The long-awaited trial of Robert Blake was in the home stretch when jury selection started in January of 2004, fully a month before it was scheduled to begin. Judge Darlene Schempp of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Van Nuys Division, was presiding over intense pre-trial wrangling and last minute details. There were the usual clashes over which testimony would be heard and which excluded, as well as motions about whether or not to introduce various pieces of evidence. And all were either resolved or in the final stages of resolution. Then, with the start of the proceeding just days away, a hearing was made on a request by the media to televise the trial. That request was denied, with the exceptions being opening and closing statements and the verdict.
But then the unimaginable happened: On the 5th of February, 2004, a sealed motion was presented by Blake attorney Thomas Mesereau for leave to withdraw from the case. Mesereau and Blake met with Judge Schempp in chambers for over 40 minutes. She then emerged with the news. Mesereau would be allowed to leave the case because of "irreconcilable differences" with client Blake, Schempp announced. And again, Robert Blake was left to face a murder charge without representation. (1) It wasn't until the 1st of March that Blake appeared in court with his new attorney, M. Gerald Swartzbach (in photo at left) - an experienced trial lawyer with a remarkable history of defending not only clients but causes. (2)
The weeks and months leading up to the trial and it's surprise postponement only made the rift between Blake and Mesereau seem more suspicious (Mesereau had been contacted by Michael Jackson shortly after the November 2003 raid at his Neverland ranch, and subsequently took over the case from Mark Garagos). Still, aside from his problems with counsel, things had been going extremely well for Blake in the weeks leading up to the scheduled February trial date (now set for November 2004). Perhaps most importantly, trial judge Darlene Schempp threw out the conspiracy charge against Blake and co-defendant Earle Caldwell (in photo at right) at a 31 October pre-trial hearing. Most observers have conceded that the move marked a major defeat for prosecutors. Indeed, the prosecution on 17 November announced that it would not re-file the charge, leaving Caldwell a free man and ending the conspiracy count against Blake, as well, since there obviously can't be a conspiracy of one. (3)
And the media had begun to notice the faltering prosecution case. Shellie Samuels (photo, left), a new prosecutor who had taken over the case prior to the 31 October pre-trial hearing, was interviewed on the CBS network's documentary, 48 Hours Investigates" for a segment that aired in November of 2003. While Samuels presisted in saying that her office had a "strong" circumstantial case against Blake, under relentless questioning by CBS reporter Peter Van Sant she admitted there was no forensic evidence implicating the actor, no tie to the murder weapon, no witnesses, and virtually nothing in the way of hard evidence. The case, she explained, would be made through the testimony of two stuntmen, Gary McLarty and Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, whose testimony was impeached at the preliminary hearing (4) In fact, Samuels conceded, again under Van Sant's questioning, that "their credibility was undermined a bit." (5)
Still more curious information surfaced during the same period of time. In a motion filed for the 31 October hearing, for instance, it was revealed that detectives had apparently made some unusual suggestions to Hambleton during a second interview with the retired stuntman, who was still insisting that Blake had not solicited him to kill anybody. Says the motion,
At various points in the second interview, police suggested Mr. Hambleton sell his story to the tabloids for $100,000, reminded him that he was soon scheduled to return to court on his criminal case, warned him not to get himself "mixed up in this," and suggested this was his "opportunity. Notwithstanding this, he continued to tell police he knew about this matter only from "[t]he tabloids and the television..." (6)
The matter is not clarified in the document, but it is clear that Hambleton continued at this point to maintain that there was no solicitation on the part of Blake. Still, when members of the LAPD urged him to get $100,000 from the tabloids for his story, they clearly didn't mean the story Hambleton still insisted was true. Rather, the suggestion was clearly that Hambleton might gain a substantial amount of money by changing his story to fit their "hit man" theory of what happened. Coupled with that was the odd reminder that the witness was "soon scheduled" to face crimnal charges and the admonition that this could be his "opportunity."
