|Photo by Ted Soqui|
The Superior Court mall in Van Nuys is a bleak concrete
sprawl that attracts many lost and troubled souls. There’s Hank Fisher, an itinerant
singer with a weather-beaten face and wild eyes; each weekday he connects his
guitar to a car battery and snarls out tunes by Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley
and the Beatles. Hank tells me he was a volunteer in Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic
1968 presidential campaign and still chokes whenever he sings Phil Ochs’ brotherhood
anthem “There but for Fortune.” Then there’s senior citizen Marvin
Zalowitz, who, early each morning, takes white cardboard boxes with his thoughts
printed on their sides and neatly pyramids them along the east concourse. “Out
of sight out of mind is for HUMANOIDS ZOMBIES and FASCIST IMPERIALISM IS DEAD”
reads one, while another proclaims, “The Bible is an Imperial Document.”
“The word is out that I’m a crazy guy,” Marvin says,
“and so nobody bothers me. I’m against religion — I also stand outside
Other mall regulars keep to themselves inside the nearby library
or just sit on the concourse and stare into space. The courthouse itself is
somewhat loud and shabby on the lower floors where traffic fines are paid and
arraignments held. Bathroom walls are heavily graffitied, with chunks of wood
battered off the doorjambs. On the eighth floor, though, the halls are hushed
and spotless, and on clear, windy days the panorama of the Valley and San Gabriels
is breathtaking — a view of Los Angeles as it once was, or at least, as it was
supposed to be. There are quirks, though, even up here. The clock at the end
of the hall is broken and, in Room 810, where the court reporter’s laptop screen
defaults to a photograph of Stonehenge, the air conditioning is set too high.
This chilly room is where Robert Blake’s trial finally began December
20, three and a half years after the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley,
and two and a half years after Blake’s arrest. The room’s 40 open seats once
wouldn’t have seemed enough to accommodate all of the media and curious public,
but over the years the case has moved from tabloid front page to the landfill
of our collective unconscious. Last year Dominick Dunne had expressed an interest
in reserving a press seat, but hasn’t been heard from since.
“Resuming on the Blake matter” is how judge Darlene
Schempp tersely begins each session of the trial. She is a grandmotherly but
sober figure presiding over two wildly contrasting counsels. Deputy District
Attorney Shellie Samuels jumps to her feet to begin her presentations and witness
interrogations. She’s focused, dresses in soft neutral colors and, with Streisand-ish
sass, jokes with the jury.
“They told me to get my nails done!” she cracks as she
places a document onto an overhead projector and her French manicure is shown
on a screen. Samuels always seems in motion, she’s loud and doesn’t linger over
rhetorical phrasing. The PowerPoint presentation that accompanied her argument
was splashed with the kind of lurid graphics reminiscent of political attack
Samuels does not conceal her disdain for Blake nor, for that matter,
his lawyer, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, who became the defendant’s fourth after
Thomas Meserau Jr. quit last February. The older Mill Valley attorney could
not be more different from Samuels. Bespectacled, goateed and dressed in a black
suit and bow tie, with his open coat exposing a white shirt, the short Schwartzbach
cuts something of a penguin-like figure. He moves and speaks deliberately, in
a low voice that often rustles outside the range of microphones and spectators,
sometimes moving Samuels to complain she can’t hear him. When forced to confer,
the taller Samuels literally looks down on Schwartzbach, with her hands on hips
or arms folded like a scolding teacher.
Samuels needed about an hour or so to tear through her opening
argument early that first morning. Schwartzbach took the rest of the day and
most of the following morning for his. For a moment it seemed as though he would
never end his presentation — along with his claims to be ignorant of technology.
(At one point he asked a witness to show him how to insert the tape of a 911
call into a boom box.) Schwartzbach’s slide show was simplistic and repetitious
compared with that of Samuels, who interrupted with several objections.
For all Schwartzbach’s apparent plodding, though, his strategy
was clear. While Samuels laid out to jurors what her circumstantial evidence
would show over the course of the trial, Schwartzbach presented his remarks
as though they were a closing argument — a summation of witnesses and
evidence that had already been questioned and proven. It also became obvious
that he planned to demolish the credibility of the LAPD and the two stuntmen,
Gary McLarty and Duffy Hambleton, who claim Blake tried to hire them to kill
Bakley, as well as to hammer on the fact that Blake’s hands showed no gunshot
residue after his wife’s murder.
Schwartzbach, who declined to be interviewed, may look
like a straight arrow, but his methods are often unorthodox. There was the time
he coaxed a convicted murderer, who was facing the death penalty, into singing
“Blue Suede Shoes” before the sentencing jury; in the early 1980s
he helped pioneer the battered-wife defense, winning acquittal for a woman charged
with murdering her San Francisco police-officer husband.
Robert Blake isn’t the kind of person normally found on Schwartzbach’s
client list, which more often than not consists of the Bay Area’s underdog poor
— he once toiled for indigent clients as a member of the Bayview-Hunters Point
Community Defender and would later work at the law firm headed by the late Charles
Garry, the Black Panther Party attorney. Schwartzbach’s first high-profile case
was the defense of Stephen Bingham, the young lawyer accused, in 1971, of smuggling
into San Quentin Prison a gun that triggered an escape attempt and resulted
in six deaths, including that of celebrated radical George Jackson. Bingham
had fled the country but in 1984 turned himself in to stand trial and, with
Schwartzbach as his lead attorney, was acquitted in 1986.
