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Famous people, cases to fill courtrooms in 2004

By John Springer and Matt Bean
Court TV

Robert Blake's trial for the slaying of his wife is scheduled to begin in February and could last months.
Robert Blake's trial for the slaying of his wife is scheduled to begin in February and could last months.

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(Court TV) -- Several high-profile criminal cases that gained attention during protracted, pre-trial proceedings in 2003 appear destined to become the big trials of the dawning new year.

From the execution-style murder of a TV star's wife three years ago to the mysterious deaths of Laci Peterson and her unborn son just last year, the docket of cases likely to grab the spotlight in 2004 is long and diverse.

Famous defendants whose cases may reach juries include pro basketball player Kobe Bryant, former basketball player Jayson Williams, actor Robert Blake and pop music superstar Michael Jackson.

The coming year also may see the trials of lesser-known defendants involved in high-profile cases, including Scott Peterson. He is the fertilizer salesman from Modesto, California, who is accused of murdering his pregnant wife and then playing the role of loving husband determined to find out what happened to her.

The names Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish may not roll off your tongue like celebrity defendants Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson, but expect to hear them more often when the former Las Vegas lovers are retried for the murder of casino mogul Ted Binion.

For those who want to follow along, here's a breakdown of some of the big cases expected to unfold in 2004.

Colorado v. Kobe Bryant

Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was in the tiny town of Eagle, Colorado, for knee surgery, but prosecutors say the NBA standout had more on his mind when he took a hotel employee back to his room last June.

The 19-year-old woman claims Bryant, who is married, raped her and made her promise not to tell anyone. He claims the sex was consensual, and defense lawyers have already indicated in court papers that they plan to attack motives that the accuser, whom they branded an "attention seeker," had to make the whole thing up.

The case is shaping up to be a trial of one person's credibility versus another's, with a lot of lawyerly spin mixed in.

New Jersey v. Williams

Kobe Bryant isn't the only basketball player in legal hot water. Former New Jersey Nets player Jayson Williams is expected to go on trial in 2004 in connection with the shooting death of a limousine driver.

Williams, 35, faces 55 years for recklessly handling a shotgun that killed driver Costas Christofi in 2002 at Williams' Alexandria Township home. Williams, who has been charged with aggravated manslaughter, is also accused of trying to get others to lie about what happened.

Williams' trial could begin as early as January, but it's been pushed back several times.

California v. Peterson

On the surface, Scott Peterson appeared to be living the American dream: He was good-looking, gainfully employed, married to a pretty, young wife who was eight months' pregnant.

After Peterson's wife went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002, however, police in Modesto, California, began investigating and soon learned that the fertilizer salesman's dream life may have been a facade. While Peterson was out searching for Laci, an extramarital affair came to light that involved a mistress who was ready to talk.

Peterson is jailed pending his upcoming trial. Although scheduled for February, a change-of-venue motion could delay the trial for months. Peterson's celebrity defense lawyer, Mark Geragos, doesn't want to take any chances. After all, his client could face the death penalty if convicted of capital murder.

Nevada v. Murphy, Tabish

Sandy Murphy, a former Las Vegas stripper, hit the jackpot when she moved in with casino mogul Lonnie "Ted" Binion. Her other boyfriend, Rick Tabish, was a struggling businessman with a wife.

Last month, the Nevada Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Murphy and Tabish. The trial judge's improper remarks about Tabish may have influenced jurors to convict the lovers of killing Binion in a move to steal his $8 million fortune of silver and rare coins.

The 51-year-old Binion had a long history of heroin addiction, and police initially believed he died of an overdose. His family, however, suspected his much-younger girlfriend. During the trial, prosecutors suggested Binion may have discovered Murphy's affair with Tabish and was killed before he could cut her off financially.

If the retrial is anything like the trial in 2000, when 115 witnesses testified, it will be bizarre, even by Las Vegas standards.

California v. Blake

His wife's death seemed right out of a Hollywood script, but actor Robert Blake says this time, he wasn't even in the picture.

Blake, who rose to fame with the 1970s television series "Baretta," told authorities he was retrieving a handgun from an Italian restaurant when his wife was shot in Blake's car in May, 2001. The 70-year-old actor faces life in prison without parole if convicted of the murder and two counts of solicitation.

A pair of Hollywood stuntmen testified at Blake's preliminary hearing that the actor laid out a number of schemes to "pop," "whack," and "snuff" his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, a lifelong grifter who had recently given birth to their child.

Blake remains free on $1.5 million bail pending his February trial, which could last many months, based on the preliminary witness list.

California v. Jackson

With his recording career on the decline, the self-dubbed King of Pop, Michael Jackson, now faces his toughest trial yet: a new batch of molestation allegations, this time backed up by a victim apparently willing to testify.

In 1994, a set of similar allegations fizzled after Jackson reportedly paid the boy's family a multimillion-dollar settlement. This time, says Santa Barbara district attorney Thomas Sneddon, Jackson's cash won't influence the victim, a 12-year-old boy the superstar allegedly molested in February and March of 2003 at his Neverland Ranch outside Santa Barbara, California.

Jackson, who has steadfastly denied the charges and hired high-profile, Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos, said in an interview recently that he would still share his bed with a child  -- platonically. The star has also fired back with claims that sheriff's officials abused him during his arrest last month, allegations that police have strongly denied. He is free on $3 million bond and is scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 16.

As in the Kobe Bryant case, Jackson's lawyers are already attacking the accuser. Geragos says he has the now-13-year-old boy on tape denying that the eccentric pop icon ever touched him in a improper way.


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