If that arouses concern, one need only look at the Miles Corwin book, which finally came out in late 2003. The author, whose presence created such a problem for prosecutors at Blake's preliminary hearing, managed to reveal a number of unconventional tactics the police used in this and other cases. For example, a description of how officers first approached Hambleton is interesting:
About a week after [detectives] Haro and Soler first talked to the stuntman Ronald Hambleton, they decide to pay him another visit. He denies that Blake solicited him to kill Bakley, but the detectives are certain he is lying. So they will employ another approach with Hambleton: they obtain a search warrant. Sometimes this can be an effective interrogation tool. If detectives unearth evidence related to the case, that might convince a person to talk, or if they stumble upon evidence of other crimes -- illegal drugs, for example -- the threat of jail can also be used to pressure a reluctant witness. (7)
This time, lead detective Ron Ito and sidekick Steve Eguchi join Haro and Soler. On the four-hour drive from Los Angeles to Hambleton's Lucerne Valley home, Ito mentions to Eguchi, "We need this guy to 'fess up." With the statement already obtained from Gary McLarty, the other stuntman who claims to have been solicited by Blake, Ito believes, all they need is a similar story from Hambleton. If they get it, Ito tells his partner, "Blake is bought and paid for." (8)
Once at Hambleton's place, it is decided that Hambleton will be interrogated in a mobile "command post" brought to the scene from the LAPD's robbery-homicide division. Eguchi and a few other unnamed detectives will search Hambleton's cluttered, shabby home. They make scant progress. Now Hambleton admits telling the story about being solicited, but he insists he made it up because he wanted to "seed" a friend to see if that friend would talk. The old stuntman refuses to take a polygraph test and adamantly affirms that the only reason he met with Blake was to discuss a script. (9)
Ultimately, though, it is not the enticement of tabloid money or hints that does the trick, nor vague discussion of what might happen as a consequence of prior unresolved criminal charges. Rather it is the threat of being hauled before a grand jury that finally convinces Hambleton to cooperate:
Hambleton previously denied that Blake had asked him to kill Bakley, but when he was faced with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury he acknowledged that Blake solicited him to kill his wife. Hambleton told detectives a story simililar to Gary McLarty's, the other stuntman who said Blake asked him to kill Bakley. (10)
And if police witnesses are changing their stories to fit a particular theory about the case, there have been some moves toward defection in the Bakley camp, as well. Bakley's earliest advocate, her former family attorney Cary Goldstein, said on Court TV in March of 2003 that while he still felt Blake was behind the shooting, he could not believe the prosecution's case - namely that Blake fired the gun that killed his former client. Said Goldstein in that Court TV interview:
"There's one key element that no one has really highlighted. The murder weapon was covered with oil. They found no oil in the car, they found no oil of any sort on Blake's body, on his clothing. I don't see how she could have been shot by Blake with that weapon and he show up with absolutely no traces of oil from that weapon. (11)
One has to question how likely it is that a jury will believe a theory that even the long-time spokesman for Bonny Lee Bakley now dismisses as impossible.
Even long-time Court TV anchor Rikki Klieman -- who gained national fame covering the O.J. Simpson case and is now married to Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton -- registered her disapproval of the L.A. District Attorney's handling of the Blake case during a book-promotion interview on the Soap cable network. During that interview, broadcast the evening of July 9th, 2004, Klieman stated that she still felt there was evidence Blake may have been involved, but warned prosecutors against trying to prove Blake was the shooter. "The government made mistakes during the O.J. case, and it was a big problem in certain ways how it was tried," she told the anchors of the program, Soap Talk. "And I'd say this, if they ever care to listen to me, they'd better stop going after Robert Blake as the shooter. Because there's a lot of evidence that he may have been involved, but it's real hard to pin him down as the shooter." (12)
As the prosecution case continued to draw skeptical comments in the media, attorney Schwartzbach filed a motion with the Los Angeles Superior Court asserting that he'd had trouble getting documents from the prosecutor's office. Said an 18 June 2004 report in USA Today, "Prosecutor Shellie Samuels [has] conceded that in the time that elapsed since the slaying, items have been inadvertently misplaced." Schwartzbach argued that the inability of the prosecution to provide certain documents in the case, along with the overwhelming amount of material that the trial is expected to involve, and asked the court to delay the trial once again. "Mr. Blake wants to see this case go to trial as soon as possible," Schwartzbach told the court. "He wants to be vindicated as soon as possible. But he wants me to be prepared." (13)
Trial Delayed Again
