Friday, February 04, 2005

The Tea Leaf Reader

Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels always arrived early to the courtroom, sometimes before the door was unlocked to the public. A few early-bird reporters arrived either just before or after her, hoping to catch her quips about the defense. She particularly liked taking behind-the-back snipes at Robert Blake’s defense attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach.

She had been up until three in the morning, Samuels announced to the court reporter who was setting up her equipment. She planned to call a surprise witness, she joked, who might just cause Schwartzbach to have a “heart attack.”

The surprise witness turned out to be a returning expert witness, Rod Englert. Englert was a “crime scene reconstructionist.” Schwartzbach briefly protested to Judge Darlene Schempp that Samuels had not properly designated Englert to return and that he had received Englert’s new evidence at 3AM that morning. Schempp allowed Samuels to proceed.

What Samuels didn't realize was that Englert would unwittingly support Blake's story about how he found Bonny Lee Bakley when he returned to the car after she had been shot.

Englert said that after his previous testimony, he returned to the LAPD’s scientific unit to work on recreating the crime scene. Using a live blonde model, approximately the same height and weight as Bakley, Englert showed photos of how he believed Bakley was shot from behind. In one picture the model sat in the passenger seat of a 1991 Dodge Stealth, a duplicate of Blake's car the LAPD purchased with taxpayer money. The photo was taken from outside the car, near the rear right quarter panel. The model was looking out the front windshield, her head slightly turned toward what would have been the direction of Vitello’s restaurant.

Another picture showed the model slumped down over the car’s console. Englert explained that Blake’s car had a pool of dried blood there. The blood has been “expirated,” that is, it contained air bubbles consistent with someone bleeding from the mouth and nose. Englert ascertained from this pool of blood that Bakley was lying on the console after she was shot.

A third picture showed Englert's "reconstruction" of the position of the shooter. The photo, take from outside the car, showed a man standing near the right rear quarter panel of the Stealth. That man was Detective Steven Eguchi, one of the detectives investigating the case. Eguchi is a short man, under six feet tall, slight build, with black-brown hair. Blake is a short man, under six feet tall, slight build, and, at the time of the murder, had black-brown hair.

Englert also showed variations of these pictures, some with red lines drawn indicating the path of the bullets.

This was Englert's evidence. He claimed that he had determined the trajectory of the bullets and Bakley's position by examining the blood patterns on the console and in the rest of the car. He told the jury that the gun was fired twice in rapid succession, explaining that the "trajectory" was right to left (from the gun to the victim, that is), and down to up. (Guns have a "kick," and a rapidly-fired second shot would have pushed the shooter slightly backward and his arm slightly upward.)

He further testified that Bakley's head was cocked back and her right shoulder raised. The passenger seat was moved all the way back.

"Bullets do not move people," Englert explained, turning the courtroom into a classroom. A body, he said, will absorb the energy from the bullet and collapse forward, not fall to the left. He told anecdotes about experiments he witnessed. He told accounts of people who were shot and never realized it. Only in the movies, he said, do people move when hit by bullets.

The point Englert appeared to be making was that he had determined from the bloodstains on the console that Bakley tried to get out of the way by ducking toward the console before being shot.

Englert asked Samuels to sit in a chair in front of the jury for a demonstration. He positioned steel rods about two-feet long at Samuels' right cheek and shoulder to indicate the path taken by the bullets that killed Bakley. he again explained that the trajectory of the bullets was somewhat from the rear.

The court took a short break and then it was Schwartzbach's turn at Englert. Schwartzbach's legal technology consultant Ted Brooks said something, inaudible in the gallery, to Schwartzbach, who replied, "I'm certainly going to try," as he made his way to the lectern. Far from looking like he was having a heart attack, Schwartzbach wore an impish smirk on his face, the one he used when he was about to make a witness look foolish.

Schwartzbach started slowly, establishing when Englert was first retained by the State and what reports he had reviewed and produced.

Schwartzbach then asked for specifics. First, he pointed out the difference in the height and weight of Bakley and Englert's model, and asked if Englert knew measurements from Bakley's head to shoulder and shoulder to waist. Englert did not. He asked Englert if he knew whether the passenger seat had been moved by paramedics or whether he had reviewed testimony from witnesses Sean Stanek or Teri Lorenzo-Castaneda in regard to what extent they had repositioned the body. Englert had not.

"You don't know how she was repositioned after she was shot," Schwartzbach said with disdain.

Schwartzbach continued. Had Englert taken any measurements regarding the angles of the red lines he had drawn on the photos indicating the bullet paths? Had he taken measurements from the windowsill to the headliner? Did Englert know what the gunpowder load was in the bullets? Did he test-fire the weapon?

The more Englert answered no, the more questions Schwartzbach fired at him. The more Schwartzbach rocked Englert's science, the nastier and more defensive Englert's tone became.

Samuels tried to stop the questioning with many objections, most of which Judge Schempp overruled. Samuels raised her voice more with each objection, only adding to the derailment that was occurring at the witness stand.

Englert wouldn't concede to anything. He began to act like a spoil child caught in a lie. Schwartzbach displayed Englert's picture of the interior of the car with the model in the passenger seat, then he displayed a photo of the interior of Blake's car taken at the crime scene. He pointed out in the crime scene picture, the handbrake on the console was in the up position, but in Englert's photo the handbrake was down. Englert would not agree that the handbrake was in a different position; he said he didn't know because "the perspective was different."

