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Murder in the Air 

Robert Blake’s speed demons

Thursday, Feb 24 2005
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“Here come the hillbillies,” sighed a court spectator last week during Robert Blake’s murder trial. His remark was occasioned by the appearance of defense witnesses Keith Seals and Donna Lorraine Sharon. Seals, 32, is a convicted drug dealer who entered the courtroom wearing a tight, silver-gray suit with all three of its buttons buttoned. If he’d ever suffered a more uncomfortable hour in his life, you’d never have known it from his fidgety demeanor. Like Seals, Ms. Sharon, a somewhat haggard 39, had also been a veteran of both the retail and consumer ends of the illicit drug trade, but was more composed on the stand. They had come to impugn the reliability of star prosecution witness Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, the movie stuntman who claims Blake solicited him in 2001 to kill his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. According to the pair, Hambleton’s Lucerne Valley ranch served as a kind of Neverland for dope fiends and warrant dodgers; more important to Blake’s case, Seals and Sharon also testified that the stuntman suffered from methamphetamine-induced paranoia and delusions. “He said,” Sharon recalled for defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbach, “there were tree people out in the desert who were dressed like sagebrushes and Joshua trees, sneaking up on his place.” Hambleton was also convinced there was a large, horned animal lurking outside his property. “One night they went out and dug a hole for it,” she said, “but they never found it.” The calm of daylight did little to subdue Duffy Hambleton’s nighttime terrors, according to Sharon. “He’d just stare out a window,” she said, “looking through binoculars for hours.” The defense’s problem was that Seals and Sharon were also part of the same desert drug demimonde as their erstwhile host Hambleton. If Seals and Sharon had fried on the same meth Duffy was hallucinating from, how could their own perceptions be trusted? Prosecutor Shellie Samuels treated the two with the visceral contempt that suburban America treats its criminal class, even the part of that class that has, like Seals and Sharon, tried to reform and sober itself into a 9-to-5 existence. The contrast between Samuels’ sneering cross-examination of the two and her collegial questioning of the respectable Vitello’s diners who’d seen Blake on the murder night was striking. And yet the lifestyles of the case’s two stuntmen, Hambleton and Gary McLarty, and the ranch rats with whom they partied and gotten high, hold an undeniable fascination for court spectators. From the halting, reluctant testimony of Seals and Sharon emerges a California far different from the one familiar to the habitués of Vitello’s. This California is a paranoid wasteland of long, dusty driveways leading to isolated ranches that raise neither crops nor livestock — compounds whose pool houses, like Hambleton’s, have been converted into meth labs and whose homey Colonial American hutches and coffee tables are stocked with bowls of speed. Their accounts provided a glimpse into the mad desert that has been mapped by playwrights like John Steppling and Tracy Letts. Looking at the unpopulated photographs of Hambleton’s well-tended ranch, we’re tempted to imagine the bawdy insanity of those weekendlong pool parties alluded to by Seals and Sharon (those midnight cannonballs off the deep end, the sunrise stream-of-consciousness hot-tub chatter) and the trembling desperation that drove the stuntman to take a shovel to sand in the middle of the night in search of the elusive horned beast. This first week of the defense’s case was not exactly trumpets and cymbals — Schwartzbach revealed no new evidence or surprises. So far, this remains Samuels’ trial. A graduate of Loyola Law School, Samuels has spent much of her roughly 20 years with the D.A.’s Office prosecuting violent gang crimes. She dotes on her jurors’ comfort and exudes a girl-next-door spunk in and out of the Van Nuys Superior Courthouse. She seems especially smitten by Hollywood hunks. “If Brad Pitt was on trial, I wouldn’t be prosecuting him!” she once joked in a court elevator. When, last week, a co-owner of Art’s Delicatessen told Schwartzbach that the restaurant’s celebrity diners have included George Clooney, Samuels interjected, “What night did you say he comes in?” Samuels, who declined to be interviewed during the trial, can also display caustic sarcasm when cross-examining defense witnesses. “You went there to clean up?” she asked Seals about his stated reason for moving into Hambleton’s meth ranch. “I tried to get off drugs,” Seals lamely replied, “but it didn’t work out that way.” Samuels’ empathy for crime victims and their families is even stronger. “She is a D.A. who conveys her own feeling to the jury,” Tarzana attorney Jonathan Kissel told me. Kissel faced Samuels in court five years ago when his client, rapper Stanley “Flesh-N-Bone” Howse, was on trial for threatening a man with an AK-47. “She expresses a great deal of emotion, but that emotion is well-founded in her extensive preparedness — many prosecutors in the Southland don’t hold a candle to her when it comes to preparing cases.” The Blake trial is easily the highest-profile case of Samuels’ long, victory-filled career. A colleague, Janet Moore, told me how such cases can be grueling, having herself prosecuted the 1993 Reginald O. Denny beating trial. “You just tell your family how much you love them,” she said, “and then apologize for all the things you are about to put them through.” Samuels works in a Los Angeles whose increasingly feminized lawscape, nevertheless, has seen the stars of such attorneys and prosecutors as Pam Bozanich, Leslie Abramson and Marcia Clark rise and fall during high-profile cases. Still, both Kissel and Moore say women prosecutors do not labor under any more disadvantages than their male counterparts. “Jurors will have confidence in prosecutors who exhibit competence,” Moore said. “The human dynamics of juries are always different, but the facts of any case remain the same. The advice I was given is, first and foremost, ‘Be yourself.’” “Your honor, the People rest.” When Samuels ended the D.A.’s case against Blake on Valentine’s Day, her voice seemed to quaver just a bit. It was a small emotional moment that Blake quickly upstaged by running from the room sobbing, a hand held over his mouth. Samuels didn’t seem fazed by the sudden shift of the court’s attention. “Shellie is rolling with the punches,” Eric Dubin, the civil-suit lawyer representing Bakley’s family, told me earlier when asked to contrast her style with Schwartzbach’s. “I think [Schwartzbach] doesn’t know how to improvise.” Dubin, whose wrongful-death suit against Blake is scheduled for July, has been in court nearly every day, drinking in the testimony and its effects on the jury. Last week he suddenly found himself getting a closer look at Schwartzbach’s courtroom style than he’d counted on, when the defense attorney called Dubin to the stand. “My wife picked out my tie,” Dubin said an hour before his appearance. “I said, ‘Which one — the red or the blue?’ She said, ‘Go with the blue, it’s more restrained.’” The blue tie would have little effect — both lawyers clashed from the moment Dubin sat down in the witness chair. Schwartzbach tried to get Dubin to admit that Bonny Lee Bakley’s kin would profit by Blake’s conviction in the present criminal trial and that, contrary to his public claims to be representing Bonny and Blake’s young child, Rosie, he has not received authorization from Rosie’s guardian, who is also Blake’s daughter. Every time Schwartzbach demanded a yes-or-no answer, Dubin would launch into a brochure description of his role in the civil suit. Ten minutes and one sidebar later, Schwartzbach finished and turned his back on Dubin, his face a rictus of grim mirth. It’s no secret that bad blood has grown between the two men. Dubin routinely critiques the case to reporters and, he says, crashed one of Schwartzbach’s early press conferences to upbraid Blake’s attorney. There was murder in the air that morning in Judge Darlene Schempp’s courtroom, but for once it had nothing to do with Robert Blake.
Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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