Jury Acquits Alec Baldwin of Battering Photographer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Actor Alec Baldwin was acquitted Friday of misdemeanor battery charges by a jury which accepted that he acted in self-defense when he struck a celebrity photographer trying to videotape his wife and newborn child, allegedly breaking the man's nose.

The trial pitted the celebrity's privacy and safety concerns against the photographer's argument that he was assaulted while taking pictures in a public street--a right protected under the First Amendment.

"This is something this guy invited," a smiling Baldwin told reporters outside a Van Nuys Municipal Court room moments after the verdict.

"He wanted it to happen," Baldwin said, pointing out that the photographer, Alan Zanger, filed a $1-million lawsuit against him the next day.

Saying he was glad the stresses of the trial were over and he could spend more time with his wife, actress Kim Basinger, and their 5-month-old daughter, Baldwin added that if he is bothered by photographers again, he will act differently: "I'm going to call the police."

Zanger, a self-described celebrity stakeout specialist, protested that the eight-woman, four-man jury was swayed by Baldwin's glamour, despite juror statements that they ignored it.

"He's smooth," the photographer said in a phone interview. "He appealed to the jury. He's an actor."

The confrontation between Zanger and Baldwin sparked a debate about the right to privacy in the information age. Baldwin said that after the confrontation he had to change his lifestyle, moving out of his ungated Woodland Hills house to a new residence outside the city.

Other celebrity photographers expressed shock at the verdict.

"It looks like it's open season on paparazzi," declared veteran paparazzo Roger Karnbad, who earlier in the day was shooting stars at the Publicist Guild luncheon in Beverly Hills.

"It's really upsetting. [Zanger] was on the street. He was not on private property. . . . What the hell was the jury looking at?"

Baldwin should not have been surprised to encounter Zanger when he and Basinger arrived at their Woodland Hills home with the newborn infant, said celebrity photographer Scott Downie.

"Any celebrity who is having a child in this town is very, very aware of the fact that there is a photographer who is looking for the first photos," said Downie.

"He was acquitted?" Downie asked.

"So was O.J."

"It sends a message of some kind," said Chris Connelly, editor in chief of Premiere Magazine, which covers entertainment.

"It's an indication of how the press is capable of being viewed by a group of people. I suppose it's worth looking at that at some level a jury would find his actions defensible."

Baldwin was charged with one count of battery for the fracas last October when Zanger tried to videotape the homecoming of Baldwin, Basinger and their daughter, Ireland.

It took the jury less than seven hours of deliberations over two days to acquit Baldwin, star of "The Hunt for Red October," "The Juror" and "The Getaway," among other films.

When the verdict was read, Baldwin slowly broke into a wide smile and hugged his attorney, Charles English. Resting his head in his hand, he mouthed words of thanks to the panel.

"We just couldn't believe beyond a reasonable doubt that he had done this," said jury forewoman Susan Amroyan, 27, of Granada Hills.

The defense did not deny that Baldwin struck Zanger or at least pushed Zanger's camera into his face. But whether the actor was guilty of battery, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, hinged on whether he was reasonably fearful for his safety at the time.

Baldwin said he was highly emotional at the time and trying to protect his newborn from a man he feared could be a stalker or kidnapper.

To decide whether the blow was justified, jurors had to choose between conflicting stories told by two very different men: The gravelly-voiced Baldwin, decked out in tasteful suits and wreathed in a movie-star aura that packed the courtroom with spectators, and the rumpled Zanger, who recounted his tale in a nasal New York accent while garbed in a blazer, jeans and cowboy boots.

Zanger, 51, of Altadena, parked his 1984 Dodge pickup across the street from Baldwin's house in a quiet, residential Woodland Hills neighborhood on Oct. 26. Hunched under a camper shell with tinted windows and hefting a new $2,000 video camera, the photographer recorded the arrival of the Baldwins in a black Chevy Blazer.

Baldwin testified that he spotted the camera's light inside the truck and smeared shaving cream on the windows to block Zanger's shot. As Baldwin walked back to his house, Zanger climbed out of the back of his truck.

Here the accounts diverge.

Zanger claimed to have left the truck for his own safety with his camera off, lens pointed to the ground. Baldwin, Zanger testified, stormed up and eventually smacked the photographer in the face, knocking off his glasses.

When Zanger bent down to pick up the battered spectacles, he said, Baldwin scooped them up, handed them to Zanger and kicked the photographer in the rear. According to Zanger, Baldwin told him: "Now get the hell out of here. . . . You got what you deserved."

But Baldwin said Zanger kept raising the camera as if to continue taping, saying, "Come on, just let me get the shot." According to the actor, Zanger abruptly raised the camera as if to hit him, and Baldwin blocked it with his left hand, knocking it into Zanger's face.

Baldwin said he administered the boot in the rear after an enraged Zanger charged him. Zanger is 5 feet, 7 inches and weighs 160 pounds. Baldwin stands 6 feet and weighs 200 pounds.

The prosecutor, Deputy City Attorney Jeff Harkavy, stressed to the jury that Baldwin had told arriving police he was wrong and said he was sorry. But English argued that his client was not admitting guilt but merely expressing polite regret at the violence.

English drew a line between "legitimate media" doing their job and "stalkerazzi" like Zanger, who he said are engaged in a "low" profession.

Harkavy urged the jurors to render a verdict based on the law, not the "popularity" of the defendant, stressing that Zanger had a legal right to videotape Baldwin.

After speaking with the jurors after they were dismissed, Harkavy said he was satisfied they were not swayed by Baldwin's movie-star mystique. "I did not see any indication that this was a verdict based in emotion," he said.

The trial moved smoothly, helped by a warm friendship between the opposing attorneys, who agreed to stipulate many aspects of the case to avoid calling extra witnesses. After his acquittal, Baldwin complimented prosecutor Harkavy's skills.

Several jurors said they were won over by the defense argument that Baldwin acted in self-defense.

"I think he was just in fear of the camera being raised" to hit him, said juror Denise Fitch, 28, of Sherman Oaks. The jurors were instructed by the judge, she noted, that Baldwin didn't "have to be in actual danger--it could be perceived" danger to qualify as self-defense, she said.

Amroyan mentioned Baldwin's testimony that security experts had warned him that kidnappers might pose as photographers, saying that could plausibly have caused him to fear Zanger.

Jurors said that among other things, the fact that Zanger admittedly exaggerated accounts of the confrontation in a news interview following the blow made him untrustworthy.

"We did not find him at all a credible witness," Amroyan said.

"That, we agreed on," interjected Barbara Anaya, an MTA clerk from Sun Valley.

The jurors said they painstakingly tried to reenact the confrontation in the jury room, concluding that if Baldwin, who is right-handed, really wanted to hurt Zanger he would have struck the photographer with his right hand, not his left.

One unidentified juror held out for a guilty verdict, Amroyan said, but she was eventually swayed to acquit.

The media were an inescapable presence during the trial, with both attorneys in their arguments referring to the reporters who swarmed outside the courthouse and watched the case in the courtroom.

During the trial, Baldwin kept silent before a crush of cameras that awaited him as he left the courthouse each day, occasionally running from the packs that pursued him across the Van Nuys Civic Center.

Friday he told reporters that he hoped the verdict did not send a message that it was open season on journalists, but noted that the media horde outside the court had occasionally knocked over pedestrians.

"It seems wrong to me, that fervor," Baldwin said.

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