Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Hollywood 12

“My goal has always been to make the Constitution work for everybody because, if it doesn’t work for everybody, it doesn’t work.” – M. Gerald Schwartzbach



Both the prosecution and the defense had definite profiles in mind when they weeded through over 750 jury candidates for the Robert Blake murder trial. Not race, religion, age, or gender appeared of much value to either side when they finally picked the seven men, five women jury who would decide Blake’s fate.

For the prosecution the key was finding those jurors who would sympathize with Bakley as victim and despise Blake as villian. For the prosecution it was to find jurors who would believe a circumstantial case, despite the lack of physical evidence. No DNA, no fingerprints, no eyewitnesses, Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels told each prospective juror.

She took aim at Blake’s claim that he was worried about his daughter growing up with a woman like Bonny Bakley. “Do you feel there should be a law to protect people who kill their spouses to protect their children?” Samuels asked.
“If you are convinced by the end of this case that he murdered Bonny Lee Bakley but she probably deserved it, could you convict him?”

The defense, on the other hand, was looking for more idealistic values.

“I want fair jurors. If I get a fair jury, I believe he (Blake) will be acquitted,” said defense Attorney Gerald Schwartzbach. And so Schwartzbach asked each potential juror whether he or she had a problem with Blake being presumed innocent.

The Associated Press reported that many of the prospective jurors didn’t understand or disagreed with the concept “innocent until proven guilty.” Apparently, it is a tenet that most people can repeat but not abide. Especially when the press has told them otherwise.

On March 16 after nine days of deliberation, the jury acquitted Robert Blake.

It was a smart jury. They methodically went over each piece of evidence and every witness statement. Could they also have thought they would have to defend their decision to the press?

Prosecutors “couldn’t put the gun in his hand,” said jury forman Thomas Nicolson. “I felt the primary thing from what I saw was that the circumstantial evidence was flimsy.”

The media, however, seemed disappointed in the jury’s verdict. Speculation began over what was termed the “CSI Effect,” the influence of television crime shows on jurors. Crimes on shows such as CSI and Law & Order are neatly sewn together with evidence that clearly proves the case beyond reasonable doubt. Some pro-prosecution experts suggested that juries should be further educated to accept circumstantial evidence.

There was no physical evidence tying Blake to Bakley’s murder, no specific gunshot residue or blood on Blake’s hands or clothes, no DNA, no fingerprints. There were no eye or “ear” witnesses. The verdict appeared not be to result of the CSI effect but more the result of lack of evidence.

The State had produced 60,000 pages of evidence against Blake and spent four years trying to prove its case. So how much more evidence would the State need to find Blake guilty? Would another 10,000 pages or another 10,000 police hours have convicted him? Probably not, because the investigation was based on a false premise - that, on the night of the murder, Blake was the only possible suspect. It was that premise that the defense used as the cornerstone of its case.

Just about the time when the proverbial dust was ready to settle on the Blake verdict, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley called the Blake jurors “incredibly stupid.” He claimed to have reviewed the case himself and found Blake “guilty as sin.” (One wonders whether Cooley knows how to read. His own deputy district attorney published a memo stating the police were unable to tie Blake to the murder weapon. Consequently, the memo was given to book author Miles Corwin. There was also a 2002 memo from the then Chief of Police Bernard Parks ordering detectives to arrest Robert Blake, despite the investigation being incomplete. Perhaps Cooley was out of town in 2003 when Court TV televised a preliminary hearing where, according to the press, Thomas Mesereau, Blake’s defense attorney at the time, had turned Duffy Hambleton’s account into “swiss cheese” or in 2004 when Judge Darlene Schempp dismissed the conspiracy charge against Blake and Earle Caldwell for lack of evidence. But Cooley’s literacy and mental capacity will be reserved for another time, perhaps during an election campaign.)

The jury asked for an apology from Cooley. He arrogantly said he would not apologize. It was a message to all potential jurors that the court of public opinion carries more weight than the court of law.

The defense was not charged with proving Blake’s innocence, and in reality, without a confession, no one will ever know who killed Bonny Lee Bakley.

Members of the jury emphasized that they did not find Blake innocent, only not guilty. There just wasn’t enough evidence presented, they said.

But was there more in that comment? Did the jury mean to call Blake “not innocent” as a buffer against a media onslaught which would accuse them of playing favorite to a celebrity? Certainly, that’s what Cooley did in a very ugly manner. CNN’s Nancy Grace followed suit with her comments as well, explaining how Blake won his case by bashing the victim. But neither Cooley nor Grace ever graced the courtroom with their presence, nor did the myriad of other cable news anchors and commentators who peddle sensationalism for rating points.

The outcome of the trial, it seems, did not matter much to anyone in the media. Guilty or innocent, Blake was bound to be blacklisted and in the process, the jury, who swore to uphold the law, was taken down, too.


John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, “It is one of the triumphs of the human that he can know a thing and still not believe it.”

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