Search for the One-Armed Man
What’s at stake in California v. Robert Blake is more than a verdict in a murder case when it becomes a showdown of the freedom of the press, the right to a fair trial, and the right to privacy, otherwise known as the first, fourth, and sixth amendments of the Constitution.
In motions filed last week, Robert Blake’s lawyer, M. Gerald Schwartzbach requested that evidence linking a third party to the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley be permitted at the trial; and that evidence collected by the LAPD at Robert Blake’s home be dismissed because police permitted a book author access to the home during the execution of the search warrant.
This is not the first time the defense has stated someone other that Robert Blake committed the crime. Harland Braun, Blake’s first lawyer, made the claim hours after the murder. From scam victims to prison inmates to drug dealers, Bakley left hundreds who might likely hold a grudge or have a reason to murder her. But, police argue, many have motive, but not means or opportunity. Police and prosecutors claim Blake was the only one who had all three.
Prosecutors charge that third party culpability is just a smoke screen put up by the defense to confuse the jury. But with no physical evidence linking Blake to the murder and a circumstantial, mostly speculative case against Blake, who’s really blowing smoke?
The State of Ohio vs. Dr. Sam Sheppard was another media-driven murder case, immortalized by a television show and later a movie. Sheppard was accused of killing his wife while she slept in their upstairs bedroom. According to Sheppard, he fell asleep downstairs and awoke to sounds of his wife screaming for help. Upstairs he discovered an intruder. The two wrestled. Sheppard was struck from behind and left unconscious on the floor.
When he regained consciousness, he found his wife dead in a pool of blood. He again heard the intruder, downstairs this time, and chased after him. The chase ended on the beach behind Sheppard’s house, where Sheppard again was knocked unconscious.
Is the Robert Blake case a case of déjà vu? It has been compared over and over to the OJ Simpson case. But the Sheppard case, it seems, is a more likely comparison. In both cases, the media plays a paramount role, influencing witnesses, invading the privacy of two men and their families, and, as it turned out in the Sheppard case, convicting an innocent man through “trial by newspaper.”
In the Sheppard case, the police organized a search of Sheppard’s property the day after the murder. Among the searchers were news reporters, neighbors, and neighborhood boys. Numerous people handled evidence before it was properly examined, exactly what the defense contends happened in the Blake case.
There were no eye witnesses to either crime and neither man could support his alibi.
The police didn’t believe Sheppard’s story and during their first interrogation of him accused him of killing his wife. A witness at the crime scene overheard the coroner saying, “It’s evident that the doctor did it. Let’s go get a confession.”
The news media were on the scene of the Bakley murder within hours. Police escorted LA Times reporter Miles Corwin, who was working on his book, Homicide Special, to the crime scene to watch the investigation unfold. At the search of Blake’s home, the police permitted Corwin to roam freely. CNN released the police video of the inside of the house. The lead detective, Ronald Ito, introduced Corwin as his “partner” to at least one witness.
According to Corwin’s book Homicide Special, police suspected Blake the night of the murder, and like Sheppard, they immediately accused Blake of the crime. They speculated on Blake’s motive, and before forensic testing had been completed on crime scene evidence, named him as their primary and only suspect -- an only suspect whose picture they pasted on the front cover of the detectives’ “murder book,” a book containing police documentation about the crime. This early prejudice was reinforced by the detectives’ peers, by Bakley’s family, and by the media.
On the night of the murder, Blake told police that someone had been lurking outside his house in recent weeks. Earle Caldwell, Blake’s handyman, confirmed Blake’s story. He described a man with short-cropped hair driving a black pickup truck. Blake and Caldwell had dubbed the man “Buzz Cut.” Blake’s housekeeper, in a tabloid interview, said Blake warned her to keep the gate to the fence surrounding the house closed. And during a police interview, Caldwell’s girlfriend, Lisa Johnson, said that one time Blake summoned Caldwell from his date, telling him that someone was hanging around outside his house.
Bakley herself said that someone had been stalking her in a recorded phone call to Robert Blake. She also told her probation officer in a letter that she was going to live with Blake because someone had recently tried to kill her.
In Sheppard, the defense presented two witnesses at trial, independent of one another, who stated they had seen a tall bushy-haired man in a white shirt lurking about the Sheppard house before the murder.
