Opening Statements (20-21 December 2004)
After a series of highly-publicized incidents, including the theft of attorney Schwartzbach's computer, the long-awaited trial began on the 20th of December, 2004, three years and seven months after the shooting of Bonny Bakley. Opening statements began after several last-minute motions were decided and instructions were read to jurors by Judge Schempp.
A full commentary on the trial from an observer is posted here:
Prosecutor Shellie Samuels recited the police case against Blake, using charts to illustrate the connections between the various characters who will be part of the state's case. She explained the two conspiracy charges and the murder charge, and defined for jurors that a murder committed by "lying in wait" is essentially a premeditated murder. She then discussed the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence, and advised that her case would be made by circumstantial evidence.
The motive for the murder, Samuels stated, was to gain custody of the child born to Bakley and Blake in June of 2000. Blake became "obsessed" with keeping the child away from the Bakley family, whom he considered "trailer trash," "low-lifes," and "felons," said Samuels. And from the time he learned Bakley was pregnant until after the marriage Blake claims he was "forced" into, the actor attempted to have Bakley arrested and charged in connection with her illegal activites.
Prosecution witnesses, Samuels said, would fit into two different categories. The first would be those who were present the night of the murder, including people who were at Vitello's restaurant that night, investigators, and paramedics. The second group would consist of people who knew the history of the relationship between Bakley and Blake.
Former co-defendant Earle Caldwell was described as someone who worked full time for Robert Blake, but who had also become a "friend and confidant" to the defendant. Samuels accused Caldwell have having traveled to Arkansas in approximately the second week of December, 2000, for the purpose of planting drugs on Bakley. The "item" allegedly planted by Caldwell was found on the 16th, and subsequently sold, by Bakley's son, Glenn.
Lisa Johnson, girl friend of Caldwell's around the time of the shooting, would testify that she had knowledge of Caldwell's trip to Arkansas to "plant" drugs on Bakley. Further, said Samuels, she would state that Caldwell's friendship with Blake was very "tight," and that it ruined their relationship:
Lisa Johnson was Earle's firlfriend at the time in question. She will tell you about the tight relationship between the defendant and Earle Caldwell, that this tight relationship actually caused problems in her own relatioinship with Earle because no matter what was going on, if the defendant called him, Earle would drop everything and run to the defendant.
Johnson will also say, Samuels promised jurors, that Caldwell told her that he "went to plant drugs in Arkansas on Bonny."
William Welch, a private detective who had worked for Blake several times beginning in 1988, was another witness described by the prosecutor. He was asked by Blake, she claimed, to help force Bakley into getting an abortion, and later to "whack" (kill) her.
Cody Blackwell, a woman who had previously worked for Blake doing housework and errands, would be called to testify about the part she played in a "baby snatching" plot hatched by Blake. Samuels told a story similar to one presented by detectives at the preliminary hearing in which Blackwell posed as a nurse when Bakley came to California on about the 20th of September for a DNA paternity test to confirm that baby Rose was actually Blake's child. Blackwell then took the baby to her home and awaited a phone call from Blake. He called and asked her to meet him with the child, and then drove them both out to an area which was presumed to be where Blake's adult daughter, Delinah, was living.
During this trip, Bakley stayed at a local hotel, the Sportsman's Lodge. William Jordan, a former LAPD officer and private investigator who was working for Blake, visited Bakley there, and warned her that by being away from Arkansas she was in violation of a probation agreement. Jordan then called Little Rock and spoke to Bakley's probation officer, Darrell Bailey, informing him that Bakley was in Los Angeles. The probation officer called Bakley at the Sportsman's and verified the claim, and gave her until the 25th of September to be back in his office. This was one of Blake's plans to have Bakley incarcerated and separated from the child, Samuels claimed. Bakley was placed under house arrest after her return.
Another character in the prosecution scenario is one David Renzi, a friend of Caldwell's who expressed an interest in meeting Robert Blake. Renzi had some connection to law enforcement, and put Blake in touch with an official of the U.S. Customs Service by the name of Luis Mendoza. In October of 2000, Rensi called Mendoza and asked him to help Blake with his "problem" (Bakley). Later, Blake and Mendoza talked, and on the 27th of that month, Mendoza flew out to Los Angeles to so the two could meet.
