THE ROBERT BLAKE MURDER CASE:
Why It Matters, And It's Not Because Of His Celebrity

By JULIE HILDEN


julhil@aol.com
----
Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2002

As is well known by now, former "Baretta" star Robert Blake was recently indicted. The indictment alleges that Blake attempted to hire several hit men to kill his wife, Bonny Bakley, and when that failed, killed her himself. The Blake case has garnered a great deal of publicity. Ironically, however, many of the broadcasts that have focussed on the case have also tended to question their own existence.

Reporters and commentators have asked a simple yet troubling question: Why should we care about this case - or, rather, why should we care about it more than we care about any of the many other murder indictments that do not receive prominent national coverage?

To some extent, that seems like a good question. Consider what happened when, in the course of a segment on the Blake case, CNN's Aaron Brown asked a young L.A. entertainment reporter whether she had even heard of Blake before this scandal. Her answer: Only vaguely. Blake seems to be an entertainer who was hardly a blip on even the entertainment media's radar screen - and who had entirely fallen off the public's.

Yet Blake's case is not as irrelevant as it seems. Indeed, it may even end up being a significant criminal trial - but the reason for that has little to do with Blake's celebrity, and everything to do with his wife's sexually sordid background. The case will be interesting for lawyers, in particular, to watch because of the strategic question of how Bakley's background will be used by the defense if the case goes to trial, as it seems it probably will.

Bonny Bakley's Troubled Background

Significantly, it is Bakley, and not Blake, who had a prior criminal record. That means Bakley will inevitably be besmirched and tainted at trial, while Blake will be left free to testify on his own behalf without fear that any prior crimes will be exposed on cross-examination.

Indeed, Blake's defense is likely to stress his lack of a record in arguing for his innocence. They may also take advantage of the fact that most concede Blake has been a good father to the couple's tiny daughter, Rose, to subtly imply to jurors that convicting him would only leave Rose, in effect, an orphan.

Even worse than the fact that Bakley had a record, from the prosecution's standpoint, is the fact that her record did not reflect an isolated crime. Rather, Bakley reportedly was a veteran con artist. Among other scams, she used "lonely hearts" magazine ads and subsequent letters to try to bilk single men out of money by promising nude photographs of herself, sex, or other inducements - and she seems to have continued to do so even after she married Blake and no longer needed the money. Bakley reportedly may also have been a porn dealer, and had posed for topless photographs on occasion.

Sadly, Bakley's marriage to Blake also had the flavor of a con. The prosecution and the defense agree that Blake only married Bakley because she was pregnant and the baby had turned out, after testing, to be his. (Indeed, it seems they may even agree that Bakley lied about using contraception and intentionally became pregnant in order to trap Blake into marriage.)

Why the Evidence of Bakley's Background Will Be Admitted At Trial

Evidence of Bakley's past is almost certain to be presented at trial. For the prosecution, this evidence will be necessary to show Blake's motive to kill - which was, according to the

indictment, to escape a marriage he wanted no part of, and in which he felt trapped.

For the defense, evidence of Bakley's criminal and sexual history will be relevant to raise reasonable doubt. The defense may use this evidence to suggest that Bakley lived an underground life in which she consorted with dangerous people who could be killers. It may also suggest that through her scams, Bakley caused numerous men she duped to feel rage towards her, and potentially to seek revenge.

By way of comparison, recall Judge Lance Ito's decision in the O.J. Simpson trial to allow only two instances of Detective Mark Fuhrman's frequent use of the "n-word" to reach the jury's ears. Ito apparently found evidence of additional uses of the word to be both cumulative (that is, repetitive) and prejudicial (that is, overly likely to inflame the jury's passions against Fuhrman and thus against the prosecution). In contrast, evidence of Bakley's past, and of her many scams, would probably be ruled to be neither cumulative nor prejudicial.

The defense can argue that this evidence is not cumulative because each "lonely heart scam" victim is a potential alternative killer, and the more there are, the more chance there is that the real killer was not Blake. The defense can also argue that this evidence is not unfairly prejudicial because, since it is directly relevant to the "reasonable doubt" test, it is central to the defense's case . In the end, more trial time could potentially be devoted to Bakley's many misdeeds and provocations than to Blake's alleged murder and solicitation of murder.

(As an interesting sidelight, it is worth noting that even if Bakley were still alive and claiming rape, assault, or attempted murder by Blake, her history would still doubtless have become an issue at trial. Rape-shield statutes exclude evidence of a rape victim's sexual history in some circumstances. But evidence of lying can almost always be admitted to challenge a witness's veracity, and the topic Bakley seems to have frequently lied about was sex - meaning that the admission of evidence of her lies would always bring with it evidence of her sordid sexual past as well.)

The Risk of the Defense's Going Too Far With Evidence of Bakley's Background

Of course, even if a defense strategy focusing on Bakley's scams is permitted by a judge, as it probably would be, it could still backfire with the jury. Such a strategy threatens to alienate the jury for several reasons. First, it involves speaking ill of the dead. Second, it involves casting aspersions on a woman's sexuality, which could alienate women jurors and some male jurors as well. Third, Bakley might ultimately appear pathetic, and thus sympathetic, because she felt compelled to sexualize herself, and because she felt she had to resort to pregnancy to get Blake to marry her. (After all, men who want women only for sex may be even less sympathetic than women who want men only for babies and money.)

More fundamentally, the jury may balk at any whiff of a suggestion that Bakley's manipulative conduct makes her death - which, after all, left a little girl without a mother - any less tragic. A summation by the prosecution saying, "You've heard lots of bad things about Bonny, but she didn't deserve the death penalty for them, and that was what Blake gave her," could be very powerful, and could turn the defense's evidence against it.

In short, Blake's attorneys will have to walk a fine line to remain respectful of the woman herself, while also emphasizing that she moved within a world of potential killers. So far, Blake's lawyer, Harland Braun, shows every sign of having the finesse to walk that line.

Blake's Lawyer's Strategy So Far Regarding Bakley's Background

Braun has already showed strategic wisdom by making Bakley's background an issue from day one. Indeed, People Magazine reports that Braun lengthened the police investigation by insisting "that police fully explore Bakley's background and her disgruntled clients." Yet Braun has, at the same time, refrained from coming down too hard on Bakley to avoid the predictable backlash that might evoke.

That will likely be the theme of the defense: Because of Bakley's "background" - that is, because of her criminal history and especially because of her sleazy sexuality - reasonable doubt will always remain. There are just too many theories to prove anything positively. We, the defense, don't know who killed Bonny - but neither do the police, really. Otherwise, why would the investigation have taken so long?

The unspoken suggestion beneath this line of argument may be this: With a woman like

her, you never can know. But the jury should beware of embracing this idea. If taken to its logical conclusion, it would provide a license for any man to kill any woman with a sufficiently dark past. Yet one of the things that we prize about our laws is that they protect everyone - even a woman like Bonny Bakley.


Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Currently a freelance writer, she published a memoir, The Bad Daughter, in 1998. Her forthcoming novel Three will be published in French translation by Actes Sud.

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