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Experts: Judge mishandled Smith hearing

Legal experts are criticizing a Florida judge for turning his courtroom into a circus in the hearing over the battle for Anna Nicole Smith's remains.
/ Source: TODAY

The courtroom battle over control of Anna Nicole Smith's remains made for interesting television, but the robed man holding the gavel let the hearing stray far from the relatively simple issue at hand, legal experts say.

"It's a mélange of mixed metaphors, fractured analogies, personal biography. I mean, it's riveting television at times, but at times I'm sitting there grinding my teeth saying, 'Could this really be happening in a court of law?' " said Miami defense attorney Roy Black, who appeared Thursday on TODAY.

Circuit Court Judge Larry Seidlin in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., oversaw the six-day legal saga that started with the former Playboy Playmate's sudden death Feb. 8 at the age of 39. On Thursday, at times weeping noisily, Seidlin ruled that custody of the body should go to Richard Milstein, the attorney who was appointed to represent Smith's 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn, in court.

It was a compromise decision after six days of often-bickering testimony. Smith's estranged mother, Virgie Arthur, and Howard K. Stern, her boyfriend lawyer, were battling for control of Smith's remains. Arthur wanted her buried in her native Texas, while Stern wanted her laid to rest in the Bahamas near her deceased son, Daniel Smith.

It wasn't immediately clear what Milstein would do, though Seidlin made known his preference by saying, "I want her to be buried with her son in the Bahamas. I want them to be together."

Adding to the courtroom color was the appearance on the stand of Larry Birkhead, the California photographer who claims he fathered Dannielynn, the heir-apparent to Smith's millions.

With Smith's embalmed body beginning to decompose at a county morgue and the medical examiner calling him daily, Seidlin should have been focusing on the limited legal question of whether Arthur's status as the adult next of kin trumps Stern's claim that she wanted to be buried in the Bahamas near her deceased son, Black told TODAY host Matt Lauer.

'Totally irrelevant'Instead, the flamboyant Seidlin, rumored to be coveting his own law reality TV show, let the proceedings spin out of control, Black said. Among other things, Seidlin interjected himself into testimony, talked about his daily routine and wardrobe, and chatted nostalgically about his roots in New York, where he was once a cab driver.

"Ninety or 95 percent of this hearing is totally irrelevant. We are going into murder, money, drugs and lots of sex. What does that have to do with the issue? The issue is: Where did she want to be buried?" said Black, who is probably best known for his successful defense of William Kennedy Smith on rape charges. "She buried her son in the Bahamas, she bought multiple plots there. I think it is clear she wants to be buried in the Bahamas next to her son."

NBC Chief Legal Correspondent Dan Abrams, another guest on TODAY, agreed that Seidlin was missing the point and making a mockery of the televised proceeding by allowing extraneous issues and characters to enter the picture.

"There is a fundamental legal question the judge has to decide here, and that is: Do you look at what Anna Nicole Smith wanted? Or do you look to who is the next of kin? ... Why are we going into drug use, and who had relationships with who? It doesn't make any sense," said Abrams, who is also general manager of MSNBC.

Birkhead's day in court
If anything, the hearing may be helping Birkhead in the court of public opinion. Birkhead, who is fighting in Bahamian and California courts to compel DNA paternity testing, came across well on the stand in Fort Lauderdale, even if he had no business being there, Black said.

"I have to admit, I enjoyed watching his testimony. And he's probably the most credible witness who has taken the witness stand ... but it is totally irrelevant," Black said. "He is there trying to prove that he is the father of the child, but it has nothing to do with taking control of [Smith's] body and where it should be."

Abrams likened the hearing to an episode of the popular '90s sitcom that featured the neurotic, whimsical adventures of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and fictional friends loosely fashioned after his real-life friends.

"I feel like it's an episode of Seinfeld. Like they are going to decide over Newman and Kramer, who gets Jerry's bike," Abrams said. "It's a hearing about nothing."

— John Springer, contributor for TODAY, and news reports