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Hollywood Analysis: Blake vs. Simpson

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   April 22, 2002 at 6:14 PM   |   Comments

Media commentary has tended to find comparisons between the murder case against actor Robert Blake and the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson, but in most respects the two cases don't have very much in common.

Listing the major similarities between the cases is pretty quick work.

Both involved the brutal murder of a wife (or ex-wife in the Simpson case). Both men are celebrities. Both were immediately regarded as prime suspects by investigators, and both turned to high-profile defense attorneys to argue that somebody else might have committed the crime and that "the real killer is still out there."

Both pleaded not guilty.

Oh yes, and both cases provoked intense media coverage.

That's more or less the extent of any major resemblance one case bears to the other, but ongoing media coverage of the Blake case has already conditioned news consumers to see the cases as inextricably linked and rife with eerie coincidences.

Some reporters even noted that one of the detectives on the case shared the same last name as the judge in the Simpson trial -- Ito -- although the two officers of the court are not related.

Images broadcast on TV last Thursday -- especially the copter-cam shots of the house where Blake was arrested and his police car ride to police headquarters -- did call to mind some of the most lasting images from the Simpson arrest and trial.

The press conference by Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks and homicide-robbery Capt. Jim Tatreau featured confidently expressed assertions that Blake shot Bonny Lee Bakley, and that investigators had built a case based on "significant and compelling" evidence. It sounded similar to the promise that prosecutor Marcia Clark made when she announced at the beginning of the Simpson case that a guilty verdict was in the bag.

The differences between the cases take considerably longer to enumerate.

Race was a factor in the Simpson case. Class -- or lack of it -- is at the center of the Blake case.

Simpson was a working actor at the time of his arrest, enjoying substantial income from occasional movies, commercials and speaking appearances. Simpson never won an Emmy, as Blake did for "Baretta," but he had a Heisman Trophy and a membership in the football Hall of Fame.

Blake, by all accounts, enjoyed a comfortable living -- as he collected residuals from "Baretta" reruns and interest from investments. But he was also miserable -- trapped in a marriage to a woman he freely acknowledged he could not stand.

Simpson's lawyers had a client with an established public image as one of the good guys in Hollywood. Blake's lawyer, Harland Braun, may have to overcome his client's image as a tough guy who has a problem with authority.

There were no witnesses to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, but investigators say they have two witnesses who will testify that Blake tried to hire them to kill Bakley. And they have charged a second suspect, Earle Caldwell, with conspiracy to commit murder in the Blake case.

Police and prosecutors brought the case against Simpson swiftly -- and paid the price, as the defendant's so-called Dream Team of lawyers capitalized on sloppy evidence handling and an array of prosecutorial blunders to win an acquittal. Simpson was eventually found liable in a wrongful death lawsuit for the deaths of Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman.

Police in the Blake investigators seem to have taken great pains to nail down all the corners of their case before making an arrest.

Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi said detectives and prosecutors were applying a painful lesson learned in the Simpson experience.

"The Simpson case was very harmful to our system of justice because there's no question the man was guilty and yet he got off," said Bugliosi, who gained fame prosecuting mass murderer Charles Manson. "The prosecution does not want a duplication of anything like that, so they want to make sure they have enough evidence when they go to trial."

Bugliosi said the law enforcement community beyond Los Angeles has also learned from the Simpson case to make sure their cases are sound before taking them to trial.

"I've heard the pros around the country are a little gun shy after the Simpson case," he said.

Whatever the Simpson prosecutors may have learned from their debacle, they learned too late to apply to the celebrated case they lost. But their experience provided the Blake prosecutors with a fairly detailed road map of the kinds of hazards that can foul up what otherwise looks like an overwhelming case against a defendant.

That is almost certainly the biggest, and most significant, difference between the two cases.

The media contingent at the municipal court in Van Nuys, Calif. for Blake's arraignment on Monday was not match for what eventually became known as Camp O.J., the media village that sprung up around the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles where Simpson stood trial.

TV coverage -- especially on cable -- has already begun to rival the coverage we saw when the Simpson trial dominated the nightly media conversation. Of course, in those days there were not as many cable outlets and talk shows as there are now.

In any event, TV has already begun to reacquaint viewers with the cadre of talking heads like country lawyer Gerry Spence, feminist lawyer Gloria Allred and all manner of former prosecutors -- including Marcia Clark.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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