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'CSI' Effect or Just Flimsy Evidence? The Jury Is Out

The Blake case raises the issue of whether forensic shows influence how much proof is needed.

March 18, 2005|Andrew Blankstein and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

After listening to testimony for three months in a Van Nuys courtroom, mail carrier Lorie Moore thought her duty as a juror was clear: She would vote to convict Robert Blake for the murder of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

But when a first vote was taken within 90 minutes of starting deliberations, Moore realized hers was not the majority opinion. She was one of only two jurors who thought Blake was guilty. One other juror was undecided.

By the end of the first week, Moore said in an interview Thursday, she and the other early skeptics were mostly in agreement with the majority, having decided that the evidence presented hadn't proved the prosecution's case.

One factor that may have played into that perception, experts suggest, was an increasing desire on the part of juries for the kind of certainty shown on television programs such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," in which crimes are solved conclusively in less than an hour.

Across the country, prosecutors say juries are demanding more from them. In the Blake case, jurors said Thursday that they wanted more-convincing evidence, such as conclusive gunshot residue on Blake's hands, or a fingerprint on the murder weapon, or more precision from casual eyewitnesses about Blake's actions around the time Bakley was shot to death in a parked car in Studio City.

"There is no doubt that there's increasing expectation by jurors of [the evidence] they're going to see," said Joshua Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor and member of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Assn. "Prosecutors across the country are very concerned about this."

Marquis found it disturbing that Blake jurors "seemed very dismissive of circumstantial evidence," he said. "Well, guess what? In most cases ... you don't have physical evidence."

There is "an expectation that people from the crime labs will have super technology" to resolve a case," said Barry Scheck, president of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a member of the O.J. Simpson defense team.

Nevertheless, Scheck said he thinks the "CSI effect" wasn't a factor in the Blake case. "There was an absence of evidence," he said.

Cecilia Maldonado was among the majority of jurors who felt from the beginning that the state had not proved its case. The 45-year-old Granada Hills legal secretary said she would have liked more of the kind of evidence she has seen in the cases on "CSI."

"I just expected so much more," she said, acknowledging that such television crime shows did create "a higher expectation" for her.

Blake, 71, was accused of fatally shooting his wife May 4, 2001, near Vitello's restaurant. He also was charged with soliciting two Hollywood stuntmen to kill her -- both admitted former drug users whom jurors said they did not believe.

Blake's defense attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, said he purposely picked jurors who would not be turned off by scientific experts testifying about particles of gunshot residue and the way blood spatters. He said he wanted jurors "who were interested in science because I knew [the prosecution] did sloppy scientific work."

"In the past, if you talked about that kind of evidence, their eyes would kind of glaze over," said Schwartzbach. "But that's not as true now, because of shows like 'CSI.' "

Potential Blake jurors were asked, "How often do you watch TV programs that show real-life or dramatized police activities (for example, 'Cops' and '911,' 'Law & Order,' 'CSI')?" Half the jurors ultimately selected said they watched such shows regularly. Two said they watched them "rarely." The answers of the others were not made public, at their request.

Once the jurors began deliberating, they examined the evidence in a detective-like fashion. "We went over every piece of evidence and broke down every witness," said Tim Donis, 28, a city employee from Northridge.

The jurors built their own timeline for the night of the slaying in an attempt to reach agreement. One holdout wanted to inform the judge early in the deliberations that they were deadlocked on the murder charge, but the others prevailed and they pressed on.

The initially skeptical Moore said she was finally swayed by the testimony of Rebecca Markham and her husband, Andrew Percival, who said they saw Blake walking alone from the direction of the restaurant in the minutes before the 911 call was made reporting that Bakley was injured.

Ironically, those witnesses were called by the prosecution.

Their testimony "gives credence to the possibility that he went back to get his gun," said juror Charles "Chuck" Safko. Moore agreed.

Moore said she was also convinced that Blake's alibi -- that he returned to the restaurant where he and Bakley had eaten dinner to retrieve a handgun at the time Bakley was shot -- was reasonable. The gun he said he retrieved was not used in the crime; the murder weapon was found in an industrial trash bin nearby.

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