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Man Fires Lawyers in Final Phase of Murder Trial

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Courts: Convicted of killing his family, he drops his insanity plea. He will represent himself in arguing against the death penalty.

December 06, 2000|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a bold move, a man who switched pleas Tuesday and admitted he was sane when he murdered his family gambled a possible death sentence against his ability to read the jurors and the judge deciding his fate.

Over the objection of his court-appointed lawyers, Robert M. Bloom Jr., convicted twice of the 1982 murder of his father, stepmother and stepsister, persuaded a judge to let him represent himself in the penalty phase of his retrial, starting today. Prosecutors warned in Van Nuys Superior Court that he was subjecting himself to possible execution.

"I understand it, but it's not going to happen," Bloom responded evenly.

Bloom said he knows his case "very well," cited a Penal Code section on the death penalty and attempted to summarize case law on whether he could quote from the Bible in front of a jury.

He alleged that his lawyers, Seymour Applebaum and Tonya Deetz, had presented a "stupid, garbage mental defense" and that he would complain about them when he appeals his case.

"That's what happens when crazy people go to trial," Deetz said, as she walked away from the courtroom after she was dismissed from the case.

"We would have liked to remain as his lawyers," Applebaum said.

The sanity of the 36-year-old man became a central issue only during the recent retrial of the case.

During his first trial, Bloom testified that his father, Robert Bloom Sr., shot his stepmother, Josephine Lou Bloom, after an argument in which she asked for a divorce. Bloom then shot his dad, and somehow his 8-year-old stepsister Sandra Hughes also got killed, he said.

The jury didn't buy his story, and he was convicted. After he fired his attorney late in the trial, he asked for the death penalty. The jury complied.

At the time, Bloom was trying "reverse psychology," said Charles A. Simpson, uncle of the murdered stepmother.

In 1997, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Bloom's conviction and sentence, ruling that his lawyer had mounted an inadequate psychiatric defense. During the retrial this year, his defense attorneys argued that Bloom, who was 18 when he committed the murders, had been severely abused as a child and that he was "profoundly mentally ill."

A Van Nuys jury convicted him in November of the first-degree murder of his father and the second-degree murders of his stepmother and stepsister. Then jurors moved on to consider Bloom's plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

On Tuesday, they declared they were deadlocked on two counts, with nine believing Bloom had been sane when he killed his stepmother and stepsister, while three thought he was insane. Last week, jurors unanimously decided that Bloom had been sane when he murdered his abusive father.

But rather than wait for Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp to declare a mistrial over those two counts--which might have led prosecutors to retry him with new, possibly less sympathetic jurors--Bloom said he would drop his insanity defense and proceed immediately to the penalty phase of the trial, where he will attempt to talk the judge and jury out of imposing the death sentence.

Schempp on Tuesday said Bloom is "fully competent" to act as his own counsel.

"I think you're very articulate," she told Bloom. "You're certainly well-versed on the law." She called his actions "very intelligent."

Bloom, who sometimes raised his hand in court like a polite schoolboy waiting for permission to speak, said he wanted his trial to stay with Schempp, whom he called "Lady of the Court."

Bloom said he doesn't like his jury, he said, and if he had his way he would discharge them.

"This jury is weak. This jury is going to wind up hung," he said. "I want to pick my own jury."

But earlier in the day, before the jury's split votes were announced, Bloom said he needed to know how jurors voted before he could decide whether to drop his insanity defense.

"Just so I can calculate what I'm going to do," Bloom said, before he changed his plea.

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