At a status hearing on 16 July, Judge Schempp agreed to delay the start of the trial from 9 September to 1 November 2004. On the same day, the court set a pre-trial hearing for August 20th, at which time testimony was taken from a prosecution witness, William Jordan. Jordan, a private eye who did research on Bonny Bakley's criminal connections for Mr. Blake, told the court that Blake "didn't think Bonny was a good mother for Rosie [the child they had together]." Jordan, who began working for Blake in the summer of 2000, just after baby Rose was born, was scheduled to appear at a special session of the court because his advanced age (78 at the time of the hearing) made it possible he might not be available at the time of the trial. According to most reports, however, Jordan's testimony seemed more favorable to Blake's side than for prosecutors who called him to take the stand. (14)
Another, even more interesting hearing was held a month later - on the 16th of September. On that occasion, Blake attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach argued that prosecutors had withheld evidence that could exonerate his client. Specifically, he charged, that the LAPD has evidence showing that a drifter, someone apparently tied in some way to the Bakleys and former Bakley client Christian Brando (at right), had received $10,000 around the time Bonny Lee Bakley was slain. Detectives, says Swhartzbach, simply ignored this evidence. "In my judgment, the Los Angeles Police Department convicted Robert Blake on the evening of the murder," the attorney told the court. After previously rejecting a motion to discuss the evidence, Judge Darlene Schempp said the matter would be reconsidered at another hearing, now scheduled for the 14th of October. One news source labeled the decision a win for the defense. (15)
Another unresolved issue is the admissibility of materials taken during a police search of Blake's home on 5 May 2001, the day after Bakley was shot. On 4 October, Schwartzbach argued a motion before the court seeking to have the evidence excluded from trial on the grounds that the search was conducted illegally because a book author was permitted access to the property being searched. Police and prosecutors have acknowledged that crime writer Miles Corwin (in photo at left) was present during the search, but they say he only went along as "an observer." Schwartzbach, on the other hand, claims that Corwin was permitted to walk through the area and was not asked to wear protective clothing to preserve evidence.
In his motion, Schwartzbach cites a number of precedents for exclusion of the evidence, including a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case which concluded:
It violates the Fourth Amendment rights of homeowners for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into their home during the execution of a warrant when the presence of the third parties in the home was not in aid of the warrant’s execution. The Amendment embodies centuries-old principles of respect for the privacy of the home... The Fourth Amendment requires that police actions in execution of a warrant be related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion... Certainly the presence of the reporters, who did not engage in the execution of the warrant or assist the police in their task, was not related to the objective of the authorized intrusion... (16)
Schwartzbach has also requested a hearing at which Corwin would be called to describe his role in the search. (17)
Jury selection for the trial is still expected to begin in November.
(5) See 48 Hours Investigates (online).
(6) See Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion to Set Aside Counts 1, 4, and Special Circumstance Allegation of Information Pursuant to Penal Code Section 995, Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles, Case No. LA040377, 31 October 2003, at page 43.
(11) Court TV, "Both Sides," 14 March 2003.
(12) Soap Talk, the Soap Network, 9 July 2004.
(13) See USA Today, "Robert Blake defense may need to delay," 18 June 2004. See also San Diego Union-Tribune, "Robert Blake's lawyer says he can't be ready for September trial" (18 June 2004) and Court TV: "Lawyer for actor Robert Blake says he won't be ready for September trial" (21 June 2004).
(14) See Associated Press, "Blake Worried About Child, Says Investigator," 21 August 2004 and Court TV online, "Investigator says actor Robert Blake worried about well-being of daughter," updated 23 August 2004; see also NBC4 TV News, "Robert Blake To Stand Trial No Later Than November" (16 July 2004); City News Service, "Robert Blake's Murder Trial Postponed" (16 July 2004); Reuters, "Actor Robert Blake's L.A. Murder Trial Postponed" (16 July 2004).
(15) See Fox News/Associated Press, "Attorney: Drifter Killed Robert Blake's Wife," 17 September 2004; NBC4 Television, Los Angeles, "Robert Blake Returns To Court For Pretrial Hearing: Friday's Hearing Could Be Called Win For Defense," 17 September 2004; and BBC News, "Blake lawyer 'has new evidence,' 18 September 2004. See also AP, "Blake attorney to get 2nd try at evidence." 17 Sept. 2004 and "Blake attorney promises new evidence of another killer" (same date).
(17) See NBC4 Television News (Los Angeles), "Blake's Attorney Moves To Bar Evidence Seized During Search," 4 October 2004. See also Linda Deutsch, "Lawyer: Blake's Rights Violated in Search," MSNBC, 5 October 2004.