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April 14 2009 5:49 PM

Jury Convicts Celebrity!

Phil Spector breaks a prosecutorial losing streak on rich and famous murderers.

Here is what a male celebrity can get away with in America:

  • pointing a gun at a woman when she says she wants to leave
  • pressing a gun barrel to a woman's face when she says she wants to leave
  • pointing a gun at a woman and saying, "If you try to leave, I'll kill you"
  • pointing a gun at a woman and saying, "Get the fuck back in the house"
  • pointing a shotgun at a woman's temple and saying, "If you leave, I'll blow your fucking head off"
  • pointing a gun at a woman while ordering her to take her clothes off
  • pointing a gun at a woman while rifling through her purse
  • waving a gun at or near a celebrity when creative differences arise (John Lennon, Dee Dee Ramone, Leonard Cohen)

Phil Spector. Click image to expand.
Phil Spector's mug shot

Here is what a male celebrity can't get away with in America: pointing a gun at a woman when she says she wants to leave and putting the barrel inside said woman's mouth and firing the gun and telling the chauffeur, "I think I killed somebody,"and not calling 911 as the woman lies dead or dying in the foyer and calling the woman "a piece of shit" afterward in the presence of a police officer.

These findings derive from the case of Phil Spector, the influential pop-music producer and songwriter, who on April 13 was found guilty of second-degree murder six long years after B-movie actress-turned-cocktail-hostess Lana Clarkson was found dead inside his "Pyrenees Castle" in Alhambra, Calif. Remarkably, Spector had never once been prosecuted for threatening with a gun the following five women: Dorothy Melvin, Melissa Grosvenor, Stephanie Jennings, Diane Ogden-Halder, or Devra Robitaille. All five testified at Spector's first trial, which ended in a hung jury, but none pressed charges at the time. (By the second trial, Ogden-Halder had died of a prescription-drug overdose.) Melvin considered pressing charges but didn't after receiving the following message from Spector on her answering machine:

Sorry I'm late calling, chief, but I had some trouble with my nipple ring. Um, don't worry about the competition. Let the competition worry about you. All right, I cannot be replaced by a machine, unless it learns to uh, drink, fuck, [inaudible], right. Okay, keep smiling Dorothy, uh, but not so much that you begin to wonder if you're mentally fucking unbalanced. And I expect a return call, but be very careful of what you say to me, because nothing you say to me is worth your life. Goodbye, Dorothy!

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Within the music business, Spector's penchant for playing with guns during studio sessions was regarded as more outré than criminal, a (barely) tolerable eccentricity in a genius justly celebrated for inventing rock's reverberant "Wall of Sound." Though some (Paul McCartney included) believe that killing Clarkson was Spector's second murder, the first being his bombastic post-production work on the Beatles' last-released album, Let It Be.

In an April 14 news story, Harriet Ryan of the Los Angeles Times writes that Spector was "not a current A-lister," words that may wound Spector more deeply than "We find the defendant guilty." But celebrities who go on trial for murder seldom are. O.J. Simpson was a onetime sports star reduced to slapstick bit player in the Naked Gun movies. Robert Blake was a onetime child actor whose career had peaked three decades earlier with his starring role in the TV series Baretta ("… and you can take dat to da bank"). The Spector verdict would therefore appear to be a watershed. Queried by the L.A. Times' Ryan, a spokeswoman for the L.A. district attorney's office said she couldn't name another celebrity convicted of murder during the previous 40 years. Blake: acquitted. Simpson: acquitted.

French chanteuse Claudine Longet, who in 1976 shot and killed her lover, Olympic skier Spider Sabich, in what she claimed was an accident (thereby inspiring a classic Saturday Night Live skit), paid $250 and served a mere 30 days for misdemeanor negligent homicide. Two decades earlier, Ann Eden, a minor-league radio actress who in 1955 shot (twice!) and killed her husband Billy Woodward, claiming she mistook him for a burglar, avoided indictment altogether. Silent screen comedienne Mabel Normand was never prosecuted for the 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, but she probably didn't do it. Silent screen comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was tried three times for manslaughter, and eventually acquitted, in connection with the 1921 death of comely young starlet Virginia Rappe, but he was pretty obviously innocent.

I may be missing someone, but I think the last celebrity to take an honest-to-God murder rap may have been John Wilkes Booth  (and even he never had  his day in court). Readers are invited to submit examples postdating 1865 that I may have overlooked. Send e-mails to chatterbox@slate.com. Please exclude famous mobsters, terrorists, and assassins; anyone who became a celebrity as a result of murdering someone; socialites, who aren't quite the same thing as celebrities; children of celebrities (e.g., Cheryl Crane); and celebrities who were themselves murdered (Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, too many gangsta rappers to name).

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.