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
In the end it all came down to 17 minutes.
Forget about the gunshot residue, the mystery Luger shell and calling-card records. After three months of testimony and deliberation, Robert Blake’s jurors needed, above everything else, to decide how Blake had spent the moments between the time a Vitello’s waitress rang up his credit card at 9:23 p.m., May 4, 2001, and 9:40 p.m., when a 911 call summoned help for Blake’s dying wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Did Blake, as he told police, leave Bakley alone in his car nearly two blocks away to retrieve a gun he’d left at the Studio City restaurant, only to return and find her mortally wounded by an unknown assailant? Or did he pump two bullets into her and then audition for the role of his life — that of a murderer pleading his innocence?
After eight days the jury decided it knew where Blake had been — exactly where he’d claimed he’d been. Their verdicts on first-degree murder and solicitation charges declared that Blake, who during his brief marriage to Bakley had told his friends how much he hated her, was merely an absent-minded husband who’d returned with his gun from Vitello’s to find his wife dying. They discounted the testimony of two movie stuntmen, Gary McLarty and Duffy Hambleton, who claimed he had tried to hire them as hit men to grant him an Italian divorce. They also believed that, instead, by the most amazing of coincidences, an unknown assassin had come along while Blake was away to answer his prayers.
The not-guilty verdict on the murder count hit Blake like a body blow as it was read in court: He bit his lip, embraced defense lawyer M. Gerald Schwartzbach and then wept uncontrollably as the decisions on the two solicitation counts — not guilty on one, an 11-1 deadlock in favor of acquittal on the second — were then announced. At one point he crumpled forward onto the defense table and seemed about to fall to the floor until one of the sheriff’s deputies, who, moments before had been ready to take him into custody, helped steady him.
Later, the jurors told the media outside the courthouse that the two stuntmen had not been credible and that the prosecution’s circumstantial evidence was not strong enough to convict Blake. As for those missing moments in Blake’s life, they had decided to take Blake at his word.
The Blake case was hardly the strangest or bloodiest crime in recent memory, but its trial had to be the funniest. For my money it certainly had more laughs per witness than, say, the Cotton Club or Wonderland murder trials, and definitely more than the grim dog-mauling trial that followed Diane Whipple’s death, which was moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Everyone commented on the frequent screwball banter between Deputy D.A. Shellie Samuels and defense attorney Schwartzbach — in between the times the two weren’t bickering before Judge Darlene Schempp.
At the same time, it was also the most tedious trial for many, thanks to Schwartzbach’s merciless hammering home of the lack of gunshot residue found on Blake’s hands and his relentlessly boring recitation of Blake’s financial records, which was intended to discount the prosecution’s theory that the actor had withdrawn large amounts of cash to pay for a hit man. Yet Schwartzbach wasn’t in court to entertain spectators or befriend the media — he had been hired to save a man’s freedom, and he diligently saw to it that the jury heard every shred of information favorable to his client over and over again. It was a strategy learned over long years of defending indigent and seemingly doomed clients in the Bay Area, where Schwartzbach had earned a reputation as a lefty lawyer who shunned theatrics in favor of thorough research and meticulous presentation.
During a break in Schwartzbach’s three days of closing arguments to the jury, Deputy D.A. Samuels stepped over to some reporters sitting in the back of the courtroom.
"Is he getting through to them?" she asked, a worried look on her face. "Be honest with me — is he making sense?"
Her answer came nearly two weeks later. When it did, Blake seemed as stunned as anyone else in Room 810. He just sat there crying, clutching Gerry Schwartzbach’s curly hair. Two years ago Blake entered the Van Nuys courthouse a county prisoner during his case’s preliminary-hearing phase. With his dyed-black pompadour he looked like a superannuated teenager. On Wednesday he left the court free but looking like the white-haired old man he really is. The Baretta star still faces a July civil suit filed by Bakley’s family. During a press conference after the trial, Blake did not say if he would now offer a reward for his wife’s real killer.