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Celebrity Justice for All

Photo by Ted SoquiToward the end of the Robert Blake trial, I began assigning character names from movies and TV to people in Judge Darlene Schempp’s courtroom. Litigation-Tech president Ted Brooks, who ran defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbach’s multimedia presentations, became “Paul Drake,” Perry Mason’s can-do investigator played by actor William Hopper. For a while I thought of one of the trial’s two Spanish translators as “Agent Starling” because of her Jodie Foster–ish looks and intense expressions. Until, that is, the moment Agent Starling, her back to the court, suddenly reached down inside the seat of her jeans and began scratching her buttocks. (Well, hello there, Clarice!) I’d also taken to referring to one elderly spectator as “Dominick Dunne,” partly because of his navy-blue sports coat and partly because he was Dominick Dunne. The Vanity Fair writer’s appearance was a sure sign the trial was finally winding down. Another indication was the invasion of local television newspeople who began showing up during breaks between “storm watch” duties and delays in the Michael Jackson case. For a time last week, in fact, reporters became kids at a cineplex as they’d break from the Blake case to hop to another room to watch the Mel Gibson stalking trial. Another person to return to Judge Schempp’s room was the irrepressible John Solari, Blake’s erstwhile housemate and tough-guy raconteur, who’d been a daily visitor until Schwartzbach had him bounced by telling Schempp he was a potential witness. But with both sides having rested their cases, Solari was back last Wednesday to hear the closing arguments. Shortly before they began, Blake walked past Solari in the corridor on his way into the courtroom. “You’re a lying, two-faced punk!” Solari called out to Blake, who never acknowledges Solari’s presence. Their baffling relationship is one more aspect of this story best imagined in terms of stage or screen — think of Solari as a Bronx-accented Kent to Blake’s King Lear in a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. (Or, perhaps, by David Lynch, who directed both in Lost Highway.) Schwartzbach himself was on camera, delivering a three-day closing defense of Blake. Solari, however, wouldn’t witness the trial’s final moments — he was in Hollywood taping his cable-access TV show, The Method Actor Speaks. Closing arguments, which are not to be considered evidence by a jury, are where the rhetoric flies. The seats that remained empty for months of often-plodding testimony suddenly filled with national media and pensioners in sneakers lugging their belongings in large plastic bags. One of the court stenographers wore three strands of pearls for the first day, and prosecutor Shellie Samuels, who sometimes plays with her hair when Schwartzbach speaks, tied it up in a no-nonsense bun. Schwartzbach and Samuels both relied on their performance skills and powers as scenarists to create narratives that would either clear or condemn Blake, who is accused of shooting dead his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, in 2001, after treating her to dinner at Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City. Samuels, besides taking far less time than Schwartzbach, was also more emotional in her soaring recitative of Blake’s suspicious behavior. She began building a solid timeline pointing to Blake’s guilt both in killing Bakley and in earlier soliciting Gary McLarty and Duffy Hambleton to do the job, but veered off into ad hominem blasts against defense witnesses and never really got back on track. It began when she discussed Cole McLarty, who’d testified about the cocaine-induced hallucinations of his father, Gary, who is one of two stuntmen Blake allegedly tried to hire to kill Bakley. “Cole McLarty,” she sneered, “gets an award in this case as a despicable liar who testified against his father. God save us [from] a son like that!” It’s one thing to ventriloquize society’s outrage against a crime and to attack a defendant, yet it’s another to vitriolically slam witnesses who have been subpoenaed by the defense to testify — even if, as Samuels would point out whenever she could, they’d sold their stories to the tabloids. I couldn’t gauge the effect of Samuels’ metallic tirade on jurors (my assigned chair was the equivalent of a left-field foul-pole seat), but my hunch is that it may have put a few off. Schwartzbach spent the entire time of Samuels’ closing rebuttal, during which she ridiculed his defense, with his back to her. Blake’s Marin County lawyer, on the other hand, tried to channel two kinds of attorney archetypes — the folksy hometown lawyer and the worldly outsider, essentially combining Atticus Finch with Paul Biegler, the attorney played by Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder. Schwartzbach’s problem was his low-volume husk of a voice, which had even some jurors leaning forward, though he stood directly in front of them. He also seemed incapable of constructing any kind of counternarrative to explain Blake’s actions — actions that seemed to belong to a man hell-bent on hiring people to kill his wife. Instead, Schwartzbach promoted the idea that none of Samuels’ portraiture of Blake as murderer made any sense — the murder gun was so old, according to Schwartzbach, as were the two stuntmen Blake allegedly tried to hire as shooters, and Blake’s outlandishly painted cars, with their vanity plates (SAYZWHO, read one) were too conspicuous to belong to anyone serious about committing murder. Robert Blake ordered the chicken cacciatore special for lunch on the first day of arguments. The courthouse’s basement cafeteria isn’t exactly Vitello’s, but the chow-line server was attentive enough to ask what kind of meat Blake preferred. “Dark, if ya got it,” said Blake, who faces a life sentence if found guilty. Blake was the biggest name in the cafeteria that afternoon, but only because Mel Gibson was not dining there. So much of the trial’s shadow transcript — the unspoken, insinuated testimony that is stored in the room’s collective unconscious — is about how dim Blake’s star has become late in life. Besides the unclaimed media seats in Judge Schempp’s court and the second billing Blake’s case receives next to the Michael Jackson trial, there had been frequent testimony that Bonny Lee Bakley originally preferred to entrap Marlon Brando’s son, Christian, into marriage and settled on Blake only after a paternity test proved him to be the father of her unborn daughter. The scenes from Blake’s home life that were shown to the court — his Mata Hari “ranch” and its ad hoc architectural embellishments, its Western furniture — made Blake look like a down-market Norma Desmond. “The defendant lived in a movie kind of world,” rubbed in Samuels, then added that his murder plan went awry because he wasn’t a good enough actor to remain in character after the shooting. The trial reminds us that, in a country that denies the existence of class prejudice, status and pecking orders are everything, especially in Hollywood. Even the PowerPoint montage of tabloid front pages dealing with the murder seemed to put Blake in his place with their other headlines about brighter stars: Is Tom Gay? . . . Hillary’s Divorce Demands . . . Sharon Stone’s Marriage Crisis. As the trial wound down, the smart money seemed to be on Blake either walking or, at worst, getting a hung jury. The prosecution, admittedly working at a disadvantage in a circumstantial-evidence case, had not put a gun in Blake’s hand, and the lives of its two stuntmen witnesses were shown to have been marinated with perception-altering drugs. Still, what are the odds that three men (McLarty, Hambleton and ex–New Jersey mob figure Frank Minucci) would all claim Blake had begged them to kill the wife for whom he expressed such hatred — and, lo and behold, she ends up dead? And what, after all, are the chances that Blake would leave Bakley alone in his car while he supposedly retrieved a gun he’d left behind in Vitello’s and, in his three- to five-minute absence, she would be murdered on a middle-class, residential street? By the time the jury got their instructions, even Blake believer John Solari was doubtful. “Could be acquittal on murder and guilty on solicitation,” the method actor spoke. Then Solari added, “Maybe he’ll have a victory dinner at Vitello’s.”


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