors Three, a pop trio. In 1966, he retired from the music industry but came back three years later to produce the Beatles album Let it Be and subsequent Lennon and Harrison records. After having an affair with Ronnie Bennett from the Ronettes, he married her in 1968 and they adopted a son, Donté Spector. He later surprised his wife at Christmas with the adoption of twins, Louis and Gary.
In Ronnie’s memoir, Be My Baby, she described how Spector sabotaged her career. Her husband imprisoned her inside the Pyrenees Castle, caused her continuous psychological abuse and forbid her from performing. Ronnie later escaped with help from her mother and the pair divorced in 1972, when Ronnie relinquished custody of their three children, due to being threatened by Spector with a hitman.
Both of Ronnie and Spector’s twins later stated that they were imprisoned as children by their father and forced to perform sexually with Spector’s girlfriends.
The producer would go on to create the Wall of Sound, a production method using masses of session musicians to create a dense sound where the listener couldn’t distinguish a specific instrument. The idea was that the sound would come across well on the radio.
In the ’80s, Spector had twins with Janis Zavala; Nicole and Phillip jr. Phillip would later die of Leukaemia on Christmas Day, 1991.
From the ’80s to the early ’00s, Spector stepped out of the limelight and the music scene. He came back briefly in 1981 to produce Yoko Ono’s Season of Glass, after John Lennon’s murder and his last project was Starsailor’s Silence is Easy in 2003.
In 2006, Spector married Rachelle Short in a small ceremony at the Castle. He was 66 and forty years older than the singer and actress. The pair met a month after Lana’s death at Dan Tana’s, a restaurant in Hollywood when Spector asked Rachelle to sit with him. She had been at his side since the trial began.
“We ended up talking until six in the morning. When it was time to go, he looked at me and said, ‘May I kiss you?’ I said, ‘No!’. But he got my phone number.” The old devil called the next day. “I’ve always been attracted to older guys.” — From her interview in The Independent.
Phil Spector’s wealth was apparent during the trial and at the time of his death was said to be worth $50million, due to royalties. The hiring of bodyguards and Bruce Cutler, who was the defence attorney for John Gotti in 1990, was a smart move from the music producer but Cutler left the trial soon after it began.
The lawyer claimed a differing strategic opinion between himself and Spector, and so Linda Kenney Baden continued as his lawyer for the remainder of the case. She had been the defence lawyer for Michael Skakel in the Martha Moxley murder trial.
After years of postponement, the first-degree murder trial eventually began on the 25th of April 2007 and was heavily televised. Throughout the trial, despite the defence’s claim that Lana’s death was a suicide, damning information was produced against Spector, including the testimony from Spector’s driver, Adriano de Souza.
De Souza told the court about the night that Lana Clarkson died. He had picked Spector up from his home for an evening in Hollywood. The music producer visited many bars and clubs where he picked up two dates before finishing the evening at the House of Blues, where he met Lana Clarkson.
Lana was working at the club, where she guarded the VIP area. The 5’11” tall beauty had appeared in shows such as The A-Team, Knight Rider and Three’s Company and wanted to continue in show business, but the actress needed money, so the job was a temporary one. She’d initially mistaken Spector for a woman before being correct and told to treat him “like gold” by the club’s management.
Later that night, he asked Lana to go home with him for a drink. In the limousine, the pair watched Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye while they drove back to the 30-room mansion in Alhambra. It wouldn’t be long before Lana was dead and Spector walked outside to tell de Souza that his date was dead.
Despite his lack of English, de Souza was the perfect witness; he was a new employee, he was sober and he was waiting for further instructions from his employer. There was also little reason for him to lie.
Dr Louis Pena testified in court about his findings during the post-mortem of Lana. He told the jury that there was bruising to her tongue as if something had struck it. He also spoke of Lana’s last moments as the bullet severed her spine;
“She won’t be able to move her arms. All the arm movement up here including out to the fingers, everything’s just gonna go. Wherever she’s at she’s going down, bottom line. Respiration … will cease. Heart rate may still go a little bit but not very long, but it could go. The blood pressure will drop pretty rapidly after that, after the shot. All brain functions will cease. She’ll not talk. She’ll not scream. She won’t cry.”
Forensic expert Dr Henry Lee, who had provided evidence during the O.J. Simpson case, was also called to testify. However, he was accused by the prosecution of hiding evidence that would prove Spector’s guilt. According to three witnesses, including Spector’s former defence lawyer, Sara Caplan, a white object seen at the house, had been picked up by Dr Lee. The object was an acrylic fingernail belonging to Lana Clarkson. The object could have shown that Lana’s hand was in front of her face, rather than holding onto the gun.
Judge Paul Fidler called Lee a “world-renowned expert” but told the court that he had to choose which witness was more credible, and instead of the doctor, he chose Sara Caplan. He ruled that the jury would be told of the object and it was up to them whether they thought that Dr Lee had intentionally hidden it. He later changed his mind, and the jurors weren’t told of the fingernail.
The jury also heard about Spector’s history with guns. They were told that once Spector had been drinking and taking medication, he often waved guns around at parties. Several women, including Joan Rivers’ former publicist, were brought in to testify against Spector and tell the jury about these parties and how the producer went from being a charming little man to a threat. However, the jury wasn’t told about his traumatic head injury in 1974.
Phil Spector went through the windshield of his car in Hollywood, resulting in significant head injuries. The surgery took several hours and resulted in 300 stitches to his face and 400 stitches to his head. Studies have shown that there’s a correlation between head injuries and violence, which has been seen time again in serial killers’ childhoods.
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On the 26th of September 2007, Judge Fidler declared Spector’s case a mistrial, due to a hung jury of ten to two for conviction.
The second trial
A year later on the 20th of October 2008, Phil Spector was tried for murder in the second degree of Lana Clarkson. The case wasn’t televised this time and the trial took just nineteen days. This time Spector’s defence wasn’t as glamorous and instead of the entourage he’d kept at his first trial, just his wife Rachelle and one bodyguard escorted him.
During the second trial, Spector’s driver, Adriano de Souza was quizzed about his use of the phrase, “I think I killed someone”, which was allegedly what Spector had said to the driver when he exited the house that night. De Souza had recounted the sentence eight different ways during the six years since the crime which meant, according to defence attorney, Doron Weinberg, there was sufficient doubt to acquit the trial.
The prosecution brought up numerous discussion points. Why would Lana Clarkson kill herself, after buying several pairs of shoes, which were found at her home? Lana had given no indication to family or friends that she was unhappy, and the jury heard experts speak about the actions of suicidal people. Ultimately, people seldom killed themselves on a whim and rarely in a stranger’s home.
The women from the first trial were brought back to give testimony about the defendant. They told their accounts of the parties they attended, where Phil Spector waved guns around and quickly turned hostile towards his guests.
The evidence eventually mounted up against him and the jury found Phil Spector guilty of second-degree murder. On top of the verdict, they also found him guilty of using a firearm in the commission of a crime, which added another four years to his sentence. He was sentenced to nineteen years to life in prison.
“If this were not Phil Spector, with a lot of money to spend, a trial like this would never have gone on for so long. Cases don’t usually go to trial when there is this much evidence against the defendant.” — Jean Rosenbluth, law professor at the University of Southern California.
Spector’s requests for appeal began in August 2011 but were denied in the California Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Federal District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. His last appeal was in August 2015.
Phil Spector died in prison in January 2021 from Covid-19 complications. He was 81 years old and had served 12 years of his sentence. He would have been up for parole in 2024.