A judge will begin deciding today what evidence jurors will hear in upcoming months about Robert Blake, his slain wife and what led authorities to charge him with her murder.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Darlene E. Schempp will rule on more than a dozen pretrial motions that have been filed by prosecutors and defense attorneys. The motions seek to exclude everything from a secretly taped recording of an angry telephone conversation between the actor and his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, to nude photographs that Bakley used to solicit money from thousands of lonely men through personal ads.
Those rulings, made before the first juror is seated, are crucial to both the prosecution and defense as lawyers try to focus on the theories, evidence and witnesses to be presented at trial, legal experts agree.
"Many cases are won or lost on who is successful on the motions," criminal defense lawyer James E. Blatt of Encino said.
Blake, best known as the streetwise detective in the 1970s television series "Baretta" and as killer Perry Smith in the movie "In Cold Blood," could face life in prison without parole in the May 4, 2001, fatal shooting of his wife. Prosecutors allege that he solicited two former stuntmen to kill Bakley and when both refused did it himself.
The 70-year-old actor has pleaded not guilty. He was released from Los Angeles County Jail last year on a $1.5-million bond.
Without definitive forensic evidence linking Blake to the murder weapon, Deputy Los Angeles County Dist. Attys. Patrick R. Dixon and Shellie L. Samuels will present a largely circumstantial case. They will allege that the actor despised Bakley so much that he fatally shot her in his parked car near the Studio City restaurant where they had dined.
Jury selection is set to begin Feb. 17 in Van Nuys.
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal evidence at Loyola Law School, said prosecutors, in filing pretrial motions, want the judge to throw out defense theories that could weaken their chances of winning a guilty verdict.
Prosecutors, for example, asked the judge to bar defense lawyer Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. from suggesting in court that someone other than Blake might have killed Bakley, unless they "can be directly linked to the crime itself."
Since her death, defense lawyers have said that Bakley, 44, scammed so many men over the years that any one of them would have had motive to kill her.
"It's damage control -- to limit what the other side will present," Levenson said.
But Samuels said she is "trying to prevent the defense from putting on frivolous defenses that do not meet legal requirements."
Blake's lawyers want to limit potentially incriminating evidence. They asked the judge to exclude extensive testimony about the role of Blake's ex-handyman, Earle S. Caldwell, who had been charged in an alleged plot to kill Bakley and bury her body in the desert.
The judge dismissed the conspiracy to commit murder charge against Caldwell last year, and Mesereau said prosecutors should not be allowed to present the evidence in that matter.
Former prosecutor Peter Korn said lawyers aren't required to flag expected legal issues in motions filed before the trial begins, but doing so can offer strategic advantages.
"Lawyers are trying to set the parameters of the case in advance of starting trial," said Korn, who now is a criminal defense lawyer in Tarzana.
They also are trying to get a sneak preview of opposing counsel's trial strategy, what evidence and theories they plan to introduce, he said.
Prosecutors tipped their hand last week in response to defense motions, saying a number were moot because they did not plan to introduce evidence that Blake's lawyers were seeking to exclude.
Included were statements that Bakley allegedly made to her sister and two friends about her fear that Blake would kill her. According to court documents, Bakley told one friend that Blake said he "had a bullet with her name on it."
But Korn said that no matter how much is barred from the trial, jurors in a high-profile case like this one usually know more about the case than will ever be presented to them in court.
"It's interesting that attorneys in this legal battle are arguing over what materials will come in [as evidence in the case] when, in fact, the vast majority of jurors know the materials they are fighting about" through media accounts, he said.
One of the most disputed pieces of physical evidence, the recorded telephone conversation between Blake and Bakley, has been widely played in the media.
In the undated tape, Blake, without raising his voice, accuses Bakley of telling "vicious" lies, begs her to get an abortion and vows to "never forget" that she had deliberately gotten pregnant, the very thing he said she knew "terrified" him.
"The recording at issue, on which defendant Blake expresses his enduring hatred for victim Bakley, is as relevant as evidence gets," prosecutors said in their motion.