Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Phil Spector: The 'Mad Genius' of Rock'n'Roll

Hanging by a Thumbnail

Leslie Abramson, attorney
Leslie Abramson, attorney

On February 17, 2004, Lana Clarkson's accused slayer appeared in court at a preliminary hearing with his new attorney, Leslie Abramson. Spector had replaced dream-team attorney Robert Shapiro without comment from either party. Abramson, who is best-known for her defense of Erik Menendez against charges that he and his brother Lyle murdered their parents in 1989, delayed her planned retirement to take Spector's case. "I was about to hang it up when I got the call," she told CNN. "No other defendant would get me to give up my freedom," adding that she considered Spector "an idol and the definition of cool."

Spector arrived at court dressed entirely in black — black shirt buttoned at the neck, long black suit coat, black trousers, and black boots with "four-inch heels." The only color the pale producer wore came from his rose-tinted glasses. The issue before the court was an item of evidence that the prosecution believed the defense was withholding: a piece of Lana Clarkson's partially blackened "gunpowder-covered thumbnail," as Reuters described it.

Phil Spector & Robert Shapiro
Phil Spector & Robert Shapiro

After the proceedings Abramson told reporters that they did not have the nail. "We don't have a piece of the nail. If I had a piece of nail, I'd blow it up poster-sized and put it on every billboard in Los Angeles County."

But prosecutors believe otherwise, based on information they received from a retired homicide detective, Stan White, who was working as an investigator for Spector's defense team. Prosecutors contend that during the summer of 2003, White "bragged about [the thumbnail] to former colleagues at a Sheriff's Department barbecue," revealing that the nail had been recovered after police forensic experts had finished their work at Spector's home. Abramson has charged that the prosecution unfairly "sent a spy" into their camp.

The thumbnail could determine the case against Spector. If a jury can be convinced that the nail broke in a struggle for the gun and the gunpowder residue came as a result of Clarkson putting her hand up to protect her face, they very well might find Spector guilty of murder. However, if the defense can prove that the gunpowder on the nail was in fact blowback from Clarkson firing the gun into her own mouth, Abramson might succeed in persuading the jury that her client is innocent. If the disputed fingernail comes to light, the defense intends to have it analyzed by forensic expert Henry Lee, who also testified at the O.J. Simpson trial.

Dr. Henry Lee
Dr. Henry Lee

Initially Superior Court Judge Carlos Uranga ordered the defense to produce the thumbnail, but after a private meeting with both sides, he put off his ruling until May 21, 2004, when an evidentiary hearing is scheduled.

Spector is free on $1 million bail. A jury will eventually decide his fate — free to continue creating his walls of sound or incarcerated behind walls of stone. Attorney Abramson, however, is confident of her ability to win one last acquittal before retiring. "Frankly, guys, it's a winner," she told reporters. "If I'm going to end my career on this case — nobody wants to go out a loser."

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