Blake's Defense Focuses on Book Author

Times Staff Writers

At every opportunity, defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. has tried to show that book author Miles Corwin's presence at the crime scene and during the investigation compromised the murder case against actor Robert Blake.

He was at it again Monday, but the judge at the preliminary hearing had heard enough.

"I think this Miles Corwin situation has been properly addressed, and I think you have done an outstanding job of addressing it," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lloyd M. Nash said. "At this point, we should go on to another subject."

But experts say the issue isn't going away.

It gives Blake's defense a fulcrum for attacking the professionalism of the Los Angeles Police Department investigation, and deals a potential wild card to jurors, who ultimately will decide whether Blake killed his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

The question is, "Does the scrutiny by the press create a more thorough, objective investigation or a more biased or tainted and subjective investigation?" said Richard Gabriel, who worked for the O.J. Simpson defense and is incoming president of the American Assn. of Trial Consultants.

Corwin's presence "may not undermine the entire credibility of the case," he said, but noted that criminal cases "are sometimes won by inches."

"If [defense lawyers] can put just a degree of skepticism about the investigation" into the minds of jurors, they could win an acquittal, or at least get a hung jury and force prosecutors to retry the case, Gabriel said.

Blake is accused of fatally shooting Bakley, 44, on May 4, 2001, near a Studio City restaurant where they had dined. He also is charged with soliciting two aging stuntmen to kill her, and conspiring with co-defendant Earle S. Caldwell to commit murder. The 69-year-old actor faces life in prison.

So far, Mesereau, taking a page from the Simpson trial playbook, has focused on the police investigation, and Corwin's unusual role.

Corwin, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, has published two books, one on LAPD criminal investigators. According to testimony in the preliminary hearing, now entering its third week, then-Police Chief Bernard Parks personally approved access for Corwin, who was in the process of writing a book.

Mesereau has repeatedly suggested that Corwin's access -- testimony showed he was allowed to wander around the Bakley slaying scene and inside Blake's Studio City home the day after the killing when police were searching for evidence -- has tainted the case.

Mesereau said Monday that the Blake case has "some enormous contamination problems," and Corwin's presence could have "affected [the detectives'] approach to the investigation." New information, for instance, shows the author was twice introduced to major prosecution witnesses being interviewed by police as the lead detective's partner, he said.

Corwin also had access to such forensic evidence as guns and at least one report from the medical examiner, the defense attorney said.

Inside the courtroom, Mesereau has questioned detectives at length about how they hoped to be portrayed in Corwin's upcoming book, suggesting they could have focused too narrowly on trying to snag a celebrity defendant.

"Any time you can raise an uncomfortable feeling in a juror, you are at least striking a chord of doubt as to what's going on," said Richard Moss, a defense lawyer who worked as a deputy district attorney for 17 years. It could cause at least one juror to ask whether investigators are objective, he said.

The presence of an author could influence whether and when police make an arrest, or whether they pursue other alternatives, said Franklin Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall.

"They may spend more time on a celebrity target," he said. "Who wants to write a book about an ordinary street criminal?"

Corwin had been riding along with members of the LAPD's elite Robbery/Homicide Division for nearly a year before Bakley was killed. Through his lawyer, Alonzo Wickers, Corwin has declined to address the defense allegations. Wickers said Corwin has not been subpoenaed in the Blake criminal case but would assert his 1st Amendment privilege as a journalist if called to testify.

"We don't think Miles will be forced to testify," Wickers said.

Blake's legal team subpoenaed the author to testify in the civil wrongful-death case, but Corwin has filed a motion to quash the subpoena. The entire civil case was placed on hold last week pending the outcome of the criminal trial.

Wickers clarified one issue raised in court. He said the lead detective introduced several people, including Corwin, as his partners when interviewing a witness, then later corrected his mistake. He said Corwin offered to wait in the car during the interrogation, but the witness permitted him to stay.

Spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons conceded Monday that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was "not all that pleased" about the LAPD's decision to permit Corwin to accompany detectives throughout the investigation.

She said Mesereau's questioning seems directed toward the future trial rather than the current preliminary hearing, after which the judge will decide whether there's sufficient evidence for Blake to stand trial.

"Whatever happens, the effort by the defense attorney to cross-examine witnesses at this stage is really an attempt to discredit the police investigation before the case reaches the jury," Gibbons said.

Inside the courtroom Monday, a police detective testified that he found a catalog selling information on how to make a handgun silencer and how to conduct an ambush, in Caldwell's garage the day after the suspect's April 18 arrest.

In other testimony, a representative of City National Bank told the court that Blake withdrew a total of $126,000 -- often in $5,000 increments -- between September 2000 and March 2001.

Criminal law experts say the infusion of Corwin into the case cannot help prosecutors, but there are tactics to neutralize its effect. For one, they could argue that Corwin's presence as a media watchdog actually ensured a proper police investigation.

"Who better to keep us honest?" Gabriel asked. "He's a man who is not going to be the least bit shy" about pointing out problems in the investigation.

Under his watchful eye, police should be "even more careful," he said.

Former prosecutor David Conn said the Bakley killing was sensational from the start, and prosecutors could argue that detectives were under an unusually powerful media spotlight with or without Corwin's presence.

They can say detectives were not motivated to impress Corwin any more than the dozens of other reporters chasing the same story, Conn said. Police, like anyone else, want to solve the crime and look good in the media.

In the end, jurors will have to weigh their perception of the police conduct of the investigation against the actual evidence against Blake.

"All you need is one juror who is convinced, 'I don't like the way they put this case together,' " Moss said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World