An Unexpected Verdict
It was the afternoon of November 18th, 2005, and finally, after more than a week of deliberations, it was announced that the jurors in the Robert Blake civil case had reached a decision.
The Court TV coverage turned to talking heads who discussed their expectations. While no one was certain whether the jurors would find against Blake, none expected an award of any size. Anchor Lisa Bloom said she leaned toward a finding of liability against Blake, if only because the jury had been out so long, something she said usually means they had to take the time to agree on the size of the award. But others, including Vinnie Politano, who covered the case from California for the station, noted that the evidence was complicated, and that the jurors very well could have spent considerable time determining just the liability question. And, of course, if they had decided not to hold Blake accountable, there would be no debate about an award. As the anchors awaited the verdict, co-anchor Ron Kuby bluntly remarked that he couldn't imagine a jury finding the life to Bonny Lee Bakley to be worth very much.
Then the verdict was announced. Court TV reporter Jean Casarez stood in front of the courthouse in Burbank and read the decision of the jurors.
"Did Robert Blake intentionally cause the death of Bonny Bakley? Yes."
"Did Earle Caldwell conspire with Robert Blake to intentionally cause the death" No. He did not. No."
But the biggest surprise was yet to come as television audiences around the country awaited announcement of the amount of the decision. After a very brief wait, Casarez was back with the answer to that question:
"Thirty million dollars! Thirty million dollars!"
The reaction on-screen was probably much lot like the reaction of the public. The award was a shock, completely unexpected, and obviously out of proportion to a situation in which the deceased had virtually none of the qualities usually associated with large judgments in wrongful death suits. She had not even once worked at a legitimate job. She left her children in the care of a first cousin - who also happened to be one of her many ex-husbands and a sometimes partner in her pornography empire - while she ran around the country chasing the more promising prospects for her sex-and-porn racket. In other words, she brought to her surviving children neither the expectation of substantial earnings for their monetary support nor the guidance and companionship that one generally associates with parental care. Indeed, her relationship with her children seemed limited to exploiting them as envelope stuffers for her porn business and, in the case of at least one daughter, to model for obscene photos and videos and to act as a prostitute for her mother's clients.
"Everybody is shocked that it was thirty million," Casarez told Catherine Crier, as Court TV's coverage continued into the night. "I don't think people are shocked that Robert Blake was found liable, but I don't think anybody believed we'd be talking that amount of money."
Gunman or Hired Man?
The decision, it was revealed, had barely met the standard for a civil verdict, with only nine jurors in agreement, three opposed. And the talk on television quickly turned to Blake's finances. He had offered a $250,000 settlement prior to the criminal trial and offered to let the plaintiff's attorney, Eric J. Dubin, look at detailed financial records showing that Blake had nothing more than that. Blake said that if the settlement offer was rejected, the entire sum of $250,000 would be spent on litigating the case. Dubin refused the offer.
Casarez pointed out that Blake had incurred tremendous expense fighting the criminal case and that he lived modestly, in a rented place not far from the courthouse. Kuby suggested that this was one of those awards, like the infamous McDonald's coffee case, where a judge would probably intervene and reduce the amount. According to Casarez, who had gotten to know Blake during the course of the trial, the 72-year-old actor still wanted to work. But, as others noted, he would hardly have an incentive to earn more than he needed for his own expenses.
The plaintiff in this case was the estate of the late Bonny Bakley - not Bakley's four children, as Dubin repeatedly and erroneously stated.
Finally, it was time to hear from the jurors. But first, Dubin stepped to the microphone to give his statement. "When Mr. Blake was acquitted, the State of California set him free. We're in the came country, the same state. This is America," Dubin said, biting his lips while his head bobbed nervously up and down. "He's ordered to pay and I have every reason to think he will pay." Dubin would repeat those words many times over the next few days during appearances on television news shows. In fact, speaking on CNN the following day, he boasted about collecting his fee: "I will take a check, cashier's check or cash. I will leave it at whatever he wants to do, but, hopefully, not in quarters." (1)
It would not be long, however, before Dubin would change his tune.
Comments from jurors were considerably more revealing. Those who voted against Blake cited not evidence or testimony, but their dissatisfaction with Blake's demeanor on the stand. "It was just the way he was acting," said juror Tony Aldana about Blake. "I mean, you know, he could have been a lot better, a lot nicer to people... It's just the way he presented himself."
When a reporter interrupted Aldana to ask if he believed the actor had fired the gun, he looked puzzled. "We're not sure," another juror chimed in. And Aldana quickly echoed, "We're not sure." Then jury foreman Bob Horn stepped forward to express his opinion that "Mr. Blake was probably his worst enemy on the stand."
Another member of the panel denied that jurors "hated" Blake, but admitted that the award was meant to send a message. But on the other side, a male juror stepped forward to say that he felt both Blake and Caldwell were innocent, adding that he found Brian Allen's testimony both believable and persuasive. Allen testified about the connection between Christian Brando, for whom Bakley named Blake's baby at birth, and several other characters having roles in the story. Allen's testimony strongly suggested that police ignored vital leads that would have shown a connection that could be traced back to Brando.
The Experts Weigh In
The jurors' remarks seemed to suggest more that they were convinced to find for the Bakley estate because of Blake's behavior on the stand. But court-watchers found Blake's testimony credible - and generally spoke of the verdict as an unreasonable one. Even MSNBC's Dan Abrams, who strongly sided against Blake during the criminal trial, had a change of heart as the civil case progressed. And on verdict night, he welcomed Court TV reporter Jean Casarez to his program.
"All right, Jean," he began, "bottom line, difference between this case and the criminal case, apart from the legal standard is that Robert Blake testified - but a lot of people who saw him testify thought he didn't do so badly."
Casarez responded, "Well that's right. But this jury and this is the most interesting thing I think to come out of today, they didn't like Robert Blake. That's what they said. They didn't like him; they didn't like him on the stand. They didn't think he was respectful to them as jurors and respectful to the court and it went on from there to find this judgment." (2)
The talk got even more interesting when Bakley lawyer Dubin joined the conversation:
ABRAMS: Because I got to tell you, look, I got this one wrong. I wasn't there. I was basing it on reports and accounts that I had read about the case, and Eric, you know the betting was that you were going to lose this one.
DUBIN: Well, that's good. You know. But you mentioned earlier there were a lot of people who said that Robert Blake did well on the stand, but I saw some of that on TV and none of those people were ever in the courtroom.
ABRAMS: Well Jean was.
DUBIN: Robert Blake did not do, well, Jean was and you didn't ask Jean's opinion. You asked...
ABRAMS: Hey Jean, how did he do on the stand?
ABRAMS: I thought, Jean...
CASAREZ: You know what...
ABRAMS: ... you told us you thought he did pretty well...
CASAREZ: I did.
ABRAMS: ... and that he came off as kind of a smart aleck, but...
CASAREZ: I thought he did do well on the stand. That is my opinion. (3)
In the end, of course, no one is really going to know how or why the jurors arrived at their controversial decision. But then, by all appearances, the November 2005 verdict won't be the end. Not by a long shot. By early 2006, Blake's lawyers were not only preparing an appeal, but Blake had also declared bankruptcy.
(2) MSNBC, Dan Abrams Report, Nov. 18, 2005, transcript.
(3) As above, Abrams Report, transcript.