If jury selection was any indication, the wrongful death case against actor Robert Blake could be heading toward a familiar ending. But attorney Eric Dubin believes he can use Blake’s own words to prove to jurors that the 72-year-old actor fatally shot his wife.
Prospective jurors railed against the lawyer representing Bonny Lee Bakley’s four children Tuesday while offering sympathy for the former “Baretta” star, who was acquitted of criminal charges in the shooting.
Opening statements are expected to begin today in Burbank.
Dubin is hoping for the same result as the O.J. Simpson civil case a decade ago: a celebrity charged with murder is cleared of the criminal charges, but is held liable in civil court for the victims’ deaths.
But there are key differences between the cases. Unlike in the Simpson civil trial, there has been no single key piece of evidence so far to tie Blake to Bakley’s death.
Dubin is building on the case laid out by prosecutors, however, relying on a connect-the-dots strategy using small contradictions in the actor’s statements, some of which never surfaced in the four-month criminal trial.
But what is apparent to him may be lost on those deciding the case. Several prospective jurors Monday and Tuesday expressed more skepticism about the motives of Dubin and Bakley’s family than of the defendant.
Complicating matters, Dubin is inheriting a criminal case with weaknesses, from the dearth of physical evidence to a stable of unreliable witnesses and Blake, a gray-haired grandfather with a familiar face.
Citing the absence of smoking-gun-quality evidence, a Van Nuys jury acquitted Blake in March of fatally shooting his wife near a Studio City restaurant where they had just eaten dinner.
Jurors also rejected charges that Blake solicited two Hollywood stuntmen, who were admitted drug users, to kill his wife, saying that their statements were unreliable.
If Blake had been convicted, all Dubin would have had to prove was how much Bakley’s children deserved for their loss.
Without a conviction, the lawyer must first convince jurors that Blake and his co-defendant, Earle S. Caldwell, were more likely than not to have caused Bakley’s death.
Dubin is representing all four of Bakley’s children, including Rosie, her 5-year-old daughter with Blake. Rosie has been adopted by Blake’s adult daughter, Delinah.
Dubin turned down a $250,000 settlement to end the civil case.
“I believe there is still a strong sense that justice has never been served, and [this case] is my opportunity to get it for this family,” he said.
In pretrial rulings in the civil case, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David M. Schacter barred statements by Blake’s ex-wife, Sondra Kerr, that the actor had tried to have her killed after they separated.
The judge will allow Dubin to include Bakley’s recorded statements and statements to her two adult children and friends that she feared Blake would kill her.
At the same time, Dubin must overcome the attacks on Bakley’s past.
If pretrial motions are any indication, Blake civil attorney Peter Q. Ezzell will not pull any punches.
He said that Bakley’s history of “pornography, prostitution and fraud as a way of life” were “simply staggering” and that they “would have set a horrendous example for any child.”
Ezzell also argued that “bad character evidence” against Bakley should be factored into any potential damages, should the case go that far.
He declined to comment on the case.
In this trial, Blake, for the first time, will detail for jurors the events of May 4, 2001, when Bakley was fatally shot while sitting in the actor’s car.
Blake has said that he returned to Vitello’s restaurant to retrieve his revolver and returned to his car to find Bakley slumped over and bleeding from the head.
Dubin says that statement contradicts the evidence. He contends that it would have been impossible for Blake to get into the car without getting blood on him. Authorities found no blood on Blake’s clothing.
According to Dubin, another flaw in Blake’s story was brought out by his co-defendant. Blake said he did not know how to use the phones in Bakley’s purse to call for paramedics.
But Caldwell said in a deposition that Blake had used the phones before.
In the O.J. Simpson civil case, the football star’s contradictory statements laid out by the plaintiffs’ team appeared to seal the verdicts against him.
The jury ordered Simpson to pay $12.5 million to his two young children by Nicole Brown Simpson. Ronald Goldman’s divorced parents were to split another $12.5 million. Simpson has never paid the judgment.
“The O.J. trial and the Robert Blake murder trial really created a false illusion around the country that there’s something wrong with the California court system in what seems to be obvious cases for conviction [that] went the other way. And what the O.J. civil trial did was get it right,” Dubin said. “I’m hoping the same thing is true here.”