I was having dinner at Vitello’s in Studio City with my friend Max last week, and since we were practically at the scene of the crime, the discussion inevitably turned the Robert Blake murder case. Max had the most feasible theory I’d heard as to why the trial had been a media dud: Unlike, say, Nicole Simpson, Bonnie Lee Bakley simply was not -- by base male standards -- an attractive woman. Not at the time of her death, nor at any time in her life.
Some other ominous, dark clouds: She was married to an actor pushing 70 (and only then because he impregnated her), who was unquestionably on the back nine of his career. Then there’s Vitello’s. Good food, sure. As solid a family-style Italian place as you’ll find. But it’s no Mezzaluna. This is Studio City, not Brentwood. And we musn’t deny that it’s not nearly as fun when the accused is traipsing about on bail. We like our accused killers to be caged like animals, not shopping for organic grapefruit at Whole Foods on Coldwater. This isn’t sexy. No one’s calling this one The Trial of the Century II.
This is also a case bereft of sympathetic characters. Blake’s own legal team made sure of that at the outset with its barrage of pre-trial spin, painting the victim as a drifter, a scam artist, a C-level celebrity stalker, who hit her version of the lottery when Blake knocked her up.
Blake doesn’t much smell like a rose, either. The prosecution’s alleged that he asked seemingly everyone he knew if they wanted to earn a few extra bucks by rubbing out his old lady. Now – if true -- that hardly seems like the honorable thing to do to the mother of your child. But, according to the prosecution, no one took the cash, so Blake did it himself, on May 4, 2001.
It’s ugly any way you look at it. Ugly, but not very compelling. Not when you’ve got Jacko on trial and Martha Stewart getting out of the slammer and Scott Petersen trumping Blake on horrific murder scenarios. It’s just his luck. Blake has his biggest stage since his ‘70s cop show Baretta was cancelled, and all he gets is a few buried paragraphs each day in the L.A. Times.
I visited the trial last week during its waning moments as it mercifully sputtered to a close. The case is being tried at the Van Nuys Superior Court, which shares space in a dreary quad with a police department building and a library. It’s a scratched-up civic jewel, where there’s always under construction somewhere on its grounds in its losing battle to be less dreary.
A statue of a lonely hippie-looking guy wearing only a headband and a loincloth stands amid the ennui (and the hot dog cart). His name is “Fernando,” a rugged icon commissioned by Mayor Sam Yorty in 1968. According to its placard, he is “a symbol of the first inhabitant of the San Fernando Valley.” If Fernando could see, he’d see – alas -- nothing much out of the ordinary. Business as usual.
When I visited last week, there was no commotion outside the courthouse, and I easily got a seat, as the courtroom was little more than half full as the prosecution began calling its final rebuttal witnesses. By the time I got situated, Blake has already taken his seat. At first, I didn’t recognize the small white-haired old man in the dark suit as the one-time badass TV cop. His movements are slow. He looks worn out.
The first witness of the day, Marty Delgadillo, is the range master for the Los Angeles Gun Club. He was called to help the prosecution disprove defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbach’s theory that the shooter was right-handed; thus Blake, a lefty, couldn’t have pulled the trigger. Delgadillo discussed how, when Blake was tested for shooting proficiency to procure his concealed weapons permit, his right-handed shooting was visibly less accurate, though he improved with instruction. The final witness was National Enquirer writer Alan Smith, an English bloke who swore that the quotes attributed to Cole McLarty, son of stuntman Gary McLarty, a longtime Blake pal, were not fabricated. The younger McLarty, who was paid $8,000 for the interview, was featured in a story headlined, “Robert Blake Murder – The Shocking Tell All,” On the stand, he denied many of the statements he allegedly made to the Enquirer.
In one last-ditch effort to confuse the jury, Schwartzbach spent the better part of his examination drilling Smith on the proper use of closed quotes in news articles. At one point, exasperated defense attorney Shellie Samuels announced that she was formerly an English teacher and that the Enquirer’s grammatical style was in fact generally accepted English usage. It seemed like a cheap trick, but then, he’s a lawyer, so he’s got a million of ‘em.
When the day’s done, there was no rush to the hot dog stand, no hoards of press wanting a piece of Blake or his attorney. In fact, Blake exited quietly, walking alone to his car to the comfort of his own home. Just another guy facing a murder rap getting on with his day.
Now it’s all over, save the closing arguments (scheduled to begin Wednesday, March 2). By the time you read this, a verdic
t could be reached. Like millions of others, I will not be glued to my seat when the deal goes down. And you can take that to the bank.
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