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Forensics key in Spector trial

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Times Staff Writer

Phil Spector’s murder defense began three months ago with a vow by attorney Linda Kenney Baden to produce an “unimpeachable witness” with “no motive to lie for or against any person.”

The witness would have “no memory problems ... no language problems,” she told the jury.

“That witness,” she said, “is called science.”

But now, with the defense case all but completed, its science experts have proved as open to attack as any other witnesses. They have been fiercely questioned about their motives, objectivity and competence. They have disclosed their pay -- $5,000 a day in one case -- and, in describing their scientific findings, illustrated the subjectivity underlying their judgments.

Spector is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Lana Clarkson at his Alhambra mansion on Feb. 3, 2003. Spector’s defense team says the 40-year-old actress, distressed by her waning career, her judgment impaired by alcohol and drug use, made a spontaneous decision to shoot herself while in his home.

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By staking their case on forensic science, Spector’s defense team has added an intriguing subplot to the first televised celebrity murder trial since the 1995 O.J. Simpson case. The defense has gathered a “dream team” of experts, two of whom have had their own television programs. In an era in which audiences are transfixed by “CSI” television shows and teenagers attend criminalist summer camps, forensic science and some of its most famous practitioners, in a sense, are also on trial.

The Spector case is unfolding against a backdrop of growing national scrutiny of forensic science. With hundreds of convictions nationwide overturned in recent years by DNA evidence, the reliability of forensic science is the subject of studies and conferences by bodies including the National Academy of Sciences and the recently formed California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

“What you don’t see” in forensic science are “the kinds of standards you see in university science. That became really obvious once we started using DNA,” said Case Western University law professor Paul C. Giannelli, an evidence specialist.

“There is a need for elevating the standard of practice,” said Bruce A. Goldberger, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a professor at the University of Florida medical school. Funding shortfalls and variations in training are among the problems hampering forensic labs, he said.

Spector’s defense has centered on an area of forensics known as bloodstain pattern analysis. His lawyers have argued that up to 18 blood spots, some less than a millimeter in diameter, that sprayed from Clarkson’s wound onto the music recording legend’s white jacket show he was standing too far from the actress to have shot her.

The fatal shot was fired with the gun barrel inside Clarkson’s mouth. Therefore, the shooter would have had to be within arm’s length of the actress when the gun went off. If Spector had fired the gun, his jacket and other clothing would have been far bloodier, defense experts say. They argue that Spector was standing as far as six feet from Clarkson.

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The prosecution’s scientists claim just the opposite: The spots prove Spector was within three feet of Clarkson, well within shooting range, they say. Lynne Herold, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department criminalist, testified that blood could fly only three feet before gravity and air resistance would break it up.

Two forensic pathologists, Vincent DiMaio and Werner Spitz, said that in their work as public medical examiners they had witnessed many cases of blood traveling farther than three feet. DiMaio is the retired medical examiner of Bexar County, Texas, and Spitz retired as the medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich.

Other defense experts have cited experiments that they said showed blood could travel farther than three feet. Stuart James, a Florida consultant, told of a study in which blood dropped onto a spinning fan blade spattered onto a sheet of paper six feet away. James Pex, a retired Oregon crime lab director, told the jury of an experiment he conducted in which spray paint traveled seven feet when dropped in front of a fan.

But the experts also conceded the limitations of blood spatter experiments. No researcher can fire a bullet into the mouth of a human to see what happens, they acknowledged. The better-known experiments include some in which a bullet was fired into a blood-soaked sponge; another, performed in Germany, involved shooting calves in the head.

Under cross-examination, two of the forensic witnesses acknowledged that the blood spatter did not conclusively prove Spector was six feet from the actress when the gun was fired, only that they believed it was the most likely interpretation.

But the jury has little more than the dueling experts’ words to go on, observers said. By contrast, when other scientists publish their findings, “any one of us who can read a study can evaluate the study,” said Michael J. Saks, an Arizona State University law professor who participated in a National Academy of Sciences conference on forensic science this year.

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“When you move over to forensic science, there is astonishingly little research to test the fundamental assumptions,” Saks said. One bloodstain expert who has not testified in the trial is Herbert MacDonell, who has a conventional academic background -- he was a college chemistry professor -- and works as an expert witness in trials. MacDonell, who originated the experiment cited by James, said he had not seen the Spector trial and did not know who testified.

But his general opinions on blood spatter evidence raise questions about the testimony of both prosecution and defense experts, and show the wide variation in opinions on the subject.

Blood can spatter as far as six feet, MacDonell said, but the drops would likely have been larger than one millimeter in diameter to travel that far, and the stains larger still.

“Generally speaking,” MacDonell said in an interview, “I would not expect to find anything very small.” The stains on Spector’s jacket vary in size, with some smaller and some larger than a millimeter.

MacDonell also said a shooter standing to the side of a victim, out of the direct path of the blood spray, would not necessarily be covered with the victim’s blood and tissue.

Saks downplayed the notion that defense experts are just “hired guns” parroting whatever they are paid to say. Forensic experts work for both prosecutors and defense lawyers, and the Spector team includes several considered eminent within their field. But the screening that takes place before experts are put on the stand can skew the presentation of the science, he said.

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“Defense lawyers interview the experts in advance. If their views are not compatible with the defense’s take, that’s the end of that expert as far as the case is concerned,” he said.

On the prosecution side, Saks said, experts who work in police crime labs “will still have a job” if their testimony does not support law enforcement, “but they may not be loved as much. They are more a part of a team. It shouldn’t be that way, but they get to know the prosecutors and become friends.”

Saks said a useful reform might be to open independent government crime labs that serve both law enforcement and defense attorneys.

Perhaps the nation’s most prominent forensic scientist, Henry Lee, had been scheduled to clear up any confusion other experts might have left in their wake.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler’s ruling that Lee had removed evidence from Spector’s home has placed the expert’s appearance in doubt. The prosecution on Wednesday began its rebuttal case, but Spector’s lawyers have until Aug. 9 to decide whether to reopen their case so Lee can testify.

Unless Lee, known as a particularly persuasive witness, makes an especially convincing showing, jurors in the Spector trial will have to contend with seemingly contradictory views from experts. Along with deciding Spector’s guilt, their verdict may also serve as a statement of the strength, or limits, of forensic science.

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USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth, who has closely followed the trial, said she did not think a conviction would do lasting damage to the reputations of the defense’s experts. But if Spector is acquitted, “the forensic testimony will have largely been responsible for creating reasonable doubt,” she said.

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peter.hong@latimes.com

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