Mendoza, over the next several weeks, would make a number of telephone calls to contacts at the FBI, trying to have Bakley investigated and charged with a crime. Although he eventually returned to Los Angeles to give back the files Blake provided him on Bakley, Mendoza apparently continued to attempt to speak to law enforcement on Blake's behalf.
Blake is also put in touch with a detective, Arturo Zorrilla, by William Jordan. Blake complained to Zorrilla that Bakley was attempting ot extort money from him, and he also reported that Bakley's brother, now in prison on a theft charge, was sought by police for a killing in New York. Ultimately, however, Zorrilla was unable to verify Blake's claims.
Bakley again flew out to California in November, staying at the Beverly Garland hotel alone from the 17th to the 24th of November. This time, she was given permission to make the trip by the probation office in Arkansas. A simple civil marriage ceremony was performed on the 19th, and Bakley returned immediately to her hotel.
Samuels turned next to the retired stunt men Blake is accused of soliciting - Gary "Whiz Kid" McLarty and Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton. She explained that Blake knew one fellow by the name of Roy "Snuffy" Harrison, and that Harrison had put him in touch with McLarty and Hambleton. She repeated the accusations already made during the preliminary hearing.
Blake allegedly made a number of statements to others that would indicate he despised Bonny Bakley. To Cody Blackwell, for instance, Samuels claimed he said he would do whatever was necessary to get the baby away from her. And when congratulated on the marriage and the new baby by ex-wife Sondra Kerr Blake, the mother of Blake's two adult children, Blake reportedly told her: "The baby is real. The marriage is not." To Luis Mendoza, Blake said that he wanted to do whatever it took to avoid marrying Bakley, and later asserted that he was being forced into marriage for the child's sake.
Using charts to illustrate the comments attributed to the defendant by various witnesses, Samuels said Blake had referred to Bakley as a "bitch" to David Renzi, and said he wanted the baby but didn't want Bakley. To private investigator Welch, Blake said Bakley would be a terrible mother and he wanted her arrested. In a conversation related by Duffy Hambleton, Blake called her a "scandalous lowlife" who would lead Rosie into a life of pornography. "She's bad news," Blake allegedly said to William Jordan. "She's going to turn the kid out and the kid will be involved in narcotics, prostitution and everything."
And to Frank Minucci, Blake remarked that he was going to be stuck marrying Bakley, and that Minucci should have "taken my offer and came [sic.] out here." Frank Minucci is, in the words of Shellie Samuels, a "reformed hoodlum." After having nearly been killed a few years ago, she continued, Minucci turned his life around. He became an ordained minister and wrote a book called "Brother Frank." Minucci has also had minor roles in a few films.
The prosecutor related a conversation which Blake had with Minucci over the phone. According to Samuels, Blake told Minucci he wanted to "annihilate this bitch (Bakley)." When Minucci asked what he was talking about, Blake allegedly responded (according to the prosecution's courtroom exhibit):
I can't talk on the phone man. I want you to come out here. I'll explain the whole deal to you... Frankie, it's a heavy thing, a heavy thing... If you do this for me, I'll sign a black check, you write in your own numbers.... I sent you a little something, check it out, think about it. I'll call you back."
According to Samuels, Minucci later received an envelope from Blake containing $500 in cash, with another $500 coming in a second envelope the following day. Minucci then called Blake and talked to him. But at no point did Samuels claim that Blake had actually asked Minucci to do a specific thing. The idea that Blake was trying to persuade Minucci to kill Bakley was only inferred from the quoted conversation.
As Samuels went into a chronological account of her case, she also commented that Bonny traveled around for a while between the time she finished her Arkansas probation and April 5th of 2001, when she left Memphis with her sister, Margerry, to go to Los Angeles. She then stated that Blake visited Mexico on the 12th of April, and that he subsequently called a travel agent, Sandy Orton, to make plans to travel there with Bakley and Caldwell. The trip never materialized, but Samuels insisted he had intended to kill Bakley south of the border.
