Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Messages in an E-Bottle

“Bonny was lying dead still alive.” – Eric Dubin, in his opening statement. (Quote posted on the Court TV message board by a courtroom observer.)

In less than 24 hours after the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley, the internet bulletin boards and chat rooms were buzzing with speculation about the murder. Within that weekend, websites exploiting the details had already begun counting hits. The Bakley murder may not have been the first high-profile case to spawn these reactions, but the World Wide Web played prominently in and outside the courtroom.

Discussion threads appeared on internet service provider sites; business-related sites on entertainment, law, crime, and news; and private party sites and blogs. Internet polls popped up everywhere asking whether readers thought Blake was guilty. Most polls showed public opinion divided 50-50.

Probably the most traveled commercial site was Court TV and its related website, the Smoking Gun. These sites became central for news, web interviews and chats, message boards, video feeds, and a select document repository.

In both criminal and civil courtrooms, litigants and witnesses presented evidence linked directly to the internet.

Brian Allan Fiebelkorn, in the civil trial, said he researched the case using sites such as the Smoking Gun, BakleyMurder.com, and the Court TV message boards. Fiebelkorn came forward with evidence suggesting others were involved in a plot to murder Bakley. Before contacting the LAPD and associates in the Los Angeles Police Commission, Fiebelkorn researched information because he wanted to disprove the information he had, only to find out that what was being reported actually validated his evidence.

Fiebelkorn also testified that he thought the Court TV message board’s “private messages” (PM), a limited e-mail function where registered users can send messages to each other, was confidential until he received an angry call from Lead Detective Ron Ito demanding Fiebelkorn explain “Apollo” (the name Fiebelkorn posted under) and a PM to a poster named JulieAnn. The police, apparently, were also monitoring the Court TV message boards.

Dianne Mattson, Christian Brando’s “adult babysitter,” admitted to corresponding on the internet regarding evidence she had concerning Brando and a key prosecution witness, Ronald Duffy Hambleton. She testified in the civil trial that she contacted police on at least two occasions but didn’t get a response. She was then encouraged by someone on an AOL message board to take her story to Blake’s defense lawyer at the time, Thomas Mesereau.

Eric Dubin, the Bakley family’s civil lawyer, questioned Mattson extensively on her internet activities. He attempted to imply by his tone and the wiggling of his fingers behind his back that Mattson’s online conduct was not only improper but that there was something disdainful about it, although nothing in Mattson’s testimony referenced any hint of internet indiscretion. Dubin and Mattson sparred over whether she posted on a message board or a chat room, the latter Dubin’s assertion although he provided no evidence supporting his accusation. At one point the volleying became so intense that Mattson actually pointed out the online friend with whom she had been corresponding. Her friend had flown out from the East to meet her during the civil trial proceedings and to provide support in the courtroom.

Mattson testified that Brando had received a letter from Bakley in April 2001 in which Bakley enclosed pictures of Blake and the baby. Mattson said Brando became enraged about the pictures. According to police documents, Brando told police that the pictures were a slap in the face. This wasn’t the first time this letter became known, it was posted on May 6, 2001, by an anonymous poster on a now defunct website that contained links to news articles about the case.

During the criminal trial preliminary hearing, the State presented evidence that Earle Caldwell, Blake’s handyman, used the search term “silencer,” implying, according to the prosecution, that Caldwell was researching silencers for the gun used to murder Bakley. The State’s own witnesses, however, testified that the murder weapon was not muffled by a silencer, nor had there been any manufactured silencer ever made to fit it.

On the Court TV message boards before the criminal trial started, one poster speculated that a plastic soda bottle may have been used as a make-shift silencer. It was quite an interesting theory considering that Caldwell first testified during the civil trial, well after the criminal trial, that he had seen a movie where a soda bottle was used as a silencer. Caldwell admitted to searching the internet to see if a gun rigged with a soda bottle could actually silence the blast. But that research, according to Caldwell’s testimony, was done two years before he met Blake. At the time the poster posted his theory, however, the soda bottle testimony was not public knowledge. Was it possible that one of the principals in the investigation leaked this information in order to see how it would play in public?

Caldwell’s emails to his ex-girlfriend, Lisa Johnson, were also offered up as evidence during the preliminary hearing. The e-mails were written after the murder, and Caldwell wrote in one that he was “putting his life on hold to save a life, and not just Robert Blake’s.” Caldwell explained that he was referring to both Blake and his baby daughter, Rosie. Caldwell also said that Blake was “frazzled” after the murder and Caldwell was helping out.

Eric Dubin, the Bakley estate’s attorney, asked Caldwell during his deposition whether Caldwell was posting on the Court TV messages boards as “Diddley Squat.” Diddley Squat was a poster who followed the case extensively and had strong opinions about Blake’s and Caldwell’s innocence. (Caldwell was not Diddley Squat.)

