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 Schempps courtroom. Litigation-Tech president Ted Brooks, who ran defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbachs multimedia presentations, became Paul Drake, Perry Masons can-do investigator played by actor William Hopper. For a while I thought of one of the trials two Spanish translators as Agent Starling because of her Jodie Fosterish 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!) Id 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 writers 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 theyd break from the Blake case to hop to another room to watch the Mel Gibson stalking trial. Another person to return to Judge Schempps room was the irrepressible John Solari, Blakes erstwhile housemate and tough-guy raconteur, whod 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. Youre a lying, two-faced punk! Solari called out to Blake, who never acknowledges Solaris 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 Blakes 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, wouldnt witness the trials 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 Vitellos restaurant in Studio City. Samuels, besides taking far less time than Schwartzbach, was also more emotional in her soaring recitative of Blakes suspicious behavior. She began building a solid timeline pointing to Blakes 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, whod 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! Its one thing to ventriloquize societys outrage against a crime and to attack a defendant, yet its another to vitriolically slam witnesses who have been subpoenaed by the defense to testify even if, as Samuels would point out whenever she could, theyd sold their stories to the tabloids. I couldnt 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. Blakes 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. Schwartzbachs 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 Blakes 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 Blakes 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 courthouses basement cafeteria isnt exactly Vitellos, 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 trials shadow transcript the unspoken, insinuated testimony that is stored in the rooms collective unconscious is about how dim Blakes star has become late in life. Besides the unclaimed media seats in Judge Schempps court and the second billing Blakes case receives next to the Michael Jackson trial, there had been frequent testimony that Bonny Lee Bakley originally preferred to entrap Marlon Brandos 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 Blakes 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 wasnt 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? . . . Hillarys Divorce Demands . . . Sharon Stones 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 Blakes 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 exNew 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 hed left behind in Vitellos 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 hell have a victory dinner at Vitellos.
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