In a blow to prosecutors, a judge threw out part of the capital murder case against Robert Blake on Friday, ruling that the evidence "carries very little weight" toward proving the actor had conspired with his handyman to kill his wife.
The 70-year-old Blake still faces a murder charge and a possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for allegedly shooting Bonny Lee Bakley two years ago outside the Studio City restaurant where the couple had dined.
But dismissal of a felony charge before trial is rare and could indicate problems ahead for the prosecution, according to criminal defense lawyers who have been following the case. The judge also threw out the entire case against Blake's handyman, Earle S. Caldwell.
"The momentum has shifted," attorney James Blatt said. "It shows a weakness in their case. The first major victory was getting bail. The second major victory is getting the case against Caldwell dismissed."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Blake -- An article in Saturday's California section on Robert Blake's murder case incorrectly reported that Blake's attorney did not ask the judge to throw out the conspiracy count. In fact, the attorney asked for dismissal of murder and conspiracy charges.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp said Friday that she could not find "strong suspicion" that Blake and Caldwell had made any agreement or done overt acts -- necessary for a criminal conspiracy -- to kill the 44-year-old Bakley, the mother of Blake's youngest daughter.
"I think the evidence there is so speculative that it carries very little weight," the judge said in a ruling that let Caldwell walk out of the Van Nuys courtroom a free man.
Prosecutors may refile the criminal charge against Blake and the case against Caldwell, or appeal Schempp's ruling. Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick Dixon said he would review the ruling with his superiors, who would decide within a few days whether to refile.
Dixon said he did not believe the dismissal of the case against Caldwell would affect Blake's prosecution. Blake is still charged with murder with two special allegations -- that he ambushed Bakley on May 4, 2001, and that he personally used the murder weapon -- and two counts of soliciting former stuntmen from his "Baretta" television show to kill Bakley.
Blake's trial is set to begin Feb. 9 in Van Nuys.
"They are two separate cases, two separate defendants," Dixon said. "I'm as comfortable with the case against Robert Blake today as I was yesterday."
Caldwell's attorney, Dana Cole, said the dismissal was "definitely a blow to the prosecution because it raises an issue of trusting whether they do the right thing."
Blake's lawyer, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., echoed that opinion.
"The public should not trust their evidence," Mesereau said.
He declined to discuss how the ruling might affect his legal strategy for the rest of the case.
Mesereau had asked the judge to dismiss the murder charge but not the conspiracy count against Blake. The judge found there was probable cause to require Blake to stand trial on the murder charge.
In court, Cole argued that the evidence against Caldwell -- including his alleged attempt to buy an unregistered handgun, and analysis that showed his home computer had been used to access Web sites on silencers for firearms -- was not unusual for "a gun enthusiast" like his client.
The attorney said a to-do list found in Caldwell's Jeep that prosecutors have called a list of tasks for the shooting was "perfectly innocent" and contained items typically used by a handyman.
If Caldwell had conspired to kill Bakley, Cole argued, the handyman would have gotten rid of his computer and other items before the shooting. Instead, Cole said, Caldwell had asked a girlfriend after the slaying to remove the items.
Blake, who has been free on a $1.5-million bond since March, left court through a back door after the courthouse was locked down because an attorney in an unrelated case had been shot outside the courthouse.
Outside court, Caldwell said he felt as if "a great weight had been lifted."
From the start of the case, observers believed that Caldwell's high-profile arrest on a busy Burbank street during rush hour had been aimed at pressuring the handyman to cooperate in the criminal investigation against his boss.
The district attorney's office was trying to get Caldwell to turn on Blake, but it didn't work, defense attorney Steven Cron said. And there is no leverage without a criminal case pending, Cron said.
"I think they are going to have to regroup and rethink it," Cron said. "Now it's just one on one: D.A. against Blake."
Blatt also said the prosecution's tactics had backfired.
"The D.A. should have offered Caldwell immunity from the start," said Blatt, adding that prosecutors should never have filed the conspiracy case against the handyman.
Some criminal defense lawyers now say the dismissal of charges against Caldwell could open the door for him to testify for Blake, who posted Caldwell's $1-million bail a few days after Caldwell's arrest and paid for the handyman's lawyer.
Cole, however, said authorities had never made Caldwell "a direct offer." He said Caldwell had given a full and complete statement to police.