Robert Blake, a former child star who later became known for his tough-guy roles, was found not guilty today of murder in the 2001 shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.
In addition to murder, Blake, 71, was acquitted of one count of solicitation to commit murder but the Los Angeles Superior Court jury said it was deadlocked 11-1 on a second solicitation count, which the judge then dismissed. The jury deliberated eight days before reaching its decision.
In a rambling statement to reporters after he was released, Blake, 71, thanked his legal team, kissing one lawyer on the head and saying, "this small band of dedicated warriors saved my life."
He also chided the media for getting distant relatives and casual acquaintances to comment on the case and on Blake's character.
"Well guess what?" Blake said. "They're all liars, and about half of them are commode scum, who were out to hustle you to make a buck over my hopefully dead a--. Well, they missed their bet."
Stunned, Then Defiant
Blake covered his mouth with his hand as the verdict was reached. Almost shaking with relief, he let out several deep breaths. Later, he broke down in tears and sobbed with his head down on the defendant's table.
But speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, he was defiant and looked ahead to the future.
"I'm going to get a job, I'm broke. Right now I couldn't buy spats for a hummingbird," Blake said. "I was a rich man; I'm broke now. I gotta go to work. But before that, I'm going to go out and do a little cowboying."
Bakley, 44, was shot in the head on May 4, 2001, as she sat in their car after she and Blake had dined at Vitello's, one of the actor's favorite restaurants. Los Angeles County prosecutors had argued that Blake tried to hire others to kill his wife and did it himself when he couldn't find anyone to carry out the murder.
"That's what this case is all about, the defendant getting what he wants," Los Angeles County prosecutor Shellie Samuels told jurors during closing arguments. "And if he can't get someone else to do it, he'll do it himself."
Blake, best known for playing an unconventional cop on the 1970s TV drama "Baretta," married Bakley after DNA tests showed he was the father of her infant daughter. Prosecutors contend Blake killed Bakley to get her out of his life and prevent her from becoming a bad influence on the baby, Rosie.
Blake did not testify at trial. But in various interviews before the trial -- including one with ABC News' Barbara Walters in 2003 -- he denied any role in the killing. He said he left Bakley in the car that night and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left at their table, and came back to the car to discover his wife had been shot. Jurors saw Blake's interview with Walters during the trial.
Blake's defense pointed out that Bakley made a lot of enemies during her life. She has been described as a con woman with a criminal record who bilked men out of money through lonely-hearts scams and used several aliases. Blake, his friends and relatives of Bakley have said she had always wanted to be the wife of a movie star and spent much of her life pursuing famous people.
In his closing arguments, defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach accused prosecutors of cherry-picking people to paint a bad picture of the actor. He pointed out that several witnesses testified that Blake sobbed, moaned and vomited after discovering his wife had been shot, and that paramedics asked that he be kept away so they could assist Bakley. "He is a man of emotions," Schwartzbach said.
Schwartzbach also ridiculed the prosecution's theory that Blake would kill Bakley near his favorite restaurant and noted that Bakley was still alive when paramedics came to help her. He questioned why Blake would hatch an elaborate murder plot only to leave his wife alive for paramedics.
"I'm going to kill her right by a restaurant that I've been going to for 30 years?" Schwartzbach asked. "It is an absolutely absurd scenario."
A Circumstantial Case With Colorful Witnesses
The case against Blake was circumstantial. There were no known eyewitnesses to the shooting, and investigators were not able to find any fingerprints, blood or physical evidence that tied Blake to the slaying. Police found the murder weapon but were not able to link it directly to Blake. Gun powder residue was found on Blake's hands, but experts testified that they could have come from the gun he carried for protection. (That gun was not linked to Bakley's killing.)
The two-month trial included a cast of colorful witnesses. Early in the trial, prosecutors mainly called witnesses who described Blake's demeanor following the slaying and described his grief as staged. A self-described former gangster-turned-street preacher named Frank Minucci -- also known as "Brother Frank" -- testified that Blake talked about wanting someone to "annihilate," "snuff" or "pop" Bakley.
However, the prosecution relied primarily on the testimony of three former stuntmen who claimed that Blake asked them about killing Bakley or finding a hit man to kill her. Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, Gary "Whiz Kid" McLarty and Roy "Snuffy" Harrison claimed on record before the trial that Blake talked about finding a hit man to kill Bakley.
Two Stuntmen Fall Flat For Prosecutors
But two of the stuntmen backed off their claims during the trial. McLarty told jurors he had met with Blake a few months before Bakley's death and that the actor was annoyed at his wife. But McLarty -- who testified at a pretrial hearing that Blake showed him an automatic weapon or revolver and had offered him $10,000 to kill Bakley -- told jurors he did not even remember Bakley's name after the meeting and that he had only "insinuated" that Blake wanted her dead.
"A lot of people want to strangle their wives," McLarty told the jury. "And it was possible he was just venting his anger."
McLarty also admitted on the stand that he was a heavy user of cocaine and had paranoid delusions.
Harrison had said in police interviews that he gave Blake the phone numbers for McLarty and Hambleton. But at trial, he testified that he had had heart surgery shortly after his first interview with police in 2001 and did not remember setting up meetings between Blake and McLarty and Hambleton.
"I've had these surgeries, and I don't remember a lot," Harrison said.
Alleged 'Death Scenarios'
Hambleton, however, stood by his pretrial claims and gave jurors a detailed account of Blake allegedly soliciting his wife's murder. He testified that he met Blake in March 2001 to discuss what he thought was going to be a film project. Instead, Hambleton testified, they talked only briefly about the potential movie and Blake concentrated on plans to kill Bakley.
Blake, Hambleton told jurors, proposed several death "scenarios" that included ambushing Bakley by the side of a road or shooting her in a hotel room, among others. Hambleton said he met with Blake a total of four times but turned down the actor's request to kill Bakley.
Hambleton said Blake wanted to protect his baby daughter from her mother and did not want Rosie to grow up in a potentially criminal environment that Bakley -- a convicted scam artist -- might provide. Hambleton said that when he turned down the alleged murder request, Blake responded, "If you're not going to do it, I sure as hell am."
Blake's defense discredited all three retired stuntmen as liars and stressed that two of them -- McLarty and Hambleton, an admitted former methamphetamine user -- had had prior troubles with drug abuse and the law. A defense expert testified that heavy drug users are prone to hallucinations.
But defense attorneys focused mainly on diffusing Hambleton's testimony. During cross-examination, Schwartzbach pointed out that Hambleton denied knowing anything about a murder plot when police first interviewed him and that he changed his story six months later while testifying before a grand jury -- after he had been reading stories about Bakley's slaying.
An Overshadowed Celebrity Case
Besides attempting to discredit the credibility of the stuntmen, Blake's defense suggested that police in the case focused on Blake and did not explore other potential theories in Bakley's killing. Various defense witnesses from Vitello's also testified that they did not notice any unusual behavior between Blake and Bakley in the restaurant before the shooting.
Born Michael Gubitosi, Blake got his start as a child actor as one of the Little Rascals in the "Our Gang" comedies. In 1967, he starred in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." He went on to star in "Baretta," but that was the height of his acting fame.
The murder case generated front-page headlines when Bakley was first killed in May 2001. But it faded from the spotlight after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and has been overshadowed by the Scott Peterson murder case and the scandals involving higher-profile celebrities such as Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson.