|Photo by Ted Soqui|
The witness chair in Judge Darlene Schempp’s courtroom is cushioned but hard — harder than the seats of the room’s spectators. The chair’s particular idiosyncrasy is to wobble slightly from side to side, sometimes making witnesses look as though they are fidgeting. Another design quirk of Room 810 is the judge’s bench, which, because of its bulk, makes it impossible for defense lawyers and prosecutors to approach Schempp with any privacy during sidebars. The judge, attorneys and court reporter must exit the room to sidebar in the small passageway outside Schempp’s chambers, leaving witnesses alone to stare out at the jury or spectators, while reporters wait to see which lawyer returns smiling.
There are many sidebars in the Robert Blake trial. The Shellie and Gerry Show, once a screwball comedy of collegial banter and ad libs between prosecutor Shellie Samuels and Blake’s lawyer, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, has deteriorated into a sullen trench warfare of objections and appeals to the bench. Last week, Samuels’ crime-scene witness, Homicide Detective Ron Ito, was questioned by Schwartzbach over three separate days and had lots of time to stare out during sidebars.
“Mostly I’d look at the wall above you guys,” he told me afterward, “looking for the answer to a question. He had me up there for two and a half days, and he could have finished in two and a half hours. My butt hurt.”
After the early excitement of the trial’s firsthand murder-scene accounts and a flurry of witnesses who seemed to have strayed in from reality-TV-show auditions, the prosecution settled into a tedious lineup of droning cops and lab mice — the forensic experts who established the case’s bullet trajectories and gunshot residue.
Still, even here there were some ribaldly informative moments. William Jordan, the private eye whom Blake hired to alert Arkansas authorities to Bakley’s AWOL probation status, had a Dean Martin story to tell — although its punch line had nothing to do with a shot glass or Frank Sinatra. Jordan claimed that Blake told him Bakley had also tried to put the paternity bite on Martin. The crooner, according to this bit of Bakley lore, offered her $10,000 to go away, but Bakley turned it down, preferring a bit of Hollywood limelight instead. So Martin hired two goons who abducted Bakley and made sure she aborted her pregnancy; when she called afterward demanding the 10 grand, Dino told her to “go to hell.”
Sometimes witnesses have been picked off first base for stretching the truth or hiding it completely. Jordan, for example, didn’t tell detectives investigating Bakley’s murder that once he and Blake had left Vitello’s restaurant Blake exclaimed that he’d left his gun behind — an act of forgetfulness identical to the one Blake claims caused him to leave Bakley alone in his car, where she was shot.
“They never asked me,” Jordan said with a straight face, “so I never brought it up.” Rod Englert, an old murder pro from the LAPD who now works privately re-enacting crime scenes, was also shown by Schwartzbach to have taken virtually no college-level science or math courses and had fudged his CV by claiming course work at Cal State Fullerton — which, according to Schwartzbach, has no record of his attendance.
This Monday, after a week’s delay, it was finally stuntman Gary McLarty’s turn to wobble in the hard chair for a few days. McLarty, nicknamed the Whiz Kid, has more than 40 years of Hollywood credits — including a recent TV movie called Murder Without Conviction. Schwartzbach had been sharpening his knives for McLarty, although the Whiz Kid is no stranger to interrogations. He’d testified at director John Landis’ 1987 trial about deaths on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, on which McLarty had worked as stunt coordinator and, in 1991, had to explain to cops why he’d emptied a .357 Magnum into a houseguest, a death that was later ruled self-defense.
Schwartzbach is hell-bent on impeaching the character and reliability of McLarty and another stuntman, Duffy Hambleton, both of whom told police that Blake approached them in 2001 to murder Bakley. McLarty and Hambleton are why Schwartzbach grilled Detective Ito for three days — again and again the lawyer asked him about the men’s sobriety, suggesting, to jurors, that their testimonies will be worthless thanks to brain damage from decades of drug abuse.
Speaking in a husky voice, McLarty was sympathetic enough on the stand, in a punch-drunk palooka sort of way, but did not inspire confidence as a storyteller. He appeared as befuddled as when I had seen him testify two years ago during the case’s preliminary hearings. When responding to then Blake attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr., the stuntman spoke from deep within some personal fog, where answers to the most basic questions were maddeningly elusive.
But if McLarty had downplayed his heavy use of cocaine and marijuana to Mesereau, the stuntman let it all hang out for Schwartzbach, who got McLarty to admit that there had been times when he was convinced that both his house and his cell phone were bugged, that his family was conspiring against him, and that satellites were monitoring his activities on his Sylmar ranch. He even admitted to having seen “aliens from outer space,” as well as believing police were tunneling under his house — from which he once crawled, during a paranoid fit, to his son’s home.
The crux of McLarty’s claim (and the focus of Schwartzbach’s attack) is a March 2001 meeting between the stuntman and Blake at Du-Par’s restaurant in Studio City. McLarty claims he attended the meeting at the invitation of Blake, with whom he worked on Baretta, assuming Blake might offer him stunt work in some action-film project. It was only after a subsequent visit to the actor’s house that it dawned on McLarty that Blake was laying out a different kind of storyboard — the kind that had McLarty kill Bonny Lee Bakley in the third act. At first, McLarty said, he refused to believe Blake was on the level. What then, Schwartzbach demanded, did McLarty think Blake was talking about, if not murder?
“Well, you know,” McLarty answered, “a lot of people want to strangle their wives, and I thought maybe he was venting his anger.”
Despite such folkloric wisdom and his candor with Schwartzbach about his lying to Mesereau, McLarty did not connect with his audience as a reliable narrator. The first minutes of his direct examination by Samuels were shaky due to hearing problems that required the use of a listening device. Then, on cross-examination, when Schwartzbach asked him if he had ever been affected by work injuries, McLarty answered, “Not a lot.”
Schwartzbach then reminded him of a 1996 motorcycle accident in which McLarty’s arm was severed, two femurs broken and his hip injured. (The arm was re-attached.)
“Oh, that accident,” you half-expected McLarty to say as he acknowledged the mishap.
For the record, there were seven sidebars called during the first hour or so of Schwartzbach’s cross-examination. Samuels was not letting anything get by, and with good reason — the D.A.’s case is mostly built upon the statements of McLarty and Hambleton, who has yet to testify.
“We should rest next Thursday,” Samuels told me of the prosecution’s case. “But I never expected these cross-examinations to go on so long. So who knows?”
One man who has waited patiently through all this is Eric Dubin, the Irvine lawyer who is representing the Bakley family in its wrongful-death suit against Blake. An affable man in his 30s, Dubin is present in the courtroom every day, carefully gauging the effect of testimony on the jurors — he was even present when they strolled about the crime scene last month. If Blake loses his criminal case, Dubin’s clients are eligible to receive more money through punitive damages.
I asked him, if he were Blake’s lawyer, would he let Blake take the stand in his defense?
“It would be legal suicide,” Dubin said. “But if I think he’s going to prison, I’d have to figure if it would make sense to let him speak his mind. It’d be a game-time decision.”