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A Child Is at Heart of Blake Case

Actor's daughter with his slain wife will be a focal point in the trial, which is to begin today.

December 20, 2004|Andrew Blankstein and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

She was a toddler when her mother was shot and killed and her father, actor Robert Blake, was charged with the crime.

The apple-cheeked 4-year-old -- and the passions surrounding her birth and custody -- will loom large when Blake's murder trial is scheduled to begin today in a Van Nuys courtroom.

Even without direct evidence linking Blake to the killing of Bonny Lee Bakley three years ago, prosecutors believe they can convince a jury that the actor would do anything to protect his daughter Rosie -- even kill her mother.

"Our motive -- which I think is clear as day -- is that he wanted the baby, and he didn't want" Bakley, Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Shellie L. Samuels said in an interview.

Since Bakley's death, a succession of Blake's defense lawyers have portrayed her as a star-struck con artist who ran a mail-order pornography business swindling the men she attracted through personal ads. At one point, the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections persuaded a judge to order Bakley to stop soliciting inmates by mail.

Blake's defenders have said that any one of those convicts -- or hundreds of other men -- had ample motive to kill her.

The case against Blake is circumstantial. It relies largely on his conversations with two Hollywood stuntmen who are expected to testify that the Emmy Award-winning actor asked them to kill Bakley.

When they refused, prosecutors contend, he pulled the trigger himself.

In an attempt to discredit the stuntmen, defense lawyer M. Gerald Schwartzbach has stated in court that both were chronic abusers of illegal drugs and they could have been impaired when Blake allegedly asked them to "snuff" or "pop" his wife.

Circumstantial cases sometimes are easier for prosecutors to prove because jurors don't have to believe every piece of evidence presented in order to convict, said Ruth Jones, a criminal law professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

"We know how she was killed, and we know when she was killed," said Jones, a former New York City prosecutor. "Robert Blake was at the scene where the killing took place, and witnesses can testify to a motive that he hated her and tried to kill her."

Still, she said the lack of an eyewitness or forensic evidence linking Blake directly to the slaying could give the defense room to offer alternatives, and to raise reasonable doubt in jurors' minds.

The Relationship

Authorities say Blake, 71, who began his career as a child actor in the "Our Gang" series and is best known as the streetwise detective in the 1970s television show "Baretta," was a suspect from the start.

He met Bakley at a now-defunct Burbank jazz club. A few months later, she became pregnant.

In an audiotape, Blake accused Bakley of telling "vicious" lies, begged her to get an abortion and vowed to "never forget" that she had deliberately gotten pregnant, the very thing he said she knew "terrified" him.

Over the next several months, Blake tried several times to have Bakley jailed, eventually calling federal authorities in Arkansas, where she had been convicted of identity fraud, to report that she had violated parole by leaving the state. She returned to Arkansas, leaving Rosie in her father's care.

Bakley filed a paternity action, and then a kidnapping complaint, against Blake. After tests confirmed Blake's blood ties to the child, the couple married in California in November 2000.

Instead of going on a honeymoon, Bakley again returned to Arkansas to complete parole. She also had been convicted earlier of illegal drug possession in Tennessee.

Five days before her death at age 44, Bakley came back to California and moved into a guest house behind Blake's Studio City home. Blake had promised that she would be reunited with Rosie a few days later.

In a televised interview, Blake told ABC's Barbara Walters in February 2003 that he had been trying to work things out with his wife and had been looking forward to her three other children joining them in California.

But Samuels, the prosecutor, said Blake actually hated her and her family. He allegedly called them "piranhas." One stuntman testified that Blake had told him he feared that Rosie would "wind up a porn star" if left with his wife and her family.

Bakley's adult children have defended their mother, saying it was "both unbelievable and despicable" that anyone would imply that she deserved to die.

Schwartzbach said that there could be "another side of the coin" in the prosecution's reliance on Bakley's sordid past to prove that Blake had a motive to kill. Other men -- including Christian Brando, son of actor Marlon Brando -- also might have wanted Bakley dead, he said. Bakley first told Brando that Rosie was his daughter, and named her Christian Brando.

The Crime

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