Friday, February 25, 2005

The Right-Handed Shooter

In opening statements and during the course of the criminal trial, defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach contended that Bonny Lee Bakley was not shot by Robert Blake, but by an unknown assailant. His theory was that the shooter was right handed, and Blake was a lefty. It was a theory that may have taken the prosecution by surprise.

Blake had been charged with one count of murder with a special circumstance of lying in wait. Shortly after his arrest, the District Attorney revised the murder charge to include he “personally and intentionally discharged a firearm, a handgun…”, a charge that would deny Blake a chance of parole should he be convicted.

Bakley was shot from behind in the head and shoulder with a Walther P38 handgun. That gun was found at the crime scene coated in an unidentified oily substance and thrown in a dumpster. According to testimony of Rod Englert, Crime Scene Reconstructionist, the gun was fired twice in rapid succession, the first shot hitting the shoulder and the second hitting her head. One expelled cartridge was found in the fold of the passenger seat and the other in the gutter near the passenger door, according to police reports and photos taken at the crime scene.

During direct examination of Englert, Assistant District Attorney Shellie Samuels asked if Englert knew how the cartridges landed where they did.

Englert replied that “the casings could have been put in the car by officers (at the scene.)”

Upon cross examination, defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach asked Englert, “Have you ever known any law enforcement officer who responded to a shooting put a casing back in a car?” asked Schwartzbach.

“Well, no,” Englert replied.

“Have you ever known anyone to shoot holding a gun sideways, like a gang member might do?”

“Yes,” Englert replied.

The Walther P38 expels its cartridges left and to the rear. If the assailant held the gun straight out and sideways in his right hand, the cartridges would have ejected toward the car, instead of landing on the grass parkway between the street and the sidewalk.

Two test firings of the Walther revealed that the gun expelled 1,890 particles and 2,440 particles respectively on the hands of the shooter. According to published studies done by Aerospace Corporation, after 2.5 hours, the shooter’s hands would still have approximately 97 particles. It was within 2.5 hours that the LAPD tested Blake’s hands for gunshot residue. His hands contained only five particles, none of which were specific to gunshot residue. According to the LAPD crime lab documentation, these particles could have come from sources other than the firing of a gun.

Prosecutor Samuels seemed determined to convince the jury Blake could shoot with his right hand. She questioned both Daryn Goodall, a one-time assistant of Blake’s, and Pamela Hudak, an actress and friend of Blake’s, on whether actors are trained to be right or left handed and whether they rehearse with their opposing hand if the part required it. Both Goodall and Hudak said they didn’t know. Hudak said she had never done that.

A third person Samuels questioned was Marty Delgadillo, Los Angeles Gun Club Range Master and the gun range instructor who tested Blake when he renewed his gun permit in January 2001. In order to pass the test, Blake was required to shoot with each hand. Blake failed three times when shooting with his right hand. The instructor had to teach Blake how to use his right hand in order to pass the test. Still, the instructor admitted, Blake had difficulty doing this.

It is unclear whether the LAPD believed that Blake shot her with his right hand when they charged him with murder, whether they didn’t realize that the shooter might be right-handed, or whether they chose to ignore the fact.

But how much more contrived could the case against Blake be? The state asked a jury to believe that Blake had murdered his wife in a neighborhood where he had lived for 20 years, at a restaurant where he had eaten several times a week for 30 years, on a Friday night and, while parked under a street lamp on a night of a full moon, he, at age 68, sneaked up behind her and shot her with his weak right hand, was able to wipe away all traces of specific gunshot residue from his hands and his clothes, that he planned the murder when diners were leaving the restaurant and picking up take-out, restaurant workers were ending their shifts, and residents were taking evening walks. If the State’s contention that he had planned the murder was true, why would he have picked this place and time? How could he have known that someone might not step out of a house or drive by at the time he shot her?

Then there’s the oil on the gun. Where did it come from? No criminologist or LAPD officer could account for it. When was it put on the gun? If Blake oiled the gun sometime before he shot her, how did he manage to get all traces of oil off his hands as well? Anyone who gets oil on his hands knows how difficult it is to wash it off without soap and water. Wouldn’t the gunshot particles stick to the oil on his hand, causing less of them to fall off in the first two hours? Maybe then, he oiled it afterward, again risking being seen by a passerby. But where was the source of the oil? No container was found and the LAPD did extensive testing on the car to determine if it had come from the crankshaft or other area, which it apparently did not. Nor was anything found in the dumpster.

A more likely scenario would be that whoever shot Bakley was little concerned with being seen. Someone who could pull up in a car, shoot, and drive away before anyone who happened to witness the crime realized what had happened. Before anyone could get a positive ID.

A fact that was not reported by the press nor explored in court was that three neighbors reported a dark car, running, before the murder, and two of them heard the car “peel out” at the time of the murder. Another man saw someone hanging about Blake’s car shortly after Blake and Bakley had parked for dinner.

According to court documents, the LAPD didn’t investigate the neighbors’ claims until 10 months after the murder – one month before they arrested Robert Blake.

The Bakley investigation was the “most extensive in LAPD history” according to then Chief of Police Bernard Parks. It was also the most expensive, although the exact cost of the investigation was never disclosed. Parks claimed that police had traveled to 15 states in search of evidence. So how, at the heart of the crime scene, did the neighbors’ statements slip through the cracks for 10 months?

No one has ever answered that question. But in 2001, Bernard Parks was being held accountable for his performance. Miles Corwin, book author and LA Times employee, was being shuffled around to crime scenes in an effort to improve the LAPD’s image after Rampart and the OJ Simpson debacle. Lead Detective Ronald Ito was craving recognition and fame, as evidenced in a taped conversation with a witness where he complained he never appeared on TV during the OJ Simpson case. And the press demanded blood.

The only blood available was Robert Blake’s.

Had the police pursued leads of an unknown assailant, it was likely they would turn up no one, unless someone confessed to the crime or they found actual physical evidence. It appeared the LAPD was determined not to come up empty-handed.

So instead they turned the investigation into a witch hunt, using the press as their hunting dogs. It was a hunt that, six years in the future, would rob a man of his past, present, and future.


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