Closing is bizarre, brief, pure Pellicano

Times Staff Writer

The bizarre "self-defense" of private detective Anthony Pellicano -- a mixture of Perry Mason, "The Rockford Files" and Woody Allen's "Bananas" -- came to a close Wednesday with a simple message from the defendant's attorney: Pellicano says "Mr. Pellicano" is not guilty.

It was a closing argument marked with all the oddness that has permeated the spectacle of the lead defendant in a major federal wiretapping and racketeering case acting as his own attorney.

"Apparently this is the first chance I'm going to be able to speak to you on behalf of Mr. Pellicano," said Mr. Pellicano, who was ordered to use the cumbersome convention of referring to himself in the third person. "I may come off a bit fragmented."

Pellicano and his four co-defendants are variously charged with bribing police, wire fraud and wiretapping to dig up dirt on the rich and famous he was investigating, including Sylvester Stallone, Keith Carradine, Garry Shandling and developer Robert Maguire.

The case, being tried in federal court in Los Angeles, has spanned almost six years, shaken the Hollywood and legal establishments and commanded major investigative resources from the U.S. government. So why did Pellicano do it?

Not the alleged crimes. Represent himself.

It calls to mind the adage, "A man who represents himself has a fool for a client." Pellicano, who is 64, faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Maybe his decision had to do with something he told the jurors about Mr. Pellicano during the closing: "He could never ever trust any attorney. Ever."

Pellicano described himself as "a lone ranger," not the head of a criminal enterprise -- the basis for the most serious charge, racketeering, that confronts him and two of his co-defendants. "Pellicano, alone, is responsible," he said.

Clad in his usual attire of jail-issue dark green Windbreaker, slacks and white gym shoes, he looked more like a grandfatherly neighbor out to water his lawn than the ruthless, menacing and profane private detective prosecutors portrayed, in part through recordings they played in court of Pellicano's own secretly taped phone conversations.

Mr. Pellicano, Pellicano said, was just a private eye looking for information.

"I respectfully submit to you that they have not found an enterprise -- or that there was a common purpose," he said of the government's aim. "There was an investigative agency run by a guy who'd been around a long time."

And all private eyes dig up information, he said. Otherwise, "every investigative agency in the country is a criminal enterprise," he said. Glancing at the back of the courtroom, he added, "Maybe even these journalists out here -- "

"Objection," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Saunders.

As for the charges that he wiretapped on behalf of a slew of famous clients in Hollywood and around it? He barely mentioned those. What he did mention were the numerous tapes of the phone conversations he secretly recorded between himself and his clients.

"The contents of those conversations were never to be heard by anyone but Mr. Pellicano," he said, mysteriously hinting, "You may wonder why -- but you won't know without having all the information."

He may not have told jurors everything, but he did keep it short. He took only 18 minutes to sum up a nine-week trial.

"I guess I could sit up here and discuss things that the government said and go over testimony, but Mr. Pellicano instructed me not to do that," he said as courtroom observers laughed and several jurors grinned. "And you know when Mr. Pellicano instructs you to do something, you do it."

The final statements mirrored his sometimes bumbling, sometimes clever defense of himself over the long proceeding -- alternately cryptic, proud and eccentric.

Between his power walk get-up and having to address himself in the third person, he occasionally came close to looking preposterous. But mostly, he maintained a courtly posture -- well-mannered with witnesses and prosecutors; deferential to the judge to the point of obsequiousness.

Pellicano watched the proceedings expressionlessly, his head propped against a hand, rarely reacting no matter what was said about him.

He called only one witness, an FBI computer expert who did little for his defense, and decided against putting himself on the stand after discussing it with U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer. She offered to help him avoid a "Bananas"-style farce -- in which the comedian dashed back and forth from the courtroom well to the witness seat, answering his own questions.

Possibly, Fischer offered, she could have an attorney ask Pellicano's questions of Pellicano. (Oh, the existentialism of it.) But he wasn't sure.

"I went to six lawyers and got six different opinions," he told her. He decided against testifying because he feared prosecutors would ask questions about his clients. (They assured him they would.) He proudly told the judge that day -- as he had repeatedly during the trial -- that he would never talk about his clients. "It's not going to happen. Ever," he said.

Over time, he grew more aggressive and confident in his questioning. He practically argued with some of his former employees who turned against him on the stand.

In his harshest cross-examination, he reduced journalist Anita Busch to tears as he calmly but relentlessly picked through damning testimony she had just delivered about being harassed and almost run down by a car. (Prosecutors say Pellicano was behind that.) "Do you need a moment?" he asked as she reached for tissue.

But Pellicano was woefully short on some legal skills -- among them knowing what was fair game for questioning and the form questions should take. Many a turn at the podium was interrupted by a fusillade of objections.

Fischer was enormously patient (as she reminded Pellicano at one point when that patience was tried), sometimes allowing his questions, sometimes coming close to coaching him.

After a tape was played of businessman George Kalta bringing up wiretapping to Pellicano, the private eye tried to grill his former client.

"Nowhere in that conversation do I even acknowledge your remark about wiretapping," Pellicano insisted, slipping out of the third person.

"Objection. He's testifying," barked a prosecutor.

"You have to follow with, 'Isn't that true?' " the judge advised Pellicano.

"Isn't that true?" Pellicano asked.

"No," said Kalta.

And sometimes, Fischer reined Pellicano in from a TV lawyer moment.

"Did you use equipment to bug your supervisor at Conde Nast?" Pellicano demanded of former employee Wayne Reynolds.

"No," said Reynolds.

"You're under oath," Pellicano intoned.

"Mr. Pellicano, no statements. Just questions," the judge said, a tad amused.

Pellicano's overarching strategy, whatever it was, was rarely evident. By comparison, Chad Hummel, who represents former LAPD Sgt. Mark Arneson, and Adam Braun, attorney for computer expert Kevin Kachikian, worked methodically to present their clients as clueless about Pellicano's alleged "criminal enterprise."

"Mr. Arneson ran names, nothing else. No threats. No wiretapping," Hummel told the jury.

Arneson, who is accused of illegally accessing law enforcement databases to get information for Pellicano, is charged with multiple counts including racketeering.

"What happened here is Mr. Pellicano duped Mr. Kachikian," said Braun. Kachikian testified that he believed the wiretapping software he set up for Pellicano was to be sold to law enforcement agencies.

"There's not a single piece of evidence that Mr. Kachikian listened to a wiretapped conversation," Braun insisted.

Criminal defense lawyer Leslie Abramson, who represents Kalta, watched Pellicano in court four weeks ago and had the honor of being reviled by him in a taped phone conversation as someone he couldn't trust.

"He doesn't think like a lawyer," she said. "He could be objecting to a lot more. He could be limiting the evidence."

But she added, "It's a whole lot more fun than sitting in a cell."

"I've learned a lot from this trial," Pellicano told jurors. "I've learned a lot from the prosecutors. I've learned a lot from Her Honor. Learning. It's an ongoing process."

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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