Blake and Bakley returned from their "honeymoon" trip on the 30th of April, 2001 - four days before she was gunned down. Caldwell left the Los Angeles area to visit "up north" the following day. And he called Lisa Johnson the day after the shooting asking her to remove some items from his refrigerator.
Samuels ended her presentation with by emphasizing how much Blake allegedly hated Bakley and claiming that his concern in the immediate aftermath of of the shooting was nothing but bad acting. She then pleaded with jurors to side with her and convict.
The defense case started out with a bang as Blake attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach began by reminding jurors, "Mister Blake is charged with shooting Ms. Bakley. He's not charged with calling Frank Minucci... He's charged with personally - personally - shooting Ms. Bakley."
He continued: "There is no evidence, none - there's no evidence, direct or circumstantial, that he shot Ms. Bakley." He then took on the prosecution's case directly, causing Samuels to take the unusual step of interrupting an opening statement with an objection.
Without evidence to support its charge, the prosecution has built their case on the backs of two men who were addicted to illegal drugs at the time they met with Mr. Blake - one addicted to cocaine, the other addicted to methamphetamine.
You will hear both of these men upon whose backs this case has been built have experienced both auditory and visual hallucinations. They heard voices. They've seen things and events that never occured. One of them, Duffy Hambleton, he fantasized that there were twenty armed men in his home and there wasn't anybody there.... The other man, Gary McLarty, has heard voices from aliens from a foreign planet. He has thought that the LAPD were after him and that they were tunneling under his house.
For seven months - for seven months - Duffy Hambleton denied, repeatedly denied to the police, that Robert Blake had ever solicited them.... For seven months he denied it. He only changed his story when he saw a way to get the San Bernardino Sherriff's Department off of his back because of his involvement in the manufacturing, the sale and the use of methamphetamine.
After the attorney briefly conferred with the judge about the prosecutor's repeated objections to Schartzbach's references to the stunt men, Schwartzbach resumed his statement to the jury.
As I was saying, Duffy Hambleton, after repeatedly for seven months denying that he had ever been solicited by Robert Blake, after being served with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury, decides that in order to keep the San Bernardino County Sherriff's off his back for his involvement with illegal drugs, for the first time, in November, November 29th, 2001, claims that that Mr. Blake solicited him - the first time!
Now Gary McLarty, he didn't come forward until ten days - ten days - after the murder... He testified at a preliminary hearing in this case. He didn't say Mr. Blake actually asked him to kill Ms. Bakley. He said, and he testified, that Mr. Blake insinuated it, and he assumed it. He came forward because he had in fact killed someone - this being in self defense. It wasn't a few years before, it was in 1991. And he knew there would be a telephone record of a call or calls between himself and Mr. Blake....
And he knew that the police were going to check telephone records and they'd see a call to him and they'd come talk to him, and they would know that he'd killed someone once before. And he was afraid he'd get charged with the murder. But the truth of the matter is that shortly after his meeting with Mr. Blake, he told his son, Cole McLarty, about the meeting he had with Mr. Blake. And what he told Cole was that Mr. Blake had offered him money to punch out some guys who were stalking him. And he asked Cole, do you want to be involved, we can make some money. Nothing about killing. About punching out some guys who were stalking him. And I'll get into the evidence - what the the evidence will show with regard to Mr. Blake's concern about security, which predated this murder.
So Cole, Cole told his mother, Karen McLarty, 'Dad tells me that Robert Blake offered him some money to punch out some guys.' And Karen - although she's been married to Gary for over thirty years, they've been separated, they're still married - Karen was furious. And she called up Gary. And she asked him about the conversation. And the evidence is going to show you that Gary McLarty, in 2001, told Karen McLarty, as well as Cole McLarty, that Robert Blake had asked him to punch out some guys that were stalking him or his wife. Nothing about killing anybody.
Schwartzbach spoke at length about Blake's demeanor just before the shooting - an issue on which the prosecution relies to show that Blake behaved anxiously and with hostility or coldness toward Bakley. The evidence will show, he told jurors, that this simply wasn't the case. He advised jurors that numerous witnesses, including Joe Restivo, half-owner with brother Steve of Vitello's restaurant, waitress Robin Robichaux, and a waiter named George Brumbly would testify that Blake had been cheerful and relaxed during the meal he shared with Bakley that night.
