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.
Schwartzbach, who declined to be interviewed, may look like a straight arrow, but his methods are often unorthodox. There was the time he coaxed a convicted murderer, who was facing the death penalty, into singing "Blue Suede Shoes" before the sentencing jury; in the early 1980s he helped pioneer the battered-wife defense, winning acquittal for a woman charged with murdering her San Francisco police-officer husband.
Robert Blake isn’t the kind of person normally found on Schwartzbach’s client list, which more often than not consists of the Bay Area’s underdog poor — he once toiled for indigent clients as a member of the Bayview-Hunters Point Community Defender and would later work at the law firm headed by the late Charles Garry, the Black Panther Party attorney. Schwartzbach’s first high-profile case was the defense of Stephen Bingham, the young lawyer accused, in 1971, of smuggling into San Quentin Prison a gun that triggered an escape attempt and resulted in six deaths, including that of celebrated radical George Jackson. Bingham had fled the country but in 1984 turned himself in to stand trial and, with Schwartzbach as his lead attorney, was acquitted in 1986.
"I can only say Gerry was wonderful," Bingham says in a phone interview. "He and his co-counsel, Susan Rutberg, integrated me into the whole process, and I felt very much a part of it. He wants his clients to feel really involved."
Rutberg, now a law professor at Golden Gate University, had worked with Schwartzbach at Bayview-Hunters Point. Like Bingham, she emphasizes Schwartzbach’s ability to completely immerse himself in a case’s details.
"He examines evidence 16 different ways," she told me. "He lives and breathes the case."
Even those on the other side of the court praise him.
"I have absolute admiration for him," says Karyn Sinunu, a San Jose deputy D.A. "He’s reasonable and smart. He’s what a trial attorney should be. Some people don’t live up to their reputation, but this guy does."
Although Sinunu has not faced Schwartzbach in court, she was part of the D.A. team handling a lengthy double-homicide case that became Santa Clara county’s most expensive. It ended when Schwartzbach won the freedom of one wrongly convicted suspect, Buddy Nickerson, who’d spent 19 years in prison.
But why would a lefty lawyer with Schwartzbach’s credentials defend Blake?
"He’s not in the twilight of his career," says Bingham, now a staff attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid. "For a criminal-defense attorney to represent someone [like Blake] helps establish him as one of the premier defense attorneys in the country. What motivates many lawyers is upholding the integrity of the criminal justice system and the constitution. It’s a tough case, and Gerry thrives on the tough cases."
Both Bingham and Sinunu say Blake, who has gone through three previous lawyers, has hired a formidable defender.
"I’m glad I’m not trying the case against him," Sinunu says.
"Scooby dooby doo . . . scooby dooby doo . . . " John Solari often breaks into this Sinatraic mantra during trial recesses as he paces the hallway or stares out the big windows at the San Fernando Valley. Solari, who speaks with a New York tough-guy accent, is the sometime actor with a criminal past who made news after Bakley’s death when he revealed how he’d suggested to Blake, at whose house he was living, that Blake allow him to arrange a hit on Bakley.
"I’ll tell you one thing," Solari said about his proposed hit, "it woulda turned out different if Robert had turned to me. With my background? Italian, organized crime, 16 years in Attica?" Solari is about Blake’s age and his mane of sandy hair and boxer’s nose give him a somewhat leonine appearance. He has been attending every preliminary hearing and trial date, traveling to court by bus.
"If Mesereau was Robert’s lawyer this thing would’ve been over with by now," Solari told me. "But Robert’s running everything — he’s a control freak."
Blake, who is under house arrest on $1.5 million bail, sits attentively but stonefaced in court, dressed in a dark suit. Hank Fisher, the mall singer, says sometimes Blake will slip away from his legal entourage for a smoke outside the courthouse — the two have a running joke that goes back to the time Fisher loaned Blake his cigarette lighter.
Samuels’ first witness was Sean Stanek, the man whom Blake begged to call 911 after, Blake told him, he found Bakley bleeding in his car from a mugging. The 40-ish, goateed Stanek, a low-budget film director and production manager, no doubt reminded many in the audience of themselves — or how they might have responded on the night of May 4, 2001, when Bakley was shot after she and Blake left Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City. Most empathetically followed Stanek’s story of Good Samaritan instincts tempered by a feeling that the crisis was being dumped in his lap by Blake — who’d appeared on his doorstep shouting and ringing the doorbell, but who quickly took off for Vitello’s, two doors away, instead of waiting by his wife’s side.
Stanek shed the trial’s first light on the crime scene. When Stanek first looks at Bakley from the driver’s window of Blake’s car, she merely appears to be slumped back a bit. Then, when Stanek moves to the passenger’s side, he’s shocked to discover her true state: "There was tons of blood," he recalled. The playback of 911 tapes revealed a confusing soundtrack of emergency personnel calmly talking to an agitated Stanek on the phone while Blake yells in the background to the accompaniment of a barking dog — at which Stanek shouts "Get out!"
Some in the court, though, snickered at any mention of Stanek’s discomfort about the situation he found himself in. To them he was a guy sitting around a rented house he shared with roommates and who, when he’s asked to assist an injured woman, is soon haunted by Hamlet-like doubts — in his bathrobe, no less. (At first, Stanek said, he thought Blake had beaten up his wife.) Worse, Stanek later begged a detective to search his living room, suddenly believing Blake may have planted a gun in it. When he described why he gingerly crept up to the car and its motionless occupant, his explanation seemed cloying with sensitivity:
"I wanted to present myself as a stranger who was not dangerous."
This last statement and others like it had reporters continually shooting get-a-load-of-Alan-Alda glances to one another.
Stanek, who has also worked as an actor, put on an animated performance that first day of testimony, reliving those fateful moments by imitating Blake’s voice (at one point yelling at the top of his lungs) and cutting off Samuels and Schwartzbach to make personal observations. When Schwartzbach asked him to clarify what he meant when he said Blake was "acting a certain way," Stanek replied, "Well, [the way] you’re acting like a lawyer right now." Eventually, Schwartzbach dryly asked Stanek to allow him to finish asking his questions before answering, because "the reporter can only take down one of us at a time."
Afterwards Solari said he thought Stanek had been rehearsing his testimony.
"He’ll be on Larry King tonight," he said dismissively.
Scooby dooby doo . . .