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Braun's Defense Is Aggressive Offense

Court: Robert Blake's lawyer is unapologetic about 'dirtying the victim' as he criticizes Bonny Lee Bakley.

May 12, 2001|TWILA DECKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The body of actor Robert Blake's wife had hardly been whisked from the crime scene last week when defense attorney Harland Braun, an affable lawyer with a mischievous grin, stepped before the cameras and began picking apart the victim's character.

Since then, Braun has been on a seemingly nonstop crusade to paint Bonny Lee Bakley, who was shot to death eight days ago, as a sad and desperate woman who sold nude pictures of herself and glommed onto stars like Blake after her own dream of being a Hollywood star didn't work out.

"She became a hanger-on, a star stalker," said Braun, whose client, Blake, best known for his 1970s television crime series "Baretta," is being investigated in his wife's death.

Braun's approach, known in legal circles as "dirtying the victim," is a controversial one.

"I feel like she's being treated as the defendant," said Cary Goldstein, a civil attorney representing Bakley's family. "The spin on this matter by Mr. Blake and his counsel is a disgrace."

But Braun is unapologetic. He says he's just doing his job, letting the public and the police know that plenty of other people may have wanted Bakley dead.

Indeed, the aggressive defense is classic Braun. The 58-year-old UCLA law school graduate is legendary in Los Angeles legal circles for being tenacious, outspoken and unpredictable.

He is, after all, the same man who called prosecutors in a Rampart police scandal trial "pond scum," once suggested that a federal prosecutor was part of the mob and compared the boot worn by a client, a cop charged in the Rodney King beating, to a ballet slipper.

Even his wife of 35 years, Diane, is aware of the Braun spin, say his friends and Braun himself.

"When Harland tells a story [about a case], she always says, 'OK, what are you leaving out?' " attorney Mark Geragos said.

But Geragos, who has tried 50 cases with Braun, said that beneath the sound bites and rhetoric is a brilliant attorney who will do anything--within legal and ethical bounds--to help his client, even if it sometimes costs him his own dignity.

"He's not afraid to humiliate himself," Geragos said. "He has no fear, and that is his greatest asset."

The son of a registered nurse and a Los Angeles cattle hide dealer, Braun started his legal career in 1968 on what he describes as the "dark side": working as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.

Braun switched sides within five years because of his inherent distrust of the justice system. Given the choice, he said, he prefers not to try to put people behind bars.

"The way I look at it is, going to work every day in the criminal system is like going to a mental institution," he said. "I regard it as totally irrational and immoral."

Braun's own son is a federal prosecutor in San Diego. But he said he tries not to hold that against him.

"We still talk," Braun joked. "He calls me and complains about what the defense attorneys do."

Braun said his defense career took off in 1974 when he defended Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the Charles Manson murder trial. Bugliosi was indicted on suspicion of perjury after he left the D.A.'s office and Braun won dismissal of the indictment, which accused Bugliosi of leaking a Manson-related document to a reporter and then lying about it under oath.

"Even though it was a bogus case, the [public] found out I got it dismissed and they decided I must be good," he said.

Since then, he has had a piece of many of the highest-profile cases filed in Los Angeles County.

Braun defended an officer in the Rodney G. King police beating case, "Twilight Zone" film director John Landis and producer George Folsey, and an LAPD officer charged in the Rampart scandal.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino and Braun sparred vehemently during the "Twilight Zone" trial. In the case, stemming from a fatal helicopter crash during filming, all five defendants were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges.

At one point in the proceedings, Braun called D'Agostino scum. She replied that Braun would call his own mother a liar if it would help him win the case. Despite the animosity during trial, the two are now friends and she said she respects his legal talents.

"Harland speaks in sound bites. He is a master at it," D'Agostino said. "Because of that, people don't realize that he is also extraordinarily bright and is very knowledgeable."

Yet she said she doesn't agree with his tactics in the Blake case. "I don't believe the victim should be put on trial," she said.

Braun's aggressive style has at times also rattled fellow defense attorneys.

During the King case, in which he defended one of four officers charged with violating the motorist's civil rights, Braun clashed with the prosecution, the judge and his co-counsels.

On the eve of the federal trial, he said he believed that it might be difficult to find impartial African Americans to serve on the jury.

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