“I can only say Gerry was wonderful,” Bingham says in
a phone interview. “He and his co-counsel, Susan Rutberg, integrated me
into the whole process, and I felt very much a part of it. He wants his clients
to feel really involved.”
Rutberg, now a law professor at Golden Gate University, had worked
with Schwartzbach at Bayview-Hunters Point. Like Bingham, she emphasizes Schwartzbach’s
ability to completely immerse himself in a case’s details.
“He examines evidence 16 different ways,” she told me.
“He lives and breathes the case.”
Even those on the other side of the court praise him.
“I have absolute admiration for him,” says Karyn Sinunu,
a San Jose deputy D.A. “He’s reasonable and smart. He’s what a trial attorney
should be. Some people don’t live up to their reputation, but this guy does.”
Although Sinunu has not faced Schwartzbach in court, she was part
of the D.A. team handling a lengthy double-homicide case that became Santa Clara
county’s most expensive. It ended when Schwartzbach won the freedom of one wrongly
convicted suspect, Buddy Nickerson, who’d spent 19 years in prison.
But why would a lefty lawyer with Schwartzbach’s credentials defend
“He’s not in the twilight of his career,” says Bingham,
now a staff attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid. “For a criminal-defense attorney
to represent someone [like Blake] helps establish him as one of the premier
defense attorneys in the country. What motivates many lawyers is upholding the
integrity of the criminal justice system and the constitution. It’s a tough
case, and Gerry thrives on the tough cases.”
Both Bingham and Sinunu say Blake, who has gone through three
previous lawyers, has hired a formidable defender.
“I’m glad I’m not trying the case against him,” Sinunu
“Scooby dooby doo . . . scooby dooby doo . . . ”
John Solari often breaks into this Sinatraic mantra during trial recesses as
he paces the hallway or stares out the big windows at the San Fernando Valley.
Solari, who speaks with a New York tough-guy accent, is the sometime actor with
a criminal past who made news after Bakley’s death when he revealed how he’d
suggested to Blake, at whose house he was living, that Blake allow him to arrange
a hit on Bakley.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Solari said about his proposed
hit, “it woulda turned out different if Robert had turned to me. With my
background? Italian, organized crime, 16 years in Attica?” Solari is about
Blake’s age and his mane of sandy hair and boxer’s nose give him a somewhat
leonine appearance. He has been attending every preliminary hearing and trial
date, traveling to court by bus.
“If Mesereau was Robert’s lawyer this thing would’ve been
over with by now,” Solari told me. “But Robert’s running everything
— he’s a control freak.”
Blake, who is under house arrest on $1.5 million bail, sits attentively
but stonefaced in court, dressed in a dark suit. Hank Fisher, the mall singer,
says sometimes Blake will slip away from his legal entourage for a smoke outside
the courthouse — the two have a running joke that goes back to the time Fisher
loaned Blake his cigarette lighter.
Samuels’ first witness was Sean Stanek, the man whom Blake begged
to call 911 after, Blake told him, he found Bakley bleeding in his car from
a mugging. The 40-ish, goateed Stanek, a low-budget film director and production
manager, no doubt reminded many in the audience of themselves — or how they
might have responded on the night of May 4, 2001, when Bakley was shot after
she and Blake left Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City. Most empathetically
followed Stanek’s story of Good Samaritan instincts tempered by a feeling that
the crisis was being dumped in his lap by Blake — who’d appeared on his doorstep
shouting and ringing the doorbell, but who quickly took off for Vitello’s, two
doors away, instead of waiting by his wife’s side.
Stanek shed the trial’s first light on the crime scene. When Stanek
first looks at Bakley from the driver’s window of Blake’s car, she merely appears
to be slumped back a bit. Then, when Stanek moves to the passenger’s side, he’s
shocked to discover her true state: “There was tons of blood,” he
recalled. The playback of 911 tapes revealed a confusing soundtrack of emergency
personnel calmly talking to an agitated Stanek on the phone while Blake yells
in the background to the accompaniment of a barking dog — at which Stanek shouts
Some in the court, though, snickered at any mention of Stanek’s
discomfort about the situation he found himself in. To them he was a guy sitting
around a rented house he shared with roommates and who, when he’s asked to assist
an injured woman, is soon haunted by Hamlet-like doubts — in his bathrobe, no
less. (At first, Stanek said, he thought Blake had beaten up his wife.) Worse,
Stanek later begged a detective to search his living room, suddenly believing
Blake may have planted a gun in it. When he described why he gingerly crept
up to the car and its motionless occupant, his explanation seemed cloying with
“I wanted to present myself as a stranger who was not dangerous.”
This last statement and others like it had reporters continually
shooting get-a-load-of-Alan-Alda glances to one another.
Stanek, who has also worked as an actor, put on an animated performance
that first day of testimony, reliving those fateful moments by imitating Blake’s
voice (at one point yelling at the top of his lungs) and cutting off Samuels
and Schwartzbach to make personal observations. When Schwartzbach asked him
to clarify what he meant when he said Blake was “acting a certain way,”
Stanek replied, “Well, [the way] you’re acting like a lawyer right now.”
Eventually, Schwartzbach dryly asked Stanek to allow him to finish asking his
questions before answering, because “the reporter can only take down one
of us at a time.”
Afterwards Solari said he thought Stanek had been rehearsing his
“He’ll be on Larry King tonight,” he said dismissively.
Scooby dooby doo . . .