Prosecution About to Rest in Blake Trial
Throughout Robert Blake’s murder trial, witnesses have testified that Blake despised his wife, that he acted “odd” the night of her slaying, that the actor seemed to feign grief and that he disparaged her in conversations with police.
One witness told jurors last month that Blake had said he wanted to “whack” Bonny Lee Bakley. The witness, however, said he thought he had talked Blake out of it.
Then last week, two stuntmen from Blake’s “Baretta” days and a boisterous gangster-turned-preacher described how Blake wanted someone to “snuff” or “pop” the woman who, in Blake’s view, trapped him in marriage by becoming pregnant.
The preacher, Frank Minucci, said that the actor had “wanted to annihilate” his wife.
Minucci’s testimony provided a dramatic high point in the celebrity murder trial and took even those who have closely followed the case by surprise. His name was not on an earlier prosecution witness list.
Minucci’s brash courtroom performance -- he appeared to fluster a defense attorney by shouting “What?” after an objection -- overshadowed what had been expected to be the culmination of the prosecution case: detailed accounts from the stuntmen who said Blake solicited them to commit murder.
It also lent support to the testimony of Gary “Whiz Kid” McLarty and Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, who are vulnerable to defense efforts to discredit them for admitted illicit drug use and lies to police.
Deputy Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Shellie L. Samuels is expected to wrap up the prosecution’s case as early as today in a Van Nuys courtroom.
Then it will be up to Blake’s legal team to try to convince the seven-man, five-woman jury that the actor did not kill his wife and that he did not ask anyone else to do so.
Defense lawyer M. Gerald Schwartzbach has closely guarded his legal strategy in this case, but he is expected to continue to attack the credibility of the stuntmen and Los Angeles police investigating the murder of Blake’s wife.
Bakley was fatally shot May 4, 2001, inside Blake’s black Dodge Stealth, which was parked about two blocks from the Studio City restaurant where they had eaten dinner.
Blake told police that he returned to Vitello’s to retrieve a handgun he carried for Bakley’s protection and returned to find her bleeding from the head. Samuels contends that Blake ambushed his wife that night, after failing to get someone else to do it.
In addition to murder, Blake is charged with two counts of soliciting the murder, a crime that also carries a life sentence.
Blake, 71, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He posted a $1.5-million bond nearly two years ago and has been under house arrest ever since.
Much of the evidence against Blake -- including the stuntmen’s testimony -- was laid out two years ago during a televised 10-day preliminary hearing.
But Minucci, who did not testify at the preliminary hearing, detailed Blake’s animosity toward Bakley. Minucci told jurors Tuesday that the actor wanted Bakley annihilated and suggested that a blank check awaited him if he came to California from New York to do the job.
Minucci, speaking in a swaggering New Jersey accent, blunted attempts by the defense to cut him short. Minucci, 61, confronted Schwartzbach when the lawyer tried to stop him from elaborating on an answer to a yes-or-no question, saying: “No, there’ll be none of that. You asked me a question, I want to give an answer.”
Then, when Schwartzbach asked him if Blake told him that he and Bakley planned to retire together, Minucci quipped, “Either that or retire her.”
Shortly after that exchange, the defense lawyer abandoned his unusually intense cross-examination, practically giving Minucci a free pass.
A day after Minucci’s performance, Hambleton, 68, testified that Blake suggested more than half a dozen scenarios to “snuff” Bakley, including three outside Vitello’s.
Blake told him that he feared Bakley would involve their daughter in child pornography, according to Hambleton’s testimony. The retired stuntman said that when he declined to become involved, Blake responded, “Well, if you’re not going to do it, then I sure as hell am.”
Earlier in the week, McLarty, 64, told jurors that Blake outlined four other plans to “whack” his wife and offered him $10,000 to carry out the deed.
Though the testimony by the three men might appear repetitious, Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutors who teaches criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said prosecutors aren’t taking any chances.
“They really can’t rest everything on any one of these witnesses because each one has his own problems,” she said. “The hope is that they will corroborate each other and the more the jurors hear it, the more they believe they can’t all be making it up.”
In one of the few pieces of physical evidence in the case, Los Angeles police detectives tracked down records of a prepaid phone card that Blake bought after meeting with Hambleton in March 2001.
Hambleton testified that he suggested Blake buy the card so their phone conversations would not be traced.
The records show 56 calls made from Blake’s home to Hambleton and three to McLarty. The stuntmen said they hadn’t spoken with Blake in more than two decades until March 2001, when Blake contacted them.
But Hambleton and McLarty are not immune from attack.
Schwartzbach scored points when McLarty, on cross-examination, told jurors that he had abused cocaine and had a mental breakdown last year. He said he believed at the time that the police were tunneling under his home and he was being watched by space aliens.
Hambleton also admitted to past drug use but denied using methamphetamine since a 1999 incident, when he called police believing that his Lucerne Valley ranch was under siege by 20 armed men. Police said there were no intruders on his property.
Schwartzbach, however, is expected to call witnesses in the coming weeks to dispute the accuracy of Hambleton’s testimony -- including his denial that he had once seen a 4-foot animal with horns.
But some experts said the stuntmen’s personal shortcomings make them just the kind of people someone might contact to commit a murder for hire.
“You don’t hire nuns,” said Ruth Jones, a former New York City prosecutor who teaches criminal law at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.
Beverly Hills attorney Carl E. Douglas said defense lawyers in circumstantial cases such as Blake’s have a potentially powerful weapon: If there are two reasonable interpretations of the evidence, jurors must pick the one that favors innocence.
In upcoming weeks, the defense is expected to intensify its efforts to discredit the Police Department’s handling of the Bakley murder investigation.
Schwartzbach has suggested that detectives failed to take seriously the hundreds of men, including some in prison, whom Bakley had swindled over the years. He also has accused detectives of mishandling evidence and bringing along a book author whose presence at the crime scene and at Blake’s home he says tainted the investigation.
There are no eyewitnesses or forensic evidence linking Blake to the Walther P-38 pistol that discharged the fatal shots -- an issue the defense is expected to explore. The gun he allegedly retrieved from Vitello’s was not the murder weapon, police say.
Legal experts predicted that Schwartzbach will call at least one blood-spatter expert to testify that Blake could not have been the killer because police found no blood on his shoes or clothing.
Forensic experts also are expected to discuss the lack of significant gunshot residue on the actor’s hands and clothes.
Depending upon the strength of the defense case, some believe the Emmy winner might take the stand in his own defense. His lawyer has previously declined to comment on that possibility.
The downside, said Levenson, “is that no matter what [Blake] does, the prosecution is going to argue that he’s just acting, so you almost can’t win.”