By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
The Superior Court mall in Van Nuys is a bleak concrete sprawl that attracts many lost and troubled souls. There’s Hank Fisher, an itinerant singer with a weather-beaten face and wild eyes; each weekday he connects his guitar to a car battery and snarls out tunes by Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Hank tells me he was a volunteer in Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic 1968 presidential campaign and still chokes whenever he sings Phil Ochs’ brotherhood anthem "There but for Fortune." Then there’s senior citizen Marvin Zalowitz, who, early each morning, takes white cardboard boxes with his thoughts printed on their sides and neatly pyramids them along the east concourse. "Out of sight out of mind is for HUMANOIDS ZOMBIES and FASCIST IMPERIALISM IS DEAD" reads one, while another proclaims, "The Bible is an Imperial Document."
"The word is out that I’m a crazy guy," Marvin says, "and so nobody bothers me. I’m against religion — I also stand outside synagogues."
Other mall regulars keep to themselves inside the nearby library or just sit on the concourse and stare into space. The courthouse itself is somewhat loud and shabby on the lower floors where traffic fines are paid and arraignments held. Bathroom walls are heavily graffitied, with chunks of wood battered off the doorjambs. On the eighth floor, though, the halls are hushed and spotless, and on clear, windy days the panorama of the Valley and San Gabriels is breathtaking — a view of Los Angeles as it once was, or at least, as it was supposed to be. There are quirks, though, even up here. The clock at the end of the hall is broken and, in Room 810, where the court reporter’s laptop screen defaults to a photograph of Stonehenge, the air conditioning is set too high.
This chilly room is where Robert Blake’s trial finally began December 20, three and a half years after the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, and two and a half years after Blake’s arrest. The room’s 40 open seats once wouldn’t have seemed enough to accommodate all of the media and curious public, but over the years the case has moved from tabloid front page to the landfill of our collective unconscious. Last year Dominick Dunne had expressed an interest in reserving a press seat, but hasn’t been heard from since.
"Resuming on the Blake matter" is how judge Darlene Schempp tersely begins each session of the trial. She is a grandmotherly but sober figure presiding over two wildly contrasting counsels. Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels jumps to her feet to begin her presentations and witness interrogations. She’s focused, dresses in soft neutral colors and, with Streisand-ish sass, jokes with the jury.
"They told me to get my nails done!" she cracks as she places a document onto an overhead projector and her French manicure is shown on a screen. Samuels always seems in motion, she’s loud and doesn’t linger over rhetorical phrasing. The PowerPoint presentation that accompanied her argument was splashed with the kind of lurid graphics reminiscent of political attack ads.
Samuels does not conceal her disdain for Blake nor, for that matter, his lawyer, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, who became the defendant’s fourth after Thomas Meserau Jr. quit last February. The older Mill Valley attorney could not be more different from Samuels. Bespectacled, goateed and dressed in a black suit and bow tie, with his open coat exposing a white shirt, the short Schwartzbach cuts something of a penguin-like figure. He moves and speaks deliberately, in a low voice that often rustles outside the range of microphones and spectators, sometimes moving Samuels to complain she can’t hear him. When forced to confer, the taller Samuels literally looks down on Schwartzbach, with her hands on hips or arms folded like a scolding teacher.
Samuels needed about an hour or so to tear through her opening argument early that first morning. Schwartzbach took the rest of the day and most of the following morning for his. For a moment it seemed as though he would never end his presentation — along with his claims to be ignorant of technology. (At one point he asked a witness to show him how to insert the tape of a 911 call into a boom box.) Schwartzbach’s slide show was simplistic and repetitious compared with that of Samuels, who interrupted with several objections.
For all Schwartzbach’s apparent plodding, though, his strategy was clear. While Samuels laid out to jurors what her circumstantial evidence would show over the course of the trial, Schwartzbach presented his remarks as though they were a closing argument — a summation of witnesses and evidence that had already been questioned and proven. It also became obvious that he planned to demolish the credibility of the LAPD and the two stuntmen, Gary McLarty and Duffy Hambleton, who claim Blake tried to hire them to kill Bakley, as well as to hammer on the fact that Blake’s hands showed no gunshot residue after his wife’s murder.