Two years after the death of music producer and convicted killer Phil Spector, a controversial bid to clear his name is understood to be under way.
Widely lauded as a musical genius for his work with the likes of The Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner and The Beatles, Spector spent his final years in prison after he was found guilty of murdering actress Lana Clarkson.
The 40-year-old was shot dead at Spector’s sprawling California mansion, known as the Pyrenees Castle, in February 2003, in an incident that sent shockwaves through Hollywood and beyond.
Spector – who died in prison aged 81 after contracting COVID – always maintained his innocence, claiming Clarkson had “kissed the gun” and shot herself at his property.
It is a version of events that the producer’s daughter still believes to be true, according to the directors of a new Sky documentary.
The four-part series delves into the lives of Spector and Clarkson and examines the notorious murder at his home.
Nicole Spector agreed to be interviewed for the programme, in which she claims her father was “easy prey” for prosecutors, and that evidence heard at his trial made it “immediately clear that he couldn’t have pulled the trigger”.
“She feels very strongly that Lana took her own life and she believes the forensic evidence supports that,” director Sheena Joyce tells Sky News.
“I don’t know that she will ever change her mind on that.”
Nicole remains “angry” and “devastated” that her father spent more than a decade behind bars for a crime she believes he didn’t commit, says Joyce.
And Spector’s daughter is “trying to get the Innocence Project (which works to clear people wrongly convicted of crimes) to get behind the case and exonerate her father”, according to the documentary maker.
Revisiting the evidence
During Spector’s first trial – which ended with a hung jury – and his subsequent retrial, when he was convicted of murder, defence lawyers had argued that there was “no physical evidence” that Spector pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Clarkson.
“There were no fingerprints found (on the gun). There was no DNA on the gun. He had no gunshot residue on him,” Spector’s trial lawyer Linda Kenney Baden tells the documentary. She also highlights the apparent lack of blood on the white jacket that Spector was wearing on the night of Clarkson’s death.
Don Argott, who directed the documentary with Joyce, says the pair “kept an open mind” about Spector’s conviction as they pored over transcripts, documents and video evidence shown at his trial.
But both filmmakers believe the jury’s verdict was correct at Spector’s retrial.
“I think it’s ludicrous to think (Lana Clarkson) walked into a stranger’s house, rooted around in (Spector’s) things, found a gun and shot herself in the face,” says Joyce.
“We did look at the forensic evidence and it does not exonerate Phil Spector.
“(Nicole’s) going to hold on what she needs to hold on to.
“For us, it’s very clear that Phil Spector did it.”
“I can’t change Nicole’s mind,” Argott adds.
“She has her truth and that is the thing she holds on to. It’s not for me to say it’s wrong or take away from it.
“I do think she does have a hard time reconciling the beautiful man her father was to her… with the portrayal of him as a murderer. She can’t get there.
“She is holding on to elements in the investigation that she thinks are the smoking gun that exonerate her father, and that’s where she’s at.”
The Innocence Project said it could not comment on whether it was involved in an attempt to exonerate Spector, while his daughter Nicole also declined to comment when approached by Sky News.
‘B-movie actress’ label
As well as exploring the murder itself, the documentary looks at the media coverage at the time of Clarkson’s death which repeatedly referred to her as a “B-movie actress”.
She had a string of film and television credits, appearing in cult 1980s movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High and opposite David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider.
When she met Spector for the first time on the night she was killed, Clarkson was working as a hostess at the House of Blues club on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip.
Joyce says the description of Clarkson as a “B-movie actress” was “shorthand for disposable”.
“Putting a moniker like ‘B-movie actress’ before her name somehow suggests she was desperate, she had it coming, she was asking for it,” the director says.
“It’s a very quick way to paint a narrative about someone.
“It was important for us to make sure that Lana was not just a footnote in the Phil Spector story.
“We wanted her to be a fully fleshed out character.”
Clarkson’s mother Donna is interviewed in the documentary but Joyce admits she had “quite a few reservations” about taking part.
“It’s hard sometimes for people to see the upside of participating in something like this,” she says.
“They’re talking about the most painful thing that has happened to them.
“And they’re setting themselves up for disappointment and ridicule. It’s ripping open old wounds.
“It was important for us that she understood that we really wanted to flesh (Lana) out as a real character and not a footnote in the Phil Spector story.
“It took some convincing but eventually she trusted us and I do feel we did right by her.”
How Phil Spector was convicted of Lana Clarkson’s murder
- Phil Spector met a friend for dinner in Los Angeles on the evening of 2 February 2003 where multiple witnesses reported he was drinking heavily.
- Later that evening, he took a waitress to the House of Blues on LA’s Sunset Strip where he was introduced to actress Lana Clarkson, who was working as a hostess at the venue.
- Spector invited Clarkson to his mansion in Alhambra, California, and the pair were driven there by his driver Adriano De Souza.
- In the early hours of 3 February 2003, Mr De Souza said he heard a noise from inside Spector’s property and the producer opened the door with a gun in his hand and said: ‘I think I killed somebody.’
- Police officers arrived and found Ms Clarkson’s dead body slumped in a chair with a single gunshot wound to her mouth.
- Spector was arrested and initially told police ‘the gun went off accidentally’, before later saying Ms Clarkson had killed herself.
- Spector’s televised trial began in March 2007 but the jury failed to agree a unanimous verdict.
- A retrial – which was not televised – began in October 2008 which resulted in Spector being convicted of murder. He was jailed in May 2009 for at least 19 years.
‘Musical genius’ who committed ‘heinous crime’
Some of the media coverage around Spector’s death was criticised at the time, with the BBC apologising for a headline which described the convicted killer as “talented but flawed”.
Joyce says “a lot of people are probably upset with us that we acknowledge his musical genius” in the documentary.
“He was a murderer, he did a heinous crime. He abused women for decades. That is absolutely true,” the director says.
“He was also a musical genius. One does not negate the other, but you can’t really reconcile the two.”
Spector was just 17 years old when he had a top 10 hit in the US, performing with the Teddy Bears on their song To Know Him Is To Love Him.
However he was best known for his role as a producer, working with some of the biggest stars in music and creating his “wall of sound” recording technique, with its dense, layered effect.
A millionaire by the time he was 21, Spector produced hits for the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Cher, Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles, producing the band’s final album Let It Be. He also worked with John Lennon on Imagine.
The 1965 song You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, which Spector co-wrote, is listed as the record with the most US airplay in the 20th century.
Asked whether it’s possible to listen to Spector’s music now without thinking of his murder, Joyce says: “It’s a hard question – how do you separate the art from the artist?
“Can you separate the art from the artist? It’s not a question we have a clear answer for. Everyone’s line is different.
“I think it’s easier for people to still listen to the music of Phil Spector because he wasn’t the singer – he was the man behind the scenes.
“I can’t imagine Christmas without his Christmas album.
“That being said, while he was a genius music producer, he abused women and murdered someone and you can’t separate that.
“There’s no clear answer and I think everyone has their own line.
“Do we not watch Harvey Weinstein-produced films because of the monster he is? Everyone’s line is going to be a different.”
Spector is available to watch on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW.