Citing "irreconcilable differences," a judge relieved Robert Blake's criminal defense lawyer Thursday, indefinitely delaying the actor's long-awaited murder trial.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Darlene E. Schempp spent 40 minutes in her chambers with Blake and his lawyer, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., before announcing her decision.
"It appears to the court -- I tried to resolve it -- but that there are irreconcilable differences in their relationship," Schempp said, without revealing the nature of their dispute.
"Sorry," she added. "I just felt I did not have a choice in the matter."
Neither Blake nor Mesereau would comment on the reason for the lawyer's departure, which took prosecutors assigned to the case by surprise.
"We were ready to go to trial," Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick R. Dixon said. "There must be good reasons for this, but I don't know what they are."
In a brief interview after the hearing, Blake said only, "He resigned."
Mesereau is the third criminal defense lawyer to leave the case in the three years since Blake's wife was fatally shot in the actor's car in Studio City. Blake also recently parted ways with his entertainment lawyer of 25 years.
Attorney Dana Cole, who represents Blake's former co-defendant Earle S. Caldwell, said Mesereau, Cole's law school classmate, had become increasingly frustrated with Blake's reliance on less-experienced lawyers for advice on how to defend the high-profile murder case.
"Tom really wasn't interested in trying the case by committee," Cole said. "The one condition he had [was]: He's the trial attorney. He's running the case."
Cole said the professional relationship between Mesereau and his client began to chill two to three weeks ago. But the defense attorney believed the two men would resolve their differences.
"I think it's tearing his heart out," Cole said, in reference to Mesereau.
He said Blake, whom he spoke to after the hearing, and Mesereau "are both pretty upset right now."
Outside the courthouse, the actor smoked a cigarette before facing television cameras and reporters.
"I'm very, very sorry that Mr. Mesereau left," Blake said. "I am deeply, deeply grateful to him for saving my life. More importantly, I am deeply grateful to him for saving [my daughter] Rosie's life."
"I am sure that Mr. Mesereau will have a great life and great career," he continued. "I'm 70 years old and I've learned I have to go forward no matter what."
Blake sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as he walked a block from the Van Nuys courthouse to his car, ignoring the reporters and photographers who followed him.
It is highly unusual for a judge to relieve counsel on the eve of trial, according to legal experts.
"I'm sure the judge would not have granted such an unusual motion unless she had been presented with compelling facts that left her no alternative," said attorney Carl E. Douglas, a member of O.J. Simpson's so-called dream team. "Given the circumstances that Mr. Mesereau came into the case, this must be serious."
Blake retained Mesereau in November 2002, after attorney Harland W. Braun quit because of "a serious breakdown in the attorney-client relationship." By that time, the actor had become known as a difficult client.
Both Braun and later Mesereau's co-counsel, Jennifer L. Keller, withdrew after the actor insisted on defending himself in the media, against their advice.
Blake is facing life in prison without parole if convicted. Prosecutors allege that he fatally shot Bonny Lee Bakley on May 4, 2001, after he couldn't find anyone else to do it.
The actor, best known for his role in the 1970s detective series "Baretta," also is charged with two counts of soliciting two retired stuntmen to kill Bakley.
Blake has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He said he returned to the restaurant where they had dined to retrieve a forgotten handgun and returned to find her bleeding.
The case is expected to be delayed several months while Blake retains a new criminal defense lawyer. Schempp ordered him to return to court Feb. 23 with counsel.
Court officials said the more than 150 jurors who had been ordered to return to court Feb. 17 to begin jury selection will be dismissed. They already had passed an initial screening and completed lengthy jury questionnaires as part of the trial process.
Even if Blake retained counsel immediately, it would take months to prepare for a trial in which prosecutors have produced more than 60,000 pages of evidence.
"There is no high-level, skilled, profile lawyer that you need for this case who could do it in less than six months," Douglas said.
Some legal observers were shocked that Mesereau would quit the case that has brought him so much publicity.
"He was doing an excellent job," said James E. Blatt, a criminal defense attorney in Encino. "He appeared to have a good relationship with his client. He was well-respected by the court. His key strategies were successful up until this point."
Mesereau not only was effective in his cross-examination of key prosecution witnesses at last year's preliminary hearing, but he also persuaded another judge to release Blake from jail, after 11 months of incarceration, on a $1.5-million bond. In addition, Mesereau and Cole won motions to dismiss a conspiracy to commit murder charge.
But the winning streak faltered a bit Tuesday, when Schempp ruled to greatly limit any evidence that someone other than Blake might have killed Bakley.
Some people who know Blake said that might have been enough to seriously alter the celebrity defendant's relationship with his lawyer.