The late Anna Nicole Smith: whodunnit?

Three years after former Playboy model's death in a hotel room, three of her closest associates are in the dock
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The Independent Online

The questions facing the jury at Los Angeles Superior Court read like the set-up to a particularly macabre game of Cluedo. Was it Lawyer Stern, in the bedroom, with an overloaded syringe? Or Dr Kapoor, in the surgery, with a dodgy prescription? Was shrink Eroshevich to blame, for giving out painkillers like sweets? Or should Anna Nicole Smith be held responsible for her own demise?

The trial of three former associates accused of illegally supplying the former Playboy model and reality TV star with highly addictive prescription drugs got under way on Thursday, three years after she choked to death on her own vomit in a squalid Florida hotel room. Prosecutors hold the defendants jointly responsible for "repeatedly and excessively" supplying her with dangerous medications.

Adding to the tawdry nature of the case is the fact that all of the accused – Smith's former lawyer and boyfriend Howard Stern, her doctor, Sandeep Kapoor, and a female psychiatrist, Khristine Eroshevich – are also believed to have had sexual relationships with their wealthy client, who was 39 years old when she died.

Coroners found 11 different substances in Smith's bloodstream, some from empty pill bottles and others from dirty syringes found on the floor near the bed. Several of the medications had been prescribed not to her, but to the defendants. Police photos of the death scene have been leaked on the internet.

The opening days of the case saw testimony from police detective Katherine Frank, who said she found a duffel bag containing more than $8,000 (£5,000) in cash and a sobbing Mr Stern, who "was visibly shaken with reddened eyes, tears and trembling", in the room at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel where Smith died.

The court also heard Smith's former bodyguard, Maurice Brighthaupt, tell how she used to swig from a bottle of chloryl hydrate, a powerful sleeping drug, and how Mr Stern would pass her opiates and sedatives – up to 20 pills at a time – from a plate kept by her bed. Sometimes, she would wash them down with champagne.

Prosecutors have not charged the defendants with murder or manslaughter. Instead, they are accused of violating their professional responsibility to protect her, and with conspiring to illegally supply prescription drugs. If convicted, they face maximum sentences of five years in prison.

The choice of lesser charges marks an important distinction between this case and that of Dr Conrad Murray, the physician who will be shortly tried for involuntary manslaughter for prescribing potentially dangerous drugs to Michael Jackson prior to his death, although both cases highlight the apparent excesses of some celebrity doctors.

Smith was close to her medical staff – prosecutors may choose to show the court pictures of her naked in a bathtub with Dr Eroshevich, and canoodling in a nightclub with Dr Kapoor – and is alleged to have paid them vast sums to fake prescriptions for the drugs she was addicted to. Mr Brighthaupt said on Friday that Dr Eroshevich would regularly fly from LA to the Bahamas, where drug laws are more lax, to pick up fresh supplies.

However experts say a conviction is by no means guaranteed. "It was always going to be a complicated case to prosecute, since each of the defendants will try to blame the other for supplying the fatal drugs," said Royal Oakes, a legal analyst who covers high-profile trials for NBC. "They are also all able to point out that Smith already had a long history of addiction to painkillers. So that's probably why they chose not to go for a homicide charge."

Born Vickie Lynn Marshall, Smith shot to fame in 1994 after she married the Texan billionaire Howard Marshall, whom she met while working at a strip club. She was 26 and he was 89. When he died 14 months later, her fight for his inheritance reached the Supreme Court.

Smith's death sparked another inheritance battle over the paternity of her daughter, Dannielynn, born in 2006. Both Mr Stern and Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband, Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt, claimed to be the father. However, DNA tests showed that a photojournalist, Larry Birkhead, was the true father. He is scheduled to give evidence at the trial.