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.