Defense expert says Clarkson had ‘self-destructive’ traits

Times Staff Writer

A defense expert in the Phil Spector murder trial spent a second day Wednesday arguing that Lana Clarkson shot herself in the famous music producer’s Alhambra home on Feb. 3, 2003.

Referring to the same evidence -- bloodstains, bruises, gunshot residue and personal information about Clarkson -- that prosecution experts said pointed to murder, Vincent DiMaio said the death of the 40-year-old actress was more likely a suicide.

“The objective evidence is most consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” he said. DiMaio, the former medical examiner of Bexar County, Texas, which includes San Antonio, is now a prominent expert witness.

Earlier in the trial, Louis Pena, a Los Angeles County medical examiner, said Clarkson did not appear to be addicted to drugs or alcohol and had not been diagnosed with depression. Pena said he saw Clarkson’s e-mails to friends, complaining of financial problems and a faltering acting career, as combining frustration with optimism and plans to move forward.


Looking at the same e-mails, DiMaio testified that “she was afraid, she had financial problems.... She had some self-destructive characteristics with drugs and alcohol.”

“She had depression,” he said. “Virtually all people who commit suicide are depressed.”

DiMaio rejected Pena’s finding that Clarkson’s tongue was bruised when struck by the barrel of the snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver used in the slaying, possibly in a struggle.

“No, it’s not possible,” DiMaio flatly stated. He said the tongue is basically a muscle and requires great force to be bruised -- more than could be generated by the end of a barrel placed into the mouth. The bruise, he said, came from the violent explosion of gases in Clarkson’s mouth when the fatal shot went off.

Stepping from the witness stand, DiMaio displayed a rubber model of the tongue to the jury and said the gas pressure slammed Clarkson’s tongue against hard edges of her mouth, causing the bruises.

He likened the force to “setting off a cherry bomb in the mouth.” A day before, he had said it was like “dropping an SUV” into the mouth.

DiMaio also held a clear plastic model of a head before jurors and inserted a black rod into the mouth to show the bullet’s trajectory. Clarkson’s sister and mother left the courtroom during the graphic descriptions and simulations.

Prosecutor Alan Jackson’s cross-examination of DiMaio was heated, with the men trading occasional mild insults. Jackson challenged DiMaio’s earlier testimony that women most commonly commit suicide with guns.

Jackson said federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that white women in Clarkson’s age group more often poison themselves.

“You haven’t talked to the CDC; I have,” DiMaio told Jackson, and said 40% of death certificates used by the CDC contain errors.

Several times the prosecutor questioned whether DiMaio was acting more as an advocate than a scientist. Prodded by Jackson, DiMaio said Spector was paying him $400 an hour.

The prosecutor questioned DiMaio sharply about his testimony that gunshot residue on Clarkson’s hand was “consistent with” her firing the gun.

The residue, Jackson said, could also show that her hand was near the gun when it was fired. He then noted that there was gunshot residue on Spector’s hands as well.

“Is that also consistent with him firing the gun?” Jackson asked.

“Sure, you can argue it that way,” DiMaio answered.

“You didn’t tell the jury that,” Jackson said.

DiMaio drew a deep breath, then sighed loudly.

“No,” he said.

The cross-examination will continue today.