Also presented during opening statements was the matter of Blake having inadvertently left his gun at the restaurant. Schwartzbach stressed the fact that Blake had wrapped his gun (not the murder weapon) in a sweatshirt and placed it next to him on the seat. The gun easily could have fallen onto the carpeted floor without making enough noise to alert Blake to the fact that it had fallen. And while Restivo did not see Blake return for the the gun, said Schwartzbach, he will tell jurors that it would have been easy for Blake to return to the restaurant unnoticed. Moreover, he continued, there were two prosecution witnesses (Andrew Percival and Rebecca Markham) who saw Mr. Blake coming back from the area of the restaurant alone. (Blake had left Vitello's the first time with Bakley, and when he returned after finding Bakley shot, he left the restaurant in the company of a nurse, Teri Lorenzo-Castaneda. Thus testimony that Blake left the restaurant alone supports Blake's story about being in the restaurant at the time of the murder.)
The attorney also addressed Blake's behavior following the shooting, promising that jurors would hear a very different story than that promised by prosecutor Shellie Samuels in her opening.
The defendant went first to the driver's side of the car, then to the passenger side, according to Schwartzbach's opening statement. The window on the driver's side was rolled half-way down, the passenger side window was all the way down. When Blake found the passenger side door locked, in a panic he returned to the driver's side and opened the door to hit the lock switch instead of pulling up the lock from the outside. It was then that the full realization of what had happened hit Mr. Blake, the attorney state.
He may not have been in love with Bonny Bakley. But seeing that woman slumped over, seeing that blood coming out, he was shocked. He was panicked.... And so he ran for help. And he ended up at the home of Sean Stanek...
He ran to Stanek's house and he started pounding on the door and ringing the doorbell. And he was crying for help. And he was freaked out. 'Help, help. Something's happened to my wife. She's bleeding, she's bleeding.' He didn't know she had been shot. 'Call 911. Please call 911.'
Blake wasn't a doctor, Schwartzbach told jurors, and instead of returning to the car, he ran to Vitello's in search of a doctor to render immediate assistance. "Was there a doctor at the restaurant? Nobody would know unless went there and asked for a doctor," the lawyer said. And when Blake arrived there, he appeared to be in a state of shock. Brumbly, Robichaux, and Restivo will all testify to the fact that Blake was terribly shaken, terrified, and "white as a ghost," Schwartbach promised the jury. Even two prosecution witnesses, Michael Dufficy and Richard Noel, would tell jurors that Blake's demeanor at Vitello's following the shooting was that of someone who appeared to be suffering a heart attack, the lawyer continued.
Moreover, the lawyer stated...
When Mr. Stanek got back to the car, Ms. Bakley was still breathing. She was still alive. She was still alive minutes after Mr. Blake had left the car. When Mr. Blake left that car, she was breathing. And Mr. Stanek will tell you, she was breathing. It was labored breathing, but she was breathing. And whoever shot her would have no way of knowing whether the person they left breathing was going to live. And if that person lived and knew who had shot her, she'd be able to tell.
A good part of Schwartzbach's presentation, however, focused on the defendant's chief accusers, retired stuntmen Gary McLarty and Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, on whose testimony the two solicitations counts are based. Using taped segments from the February-March 2003 preliminary hearing, the attorney showed clips that discredited the statements they gave to police.
Both have admitted to drug abuse and both have criminal records. Both contradicted themselves under oath at the preliminary hearing. Both have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. And both told conflicting versions of the "solicitation" accusation in this case.
The attorney ended his statement by telling jurors that gunshot residue tests will prove that Robert Blake did not fire a weapon on the night of May 4th, 2001. He showed a photo of the detectives who handled the case celebrating in front of a mug shot of the defendant as if it were a trophy. Finally, in conclusion, he said:
There is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt on any of these charges. At the end of this trial, the evidence will demonstrate to you the only appropriate verdicts will be Not Guilty, Not Guilty, Not Guilty.
Opening statements ended the morning of December 21st. At long last, the murder trial of actor Robert Blake was underway.