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Blake Jurors 'Stupid,' D.A. Says

Despite the acquittal, Steve Cooley contends the evidence showed the actor killed his wife.

March 24, 2005|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said jurors who acquitted actor Robert Blake of the murder of his wife are "incredibly stupid" and insisted his office put on a good case.

"Quite frankly, based on my review of the evidence, he is as guilty as sin. He is a miserable human being," he said.

In his first comments on the verdict, Cooley told a group of reporters that the outcome showed that prosecuting celebrities is extremely difficult in Los Angeles.

The district attorney's blunt assessment was rebuffed by a juror on the case as well as by some legal experts, who called his statements highly unusual.

"To hear him say we aren't a smart jury is sour grapes," Blake juror Chuck Safko said. "They didn't have a good case. Their case was built around witnesses who weren't truthful."

Added Laurie Levenson, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who attended portions of the trial: "To criticize the jurors is unprofessional. It is unbelievable.

"I think you have to give the jury credit. They are a very conscientious jury. It was a reasonable-doubt case, and disagreeing with Mr. Cooley doesn't make them stupid."

Blake, 71, was accused of killing his 44-year-old wife on May 4, 2001, mainly on the word of two Hollywood stuntmen who testified that the actor tried to hire them to kill her. Only two jurors ever thought Blake might be guilty, according to interviews after the verdict, and through nine days of deliberations in a Van Nuys courthouse, all 12 came to the verdict of not guilty.

The comment shows Cooley is "small-minded," said Blake's attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach. It was worthy of a politician, not a lawyer, Schwartzbach said.

Cooley praised the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Shellie Samuels, who had won 48 of 49 murder trials before the Blake case. He said his office has yet to conduct a formal post mortem on the trial, but among the issues to be reviewed will be the effectiveness of jury consultants and whether assigning a second attorney would have helped.

In celebrity cases, prosecutors have to get into the minds of jurors and understand how they think about stars, Cooley said.

Referring to his next celebrity trial, that of music producer Phil Spector on a murder charge, Cooley said prosecutors will have to make sure jurors know the real Spector.

"They think they know these celebrities. They think they know Robert Blake. They think they know Phil Spector," Cooley said. The jury will hear about Spector's lifestyle of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," Cooley said.

Spector is accused of fatally shooting actress Lana Clarkson on Feb. 3, 2003, in his Alhambra mansion.

Cooley said his office is aware of the "CSI effect" -- a demand on the part of some 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.

"It does create false expectations," he told reporters gathered Tuesday night for a Society of Professional Journalists meeting at the Figueroa Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

In what was a circumstantial-evidence case, Blake jurors said in interviews that the evidence was insufficient to convict the actor beyond a reasonable doubt, the high standard in criminal cases.

One juror said prosecutors could not put the murder weapon in Blake's hand.

The key to Spector's prosecution will be if a judge allows evidence of prior incidents in which the producer allegedly threatened women with guns, Cooley said. That issue is now being litigated.

"If we win that motion or a majority of it, I think we are in the catbird seat. If we lose that motion, it is going to be another fun trial for the L.A. County D.A.'s office," he said.

Blake had to be put on trial, Cooley said.

"We could have taken a powder on that one. It wasn't on videotape. We didn't have a confession. We had some tricky issues and we didn't have the best witnesses in the world," he said. "But you know what we are paid to do is try cases."

Cooley, 57, easily won a second term last year. He is a career prosecutor who has won praise for his prosecution of corrupt public officials, creating a forensic sciences section, and successful prosecutions of Symbionese Liberation Army associate Sara Jane Olson and "Angel of Death" respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar.

Cooley said that after the Blake verdict, broadcast nationwide, friends told him he would be remembered for the dozens of officials his office has convicted of corruption.

"And I said, 'Yeah, it ain't going to be convicting celebrity murderers, that is for sure,' " Cooley said.

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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