Photo by Ted Soqui

During a break in defense attorney Gerry Schwartzbach’s three-day closing arguments to the Robert Blake–trial jury, Deputy D.A. Shellie Samuels stepped over to some reporters sitting in the back of the courtroom.

“Is he getting through to them?” the prosecutor asked, worry engraved on her face. “Be honest with me — is he making sense?”

Her answer came two weeks later, when the jury almost scornfully rejected the first-degree murder charge and one solicitation-to-commit-murder count filed against Blake, while deadlocking 11-1 in favor of acquittal on a second solicitation count — which Judge Darlene Schempp then dismissed. The jurors’ eight-plus days of deliberation were a deceptively Socratic exercise, for their post-verdict interviews now make clear that they were ready to acquit Blake almost from the moment Samuels sat down after finishing the prosecution’s case.

Throughout the nearly three-month trial, Samuels had been the aggressive people’s counsel, a voice of Old Testament outrage who acidly belittled defense witnesses even while acknowledging that Blake’s alleged victim, wife Bonny Lee Bakley, was no angel. Schwartzbach, by contrast, was the soft-spoken professor of doubt who subjected the courtroom to marathon sessions of repetitive testimony about gunshot residue and the possible effects of drug abuse on the perceptions of two key prosecution witnesses, movie stuntmen Gary McLarty and Duffy Hambleton. Schwartzbach diverted the trial into some excruciatingly tedious stretches — I became so bored during his questioning of Blake’s private investigator, William Jordan, that I dialed Jordan’s cell-phone number just to see if I could get his phone to ring while he sat in the witness chair.

Both lawyers played to the jury by profusely thanking them for merely showing up, and both pointedly declined to greet potentially damaging witnesses before questioning them. The defense lawyer, however, revealed an edge: Schwartzbach, in the trial’s early weeks at least, made sure he and Blake courteously stood and faced the jurors as they entered the courtroom. He also pronounced the three-letter-designated exhibits differently from Samuels — a tiny matter, except when, once, he referred to “Exhibit Triple K,” while Samuels called it “Exhibit KKK,” drawing a gasp from the part of the jury box where a black juror sat.

And yet the personality clashes of the two counsels produced an almost uninterrupted source of comedy as they traded quips, barbs and puns in court. Once, when the poker-faced Collin Yamauchi, of the LAPD’s Scientific Investigation Division, testified about gunshot residue, Samuels tried to nudge him toward suggesting that Blake may have wiped some of it off his hands and onto his clothing while urinating in police custody.

Samuels: I’m not a man, but don’t you have to open your pants to go to the bathroom?

Yamauchi (deadpan): If you want to do it correctly.

Schwartzbach: I’ll stipulate to that.

In the end, it all came down to explaining the 17 minutes that elapsed between the moment a Vitello’s waitress rang up Blake’s credit card, at 9:23 p.m., May 4, 2001, and 9:40 p.m., when a 911 call summoned help for his dying wife. Did Blake, as he claimed, 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? The jury believed Blake, a man who’d apparently told half the San Fernando Valley how much he hated Bakley while, according to the prosecution, he tried to hire the other half to kill her.

Beyond providing these bare choices, however, the Blake trial also offered a Rockford Files glimpse of Southern California life as it is lived by a faded actor who surrounded himself with an aging ensemble of drug-addled stuntmen and dubious ex-cops — none of whom went to the police upon hearing of Bakley’s murder. The mere geography of testimony pointed to a hidden, morally dusty world in which men who never grew up to be cowboys became suburban ranchers instead. Modern California lore is filled with stories of ranches and communes with names like Morningstar, Spahn and Neverland — off-the-beaten-path spreads and shrines to make-believe where anything goes. In the Blake trial, jurors heard Karen McLarty, the stuntman’s wife, claim that she had been estranged from Gary for half of their 33-year marriage and that she, Gary and their son all lived in separate homes on the family’s 200-acre spread off Foothill Boulevard in Sylmar. In San Bernardino County, Blake’s other stuntman accuser, Duffy Hambleton, ruled as a kind of meth-rodeo honcho on a ranch that served as a hideaway and crash pad for drug dealers and local party girls.

Did this gated, dirt-driveway New West repel or appeal to jurors? Were they inclined to cut Blake and his cronies lifestyle slack while disbelieving his erstwhile acquaintances? At one point, Karen McLarty, who claimed never to have used cocaine, tried to explain to Samuels why she didn’t blow the whistle on her husband, whom she’d met when she was 15, knowing he was performing stunt work loaded.

“I don’t know how to put this,” she said, “but cocaine is used by a lot of people who work in Hollywood and isn’t looked down upon as something necessarily dangerous.” For once Samuels did not beat the answer with her zero-tolerance hammer, an undoubtedly wise decision.

There is, in most trials, a vicarious spectator hope that the accused will be found innocent — call it sympathy for the fox over the hounds, a need to believe in the goodness of people or an empathetic projection of seeing ourselves unjustly accused by society. Yet there was another sort of identification in the Blake trial that was more troubling. Nearly every man I casually spoke to about the trial said he hoped Blake would beat the rap, even if he were guilty. They mostly pointed to Bakley’s role as a grifter who’d played with fire, and cast Blake’s action as a kind of honor killing. In July, Blake, who is pleading poverty, will try to repeat his luck with a civil jury as he fights a wrongful-death suit filed by Bakley’s family.

After the verdicts were announced, the Blake circus maximus finally wound down outside the courthouse. Shellie Samuels was nowhere to be seen and left it to D.A. spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons to issue her office’s terse concession speech. Schwartzbach, however, broke his long media silence to offer his giddy assessment of the trial and issue a list of grateful acknowledgments. Blake then vented a rambling, often belligerent statement in which he denounced past associates as liars and promised to decamp even further into the American West — or, at least, to an Arizona bar. It was a petulant, elliptical parting performance that confirmed the wisdom of Schwartzbach’s decision to keep Blake close by his side during the trial and as far from the witness stand as possible.

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