Where were Englert's notes, Schwartzbach asked. Englert said he took no notes, that his notes were the photographs he had shown to the jury. No notes. No measurements. Just photos with red lines and a detective who resembled Blake.

"Do you agree that photographs have the potential to be misleading?" Schwartzbach asked.

"They do," Englert replied. "That's why you take many different angles."

Schwartzbach returned to the subject of the blood on the console. "Your interpretation of blood patterns in Mr. Blake's vehicle is based predominately upon the position you believe Ms. Bakley was found."

"No," Englert replied. "It's reverse engineering."

"You don't know whether that blood was there before Stanek got there."

"Based on my experience, it had to be there."

"Is it your opinion she stopped bleeding before Stanek got there?"

Samuels objected loudly. Englert had not reviewed others' testimonies she stated again.

Englert agreed with Schwartzbach that with the door closed and the window open, the fixed restraint would be the opening of the window where the bullets would have had to pass. Englert had testified earlier that the gun was not fired from inside the car, but from a few feet outside the car, with the door closed.

Schwartzbach took the seat in front of the jury and asked Englert to hold the rods in the same position he did when Samuels sat in the chair.

With that impish grin, Schwartzbach said something like, "if Ms. Bakley was moving toward the console, wouldn't the path of the bullets go..." and, in a Chaplin-esque movement, he tilted 90 degrees to the left, "like this?" The far ends of the rods went straight up in the air.

"No! No!" cried Englert. He started to say something about the laws of physics.

"I'm not talking about physics, I'm talking about a bullet in the brain," Schwartzbach snapped back.

Englert insisted again that the bullets traveled slightly upward, but he didn't have any measurements on how many degrees upward. He didn't know whether Bakley's arm had been on the armrest when she was shot.

"Weren't the rods going up?" Schwartzbach asked, referring to his demonstration. "Doesn't the gun have to keep the same trajectory?"

Earlier in testimony, Schwartzbach showed another picture of one expended shell casing that landed between the seat and the bolster of the passenger seat. The casing was covered in blood. Schwartzbach attempted to get Englert to support a defense theory that the shooter was right-handed.

Samuels knew where Schwartzbach was headed and, in re-direct, tried to damage control that line of questioning. Englert said that he couldn't tell from the photo when the casing got there or how it got there. He said where casings landed was unpredictable and then added, "the casing could have been put there by an officer at the scene."

It was probably not what Samuels wanted to hear.

"Have you ever known of a law enforcement officer respond to a shooting and put a casing back in a car?" asked Schwartzbach on cross.

Of course, Englert had not.

Schwartzbach questioned Englert's credentials and qualifications. Most of his career was as a law enforcement officer. Englert claimed to have an associate degree in police science. He also said he attended Cal State Fullerton but Schwartzbach said that the college had no record of Englert's attendance. Englert explained that the college kept no records on people who audited classes. Englert had no education in physics, geometry, calculus, or trigometry. No math, no science, except first year chemistry.

"You once endorsed a psychic for having a track record for honesty and integrity, didn't you?" Schwartzbach said.

"Objection!" Samuels answered for Englert.

"Do you have an opinion whether the shooter was holding the gun at the waist line or the chest line?" Schwartzbach asked.

"I don't know," replied Englert.

"Do you have an opinion on how tall the shooter was?"


"So the shooter could have been Gary Coleman or Shaq?"


On re-direct, Samuels stated that Englert had lectured to judges, attorneys and others about crime scenes.

Englert said he had been reconstructing crime scenes for 42 years. "Our job is to answer who, what, where, when and how."

"The fact of the matter is," Schwartzbach said in his final question, "the result of your work does not identify the perpetrator of this murder."

"That is correct," Englert replied.

In the end, Schwartzbach did more than expose Englert as a charlatan. He got Englert to corroborate the testimony of two eye witnesses.

Stanek, the prosecution witness who called 911, testified that he opened the driver’s door and saw Bakley bleeding. She was upright, but leaning toward the console. Her head, he said, was not touching the console. Her position was consistent with Englert's "bodies do not move when shot" testimony.

Stanek went to the passenger side. While still speaking with the 911 operator, he tried to pull Bakley upright toward him. She was gurgling and alive.

Blake, in the meantime, had returned to Vitello's looking for a doctor. He found a nurse, Lorenzo-Castaneda, whom he brought back to the car.

Lorenzo-Castaneda turned on the car's interior dome light. At that point, Stanek saw the bullet wound in Bakley's head and "freaked." He said he never realized she was also bleeding from a shoulder wound.

Blake, in his statement to police within hours of the murder, said when he returned to the car after retrieving the gun he left in the restaurant, he opened the driver's side door and saw Bakley leaning slightly forward. He thought she was asleep and reached in to wake her. He told police he then saw blood coming from her mouth, and ran to the nearest house for help.

Can a man conjure up the past by looking into a pool of blood? Deputy District Attorney Samuels certainly thought this illusion in the form of some photographs could fool a jury. But when a magician's trick is exposed, all the magic is gone, and what's left is just a cheat.


At 7:18 AM, Anonymous crime scene clean up said...

With access to the scene Bakley, Corwin was allowed to be in the strategy meetings of the police, witness interviews, and even a search for Blake at home.


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