Blake pleads innocent in murder case

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  April 22, 2002 at 11:41 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 22 (UPI) -- Actor Robert Blake pleaded innocent on Monday to all four counts against him -- including murder -- in the death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, in May 2001.

A hearing was scheduled for May 1 to set a date for a preliminary hearing in the case.

Prosecutors charged that Blake "personally and intentionally discharged the firearm which caused great bodily injury and death to Bobby Lee Bakley."

The complaint also claims that Blake committed the crime by means of special circumstances -- lying in wait -- meaning Blake, if convicted, could face capital punishment under California law.

The 68-year-old Emmy-winning star of the 1970s police drama "Baretta" was also charged with two counts of solicitation to commit murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.

Earle Caldwell, described as a bodyguard and former handyman for Blake, was also arraigned Monday. He pleaded innocent to one count of conspiracy to commit murder.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that they were not prepared to take up the question at Monday's brief hearing of whether bail should be granted. They may reconsider that issue at the May 1 hearing.

Prosecutors have said they would oppose bail. Blake's attorney, Harland Braun, said he would argue for bail, which would be $1 million in a case involving charges of murder with special circumstances -- and is rarely, if ever, granted.

The criminal complaint alleged that Blake committed at least 18 overt acts as part of an ongoing campaign to end his wife's life.

In one part of the complaint, investigators said that in March 2001 -- two months before Bakley was killed -- Blake asked someone to hide in a van in a desert area and kill Bakley.

The complaint also alleges that Blake drove one person to a spot near Vitello's, a restaurant in the Studio City section of Los Angeles, to look at a possible murder site. Bakley, 44, was shot to death May 4 last year as she sat in Blake's car near the restaurant.

Blake told police he left her in the car while he went back inside the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left in their booth, and came back to find her shot and dying.

Prosecutors said Caldwell kept a list of items handy -- at Blake's request -- including two shovels, a small sledge, a crowbar, old rugs, duct tape, Drano, pool acid and lye. They said the list included an instruction: "Get blank gun ready."

Speaking with reporters outside the courthouse in Van Nuys, Blake's lawyer, Braun, declined to comment on the details listed in the criminal complaint.

"I can't comment on what evidence they have because I haven't seen it," said Braun.

Police said they had gathered "significant and compelling" evidence against Blake during their nearly yearlong investigation. More evidence will be brought up in open court when prosecutors make their case at a preliminary hearing.

Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi said prosecutors are not likely to put on more than a skeleton case at that hearing.

"If they do, they're basically handing the case over to the defense," said Bugliosi, who gained fame for prosecuting mass murderer Charles Manson.

Actually, the defense may have handed the case over to the prosecution.

Braun turned evidence over to police six days after Bakley was killed, including trunks full of personal effects that he removed from the house where Bakley lived. He characterized the material as "a catalog of her business operations ... the lonely hearts thing."

Braun claimed that Bakley routinely used the mail to get lonely men to send her money, sometimes in exchange for offers of nude photos of herself. He insisted that any number of people had a motive to kill her.

On the night they arrested Blake, however, police said they had eliminated all possible other suspects. Braun remained unconvinced.

"I think the real killer is still out there," he said.

Braun also replayed his character assessment against Bakley, while saying he didn't want to "besmirch" her reputation.

"That means, 'I want to now besmirch Bonny,'" said Cary Goldstein, an attorney who represents Bakley's family.

"It's a tactic," he said. "It's preconditioning prospective jurors. The subtle implication is that she had it coming. I predict backlash by the American public to this tactic. And hopefully a prominent defense attorney will think twice before utilizing this brutal tactic."

On the night that Bakley was killed, police conducted tests to determine whether Blake had fired a gun. The results were placed in the case file, which has been under seal, but Braun has consistently suggested that the tests must have come back negative.

"If he had gunshot residue on his hand," said Braun shortly after Bakley was killed, "he'd have been arrested by now."

Bugliosi disagrees.

"In a murder case, there's no statute of limitations," he said, "but as soon as you make an arrest, then the constitutional and statutory right to a speedy trial comes into play. Even if they believe at the moment a person is guilty, if they feel they can accumulate more evidence, they can wait because they don't have to worry about the statute running."

Bugliosi said investigators may have been extra deliberate because they don't want to repeat the mistakes of the O.J. Simpson double-murder case, when Simpson was acquitted after a trial that exposed numerous flaws in the Los Angeles Police Department's handling of the case.

"The Simpson case was very harmful to our system of justice," said Bugliosi, "because there's no question the man was guilty, and yet he got off. 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."

Goldstein is satisfied that police have their man.

"The family is grateful that they're a step closer to closure and resolution," he said. "Hopefully there will be justice served."

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