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Court TV

One more time: Blake needs a lawyer ... again

By John Springer
Court TV

Robert Blake, left
Robert Blake, left

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(Court TV) -- California's law schools turn out some great trial lawyers. And actor Robert Blake seems bent on meeting all of them, one at a time.

Blake, who is best remembered for his portrayal of the unorthodox but effective TV detective "Tony Baretta," is in the market once again for a defense lawyer. Another one left him abruptly last week, reportedly because Blake was exerting too much authority over a team of lawyers and investigators just weeks before his murder trial was to begin.

"He's shopping all over the place," said Victor Sherman, a Santa Monica attorney well-known in California legal circles. "A lot of people are turning him down, but he'll find someone."

Sure, Blake will find someone. But who?

"I just don't know. I've given Robert a bunch of names but he's only just embarked on the process," said Dana Cole, the lawyer who successfully got co-defendant Earle Caldwell's conspiracy indictment thrown out.

"I think he's going to have a tough time finding a lawyer, to tell you the truth," Cole said.

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What a difference two years makes. When Blake was arrested in April 2002 and charged with killing his wife 11 months earlier, he practically had his pick of lawyers because of the nature of the case, his financial resources and the free publicity that a celebrity murder case brings to the legal team.

But considering the trail of unhappy lawyers in Blake's wake since he was first charged, who would want to step up on his behalf now? Lately, Blake can hardly leave the courthouse without mugging for the cameras with a hot dog in his mouth or bursting into song.

Trail of lawyers

Good attorneys can do great good for defendants charged with all kinds of crimes, but when a client thinks he or she knows better, nothing good can come from that, said Fay Arfa, a Los Angeles criminal defense and appellate attorney.

"Sometimes you can get a lawyer who is really not compatible with a client, where there's just a total conflict," Arfa said. "But after it happens again and again, you wonder if there was a problem with the lawyer or this is a difficult client."

Blake's first lawyer, Harland Braun, resigned after Blake insisted on giving a jailhouse interview to ABC's Barbara Walters. That interview never came off, so Blake next granted a sitdown with Diane Sawyer. Attorney Jennifer Keller quit, in part, over that incident.

Keller's partner, Thomas Mesereau Jr., entered the picture next. Mesereau threatened to quit when Blake appeared intent to give a taped deposition in conjunction with a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of his deceased wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Blake, in tears because he wanted to get his story out before he died in a "cement box," backed down.

For Mesereau, the last straw came during pretrial hearings earlier this month. Judge Darlene Schempp told a shocked courtroom that the start of Blake's trial was going to be delayed because she felt compelled to let Mesereau and Blake part ways over "irreconcilable differences." Associates of Mesereau have been quoted in news reports as saying that Blake had fired co-counsel Susan Yu and had circumvented Mesereau by working directly with investigators and two lawyers hired to write motions.

Costly changes

Arfa said it is not unusual for clients to take a direct role in their defense, but it can hurt them if they do not see the big picture.

"Most clients are very emotional, but a lawyer always has to have control of the client. The client has to understand that the lawyer is in charge of their case," Arfa explained. "You really have to tell the client, 'Look, this is really damaging your defense. I understand that the car was blue and not white. There are bigger issues we have to deal with.'"

In Blake's case, there are two major issues that his trial lawyers -- whoever they turn out to be -- must resolve. Two former stuntmen are ready to testify that Blake tried to hire them to kill Bakley in the months before she was gunned down outside a Studio City, California, restaurant.

Changing lawyers so often has to be costly for Blake, who posted $1.5 million bail before being released and confined to his home pending the outcome his trial. He is also paying a lawyer to defend him in the wrongful death suit, which is being put off until after the criminal trial.

Attorney Barry Felsen said he stopped representing Blake in the civil case last year, but their split was not acrimonious like some of the others. When Mesereau left the Blake camp, Blake told reporters that he was "sorry" to see Mesereau go.

"I know Tom Mesereau. He was very dedicated to the case," Arfa said. "He devoted a lot of his practice making sure Blake got the defense he needed."

Blake is due back in court, with a new attorney in tow or not, February 23.

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