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“Robert, do you know Dominick Dunne? He came out from
New York for the good weather! Gerry — this is Dominick Dunne.”

The smiles and handshakes being exchanged might have been traded
in a lounge at the Peninsula or Chateau Marmont, except that the “Robert”
being introduced here was accused murderer Robert Blake and “Gerry”
was Blake’s attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach. Last Monday the soft, recessed
lighting and blond wood paneling belonged not to a West Hollywood celebrity
grotto but to Room 810 of the L.A. County Superior Court in Van Nuys. It was
Dunne’s first day covering the trial for Vanity Fair, but this morning
the only news in town was the serial storms lashing Southern California — not
a single still photographer or TV crew stood outside the courthouse.

The morning’s testimony was accordingly sluggish, and, after three
weeks of trial, we were still walking the streets surrounding Vitello’s in the
hours after Blake and his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, left the restaurant. (By now
everyone in the courtroom can see the aerial diagram of Vitello’s neighborhood
in their sleep, and the pedestrian trajectories of Blake and witnesses have
become as familiar to many as the route of John F. Kennedy’s motorcade through
Dealy Plaza.) Deputy D.A. Shellie Samuels called on LAPD Robbery-Homicide Detectives
Steven Eguchi and Martin Pinner to help hammer home the prosecution’s contention
that Blake’s operatic mad scene following his wife’s death was played strictly
for the balcony seats.

In fact, the past week of testimony has seen prosecution and defense
counsels engaged in an interpretive tug of war over such things as whether Blake’s
crime-scene sobbing produced actual tears and if his nausea was heartfelt and
fluid, or confined to insincere dry heaves. Samuels prodded Eguchi to note that,
significantly, a puddle of vomit produced by Blake that night lay closer to
the trash dumpster — where he stayed during the paramedics’ resuscitation efforts
— than to the car where his wife sat dying with two bullets in her.

“It was green and appeared to be regurgitated spinach,”
Eguchi solemnly elaborated.

This was not the first — nor, likely, the last — time the contents
of Blake’s May 4, 2001, dinner have come up in testimony. It’s been noted that
vomit was found in a trash receptacle of the men’s lavatory of Vitello’s after
Blake had paid a visit to the room. (Evidence of a nervous amateur about to
commit murder or the infirmities of age? But then, who vomits into a trash can
as opposed to a toilet?) Not ceding an inch to Samuels, defense counsel Schwartzbach
fought to have Eguchi acknowledge the sincerity of Blake’s reactions and, during
his cross-examination, asked the detective if Blake’s curbside vomit was — well,
real.

“As opposed to what — fake vomit?” Samuels interjected.
Her exasperated outburst showed how impatient the deputy D.A. has become with
Schwartzbach’s circuitous, low-volume interrogations.

“Objection — incomprehensible!” she interrupted during
one of his whispery cross-examinations of Eguchi. Admittedly, Blake’s phlegmatic
lawyer was at the height of his soporific powers Monday, quietly meandering
down a list of questions that, at one point, caused a witness to lean far forward
and ask him to repeat what he’d just said.

“I’ve heard he can bore a starving dog off a meat truck,”
Samuels said to an associate in an elevator during a recess. Someone then asked
her opinion of Schwartzbach’s lengthy opening statement.

“I can’t remember it,” she replied. “My eyes glazed
over after an hour and a half.”

But there is a method to Schwartzbach’s maddening cross-examinations,
and everyone knows where he is going — straight to former L.A. Times
reporter Miles Corwin, who had ridden along with the LAPD to the Blake crime
scene for a book he was researching on the Robbery-Homicide Division. During
his opening remarks last month, Schwartzbach had projected a group of photographs
on a courtroom screen. There was Corwin, standing with the cops at the crime
scene — in the very middle of Yellow Tapeland — laughing with the detectives
here, expertly shining his own flashlight on an object there.

Schwartzbach effectively cast Eguchi as an eager but green homicide
detective lacking the forensic training undergone by members of the department’s
Scientific Investigation Division. Eguchi admitted to the lawyer that he’d received
only a rudimentary education in fingerprint preservation. Yet, Schwartzbach
countered, Eguchi had clambered up all four sides of the dumpster to paw around
its contents before the SID pros showed up, possibly destroying prints. Blake’s
lawyer is driving home his own theory that publicity-hungry cops rolled out
a red carpet for Corwin over a fragile ecology of evidence and clues. Schwartzbach
also made hay of the fact that the dumpster, from which a WWII-era pistol was
eventually recovered, had been hauled out to a landfill, where its load was
spilled, willy-nilly, onto dirt ground for inspection.

Stephen Bingham, the lawyer whose case stemming from a bloody
San Quentin prison break Schwartzbach brilliantly won in 1986, told me that
forensic evidence is Schwartzbach’s meat.

“If there’s any DNA involved,” Bingham said, “watch
out — because he will thoroughly research it.”

So far the only part DNA has played in the Blake case is in how
it established the actor’s paternity of Bakley’s daughter, Rosie, who was born
out of wedlock. There seems little debate over the fact that once Blake (and
not, as the enterprising Bakley had hoped, Christian Brando) was identified
as Rosie’s father, he became protective of the infant, even as his loathing
of Bakley and her picaresque family grew. Detective Pinner recounted that, when
Blake was interviewed at the North Hollywood station shortly after Bakley’s
death, the actor declared to his attorney at the time that he wanted to draw
up a will to provide for Rosie and to keep her away from Bakley’s Arkansas kinfolk,
whom he described as criminals and “piranhas.”

” ‘Like fucking piranhas,’ ” Samuels helpfully annotated,
reading from the interview. Pinner nodded.

The testimony has yet to move from piranhas to the bottom feeders
with whom Blake allegedly conspired to kill his wife. In her opening remarks,
Samuels told the jury that the case’s cast of characters would not be drawn
from a Sunday-school picnic. Besides the murder victim herself, Samuels was
also alluding to Gary McLarty and Duffy Hambleton, the two stuntmen whom Schwartzbach
portrayed in his own opener as drug-fried desert rats eager to trade favors
with cops from L.A. to San Bernardino. But they, like Miles Corwin, must wait
before they make their entrances in Room 810. For now the trial is still focused
on the immediate aftermath of murder, with both sides reading auguries in Blake’s
vomit.