News reporters camped out at both Blake’s and Sheppard’s home. They remained on Blake’s doorstep for almost a month.
In order to allay the negative publicity, Sheppard offered $10,000 reward for his wife’s killer. Blake employed a team of private detectives who worked for a year gathering evidence.
Blake and Sheppard gave interviews, hoping in vain to soften the villian-like image painted by the media.
The press turned insidiously cold toward Blake and Sheppard, taunting both men about lie detector tests. The Star tabloid offered Blake $100,000 to take one and the national news picked up the story and published it worldwide.
In 1954, the Sheppard trial courtroom was so filled with reporters and spectators that the judge ordered temporary tables brought in to accommodate the press. He designated another room near the courtroom for radio reporters. Jurors’ names and addresses were released to the newspapers and many received anonymous advice and threats.
Among the State’s evidence was the coroner’s speculation that the victim was hit with an unidentified surgical object, an imprint of which was on a bloody pillowcase. And although Marilyn Sheppard was brutally struck over 35 times and was left in a pool of her own splattered blood, the prosecution claimed that the one spot of blood on Sheppard’s pant leg and another on his wrist implicated him in the murder.
The jury deliberated for five days unrestrainted from contact with the outside, free to read newspaper reports and opinions. In December, 1954, Sam Sheppard was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Twelve years later, Sheppard’s new lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, convinced the Ohio Supreme Court that Sheppard’s sixth amendment rights were violated and won a new trial. Bailey argued that the original trial judge had allowed the “media circus” to prejudice jurors. The Supreme Court chief justice Carl A. Weinman in an 86-page ruling wrote, “If ever there was a trial by newspaper, this is a perfect example.”
Ironically, the Sheppard family chose Bailey to represent Sheppard on appeal because he had been recommended to them by a Chicago Tribune reporter who had written a book on the murder.
The second time around things were quite different.
The trial judge banned cameras, radio equipment, and sketch artists in the courtroom. He limited the press to 14 representatives in court. He placed a gag order on the lawyers. Jurors were sequestered and their phone calls monitored.
The second time around, Sam Sheppard was acquitted.
In late 2003, despite appeals by the media, Judge Darlene Schempp, the presiding judge in the upcoming trial of Robert Blake, ruled that there will be no television cameras in the courtroom during testimony. She cited concern that witnesses would hear testimony of others and that in turn might influence their testimonies.
However, Judge David M. Schacter, the civil court judge in the wrongful death lawsuit against Blake, allowed the Bakley family lawyer, Eric Dubin, to televise Blake’s jailhouse deposition. Schacter stated that to enforce at gag order would be calling it “legal fiction,” referring to the numerous media appearances made by both sides. There was no mention whether he considered Blake’s right to a fair trial or his right to privacy. If not, it appears the judge sidestepped Blake’s Constitutional rights. Let’s hope this type of ruling does not become a trend.
Whether Robert Blake can get a fair trial remains to be seen. Certainly in its exploitation of the first amendment right to free speech, the media has gone unchecked, although one can argue the press only reports what it sees and hears. In the upcoming days, Judge Schempp will determine whether to uphold a Supreme Court ruling and disallow evidence seized at Blake’s home because of Miles Corwin’s media presence.
But unlike the fictional Dr. Richard Kimball in “The Fugitive,” Robert Blake’s search for the one-armed man will end in the courtroom. No train wreck will set him free, only a "not guilty" verdict.
And unlike the real Dr. Sheppard, who won his freedom on appeal, the 70-year-old Blake does not have 12 years to wait for an appeal if he is convicted. For the sake of the Constitution, let’s hope the jury gets it right the first time.
Footnote: Facts about the Sheppard case come from the websites
Fair Trial Issues and the First Amendment and Famous American Trials: Sam Sheppard Trials 1954 & 1966.
According to the articles within these sites, new evidence has been discovered which clears Sam Sheppard and there is an effort to declare him innocent. Facts about Sheppard’s innocence will not be detailed here, but one line in the “New Evidence” section echoes the charges recently brought up by Gerald Schwartzbach – “Since the prosecution was convinced that Dr. Sam Sheppard was the killer, they did not follow up on some of the evidence they had available at the time.” Déjà vu.