Dubin became a media hound wannabe. He doggedly followed the press around during both trials and the preliminary hearing, trying to do to Blake what he claimed Blake’s lawyers had done to Bakley. He had twice made unsuccessful attempts to depose Blake while he was in jail: the first time video-taping an empty chair to which he posed questions and the second, video-taping Blake eating an apple and drinking a glass of milk. At the advice of Blake’s lawyer at the time, Thomas Mesereau, Blake was instructed not to answer Dubin.

Still, those videos ended up on the internet and Dubin implied that Blake was hiding from the questions, instead of exercising his Fifth Amendment right.

Consequently, when Dubin was able to depose Blake after his acquittal, he again gave a press conference to announce that he had the evidence he needed, evidence that the police did not have the opportunity to get. He then took snippets of Blake’s deposition and released these to the press and the web. It is unclear what Dubin thought was evidence in these snippets. The worst “episode” shown was Blake’s lawyer Peter Ezzell, not Blake, banging his fist on the table and threatening to report Dubin to the judge if Dubin couldn’t ask proper questions. Only pieces of the deposition were shown to the public, but if Dubin’s abusive, incoherent courtroom manner was any indication of his deposition style, Ezzell’s outburst was quite understandable.

Dubin didn’t stop with Blake. Dubin also released deposition snippets of Blake’s first wife, Sondra Kerr, who made accusations of abuse during the marriage which ended in divorce 20 years ago. Unfortunately for Blake, Kerr was barred from being called as a witness regarding their marriage during either the criminal or civil trial, and therefore, Blake was unable to defend himself against her allegations.

Shortly after the deposition of Kerr, a poster named “Depo Man” began commenting on the deposition on the Court TV message boards. This poster claimed to have inside information on the deposition and appeared to be fishing for opinions. It was rumored that Depo Man was actually Eric Dubin. Depo Man went silent when a poster close to the defense turned the postings over to Blake’s attorneys.

Dubin later revealed that he was in fact reading the Court TV boards when he protested to Judge Schacter during the civil trial that another poster had written some unfavorable information about Dubin and his family. Dubin asked the judge to bar the poster, who was reporting the testimony on the message boards, from the courtroom. The judge said he had no authority to admonish anyone in that regard, and that Dubin had other recourse if he chose to do so.

Court TV posters who attended the trial avidly criticized Dubin’s apparent lack of litigation experience. During his closing argument, Dubin apologized for his courtroom mistakes to the jury. The jury cited that apology during a press conference after they delivered the verdict. Could Dubin have thought to apologize because of the hailstorm of condemnation he received online?

Blake’s friends and supporters appeared on internet sites as well. Actress Collette Duvall, Blake’s former girlfriend, created a site called the Robert Blake I Know, where she wrote a poignant story about Blake. She later did a web interview on Court TV, where she tried unsuccessfully to defend herself against accusations that Frank Minnucci had made obscene phone calls to her on Blake’s request. Minnucci, in testimony, said he did not know Duvall nor did he know the name of the woman whom he called. Duvall had been a victim of a stalker around the time Minnucci claimed to have made the phone calls. Because of the way the press had reported the testimony, she and others jumped to the conclusion that Minnucci was referring to her in his testimony. It was clear from phone record evidence, that Minnucci had totally fabricated his stories.

Jon Solari, another actor who claimed to be Blake’s friend, posted his support on the Court TV messages boards until Judge Darlene Schempp, during the criminal trial, asked him to leave the courtroom because he might be called as a witness. Solari yelled, “You’re a lying, two-faced punk!” to Blake as he came from the courtroom the next day. Solari made the mistake of asking sympathetic posters on Court TV what they thought of his outburst and they, in turn, turned on him. Solari was never heard from again.

Even the Superior Court of the State of California contributed to the World Wide Web. On its site were select motions filed from both the criminal and civil trials. Sometime during either the criminal or the civil trial, two key motions had been removed from the site: the Response and Opposition to Motion in Limine to Exclude Evidence of the Results of The Prosecution’s Oil Testing and Hood Insulator Testing dated 2/2/04 (“Oil Motion”), and the Notice of Motion and Motion to Introduce Evidence of Third Party Culpability dated 10/14/04 (“TPM”), both filed by the defense. In the Oil Motion, the defense opposed a motion by the prosecution to bar testimony regarding 350 pages of test results which were unfavorable to the prosecution’s case. None of the tests performed indicated any evidence against Blake, and the defense argued that the tests proved Blake was not the shooter. The TPM outlined an alternate theory on the murder. It is unclear why the Los Angeles Superior Court removed these two motions although its corresponding prosecution motions are still online. Both motions point to Blake’s innocence. (A copy of the TPM is available here: Third Party Motion.)

Technology has brought a new meaning to law and the First Amendment. The web introduced a new on-demand form of information, information that persists for years, and is repeated, transformed, and assimilated. Whether this is good or bad, only history will tell. But one thing is certain -- bloggers and posters will be writing that history.

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