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Actor Robert Blake acquitted of his wife's murder

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

Court TV:  Case coverageexternal link

VAN NUYS, California (Court TV) -- Robert Blake walked out of court a free man Wednesday after a jury acquitted him of the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley, his wife of six months and the mother of his 4-year-old daughter.

Outside the courthouse, Blake borrowed a pair of cutters from a camera man, sliced off the electronic monitor that had been strapped around his right ankle, and handed it to his attorney, who held it up in a victory gesture.

"It don't feel bad," Blake said, when asked how freedom felt.

The panel also found Blake not guilty of solicitation of murder, but were unable to reach a verdict on a second solicitation count, which was subsequently dismissed.

The 71-year-old actor would have faced life in prison for a first-degree murder conviction.

Blake, the former star of the '70s show "Baretta," broke down when hearing the verdict. He sighed and wept heavily, hugged his defense lawyer, and then sat trembling at the defense table before he was allowed to leave the courtroom.

Bonny Lee Bakley's daughter, Holly Gawron, broke down in tears when the verdict was read, and did not stop crying even as the courtroom was cleared.

Blake, who has been under house arrest throughout the 10-week trial, did not take the stand in his defense.

Jurors received the case Friday, March 4, and deliberated for about 35 hours over nine days before reaching their decision Wednesday afternoon.

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, the panelists cited a lack of direct evidence and credibility issues with the prosecution's key witnesses in explaining their decision.

Juror No. 5, foreman Thomas Nicholson, called the case "flimsy" and "disjointed."

"You couldn't put the gun in his hand," Nicholson said. "There was no [gun shot residue], no blood on the clothing  there was nothing."

Juror No. 1, Lori Moore, said, "We just didn't have enough evidence to say whether or not he did it."

During their deliberations, the jury asked to rehear testimony from three witnesses who saw Blake within 10 to 15 minutes of Bakley's shooting death, as well as testimony from Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, a stuntman who claims Blake asked him to "snuff" his wife.

Hambleton's testimony, considered central to the state's case, was thoroughly unconvincing to jurors. Although Hambleton said Blake asked him to kill his wife, the jury also heard testimony about Hambleton's history of drug-influenced delusional behavior.

The foreman, Nicholson, dismissed Hambleton's testimony entirely, calling him a "prolific liar."

"I wouldn't trust a drug addict," Nicholson said, adding that defense expert Ronald Siegel, who testified about the long-term effects of methamphetamine and cocaine use, was one of the most compelling witnesses to take the stand.

Jurors were split 11-1 in favor of acquittal on the undecided count, which related to Hambleton's testimony.

After a brief sidebar, the judge announced that she would dismiss the count in the interest of justice.

The second solicitation count related to the claims of another stuntman, Gary "Whiz Kid" McLarty, who also said that Blake spoke with him about killing his wife.

Nicholson said McClarty's testimony was "so disjointed, so irregular" that it "had no bearing on anything."

Even McLarty's son and wife testified that years of cocaine abuse made the stuntman paranoid and delusional.

"God bless Karen and Cole McLarty," Blake told reporters outside the courthouse, during the middle of a long, Academy Awards-style speech, in which he thanked the lawyers, investigators and friends who helped him win an acquittal.

"This small band of dedicated warriors saved my life," Blake said. "They saved Rosie's daddy's life."

Night out in Studio City

Bonny Lee Bakley was shot in the head on May 4, 2001, as she waited in Blake's car on a residential street near an Italian restaurant where the couple had just dined.

Blake claimed he had returned briefly to the restaurant to retrieve a revolver he had accidentally left behind and returned to find her dead. The gun, which he carried legally, was not the murder weapon.

The gun used in the killing, a World War II-era Walther P-38, was found in a Dumpster near the crime scene, but police were unable to trace it to Blake.

Blake maintained that someone else killed Bakley when he briefly left her alone. Deputy District Attorney Shellie Samuels argued that Blake's alibi was too loose, with plenty of time to spare for getting rid of evidence. But detectives were unable to recover any direct evidence to link Blake to Bakley's murder. No prints, no witnesses, no confessions.

"We believe the evidence was compelling," the district attorney's office announced in a statement to the press. "Unfortunately this jury disagreed with our view of the evidence."

Bakley, a 44-year-old mother of four, was a successful mail-order pornographer who had conned several men. Blake's defense argued that any of her victims could have pulled the trigger. Jurors said, however, that Bakley's shady past  and Blake's stardom  carried no weight in their deliberations.

"Whether or not he's a celebrity ... had nothing to do with it," said juror No. 7, Cecilia Maldonado.

The jurors also rejected the prosecution's theory that Blake was so desperate to retain custody of the couple's infant daughter, Rosie, that when he couldn't convince the two stuntmen to kill Bakley, he pulled the trigger himself.

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Blake thanked his defense team but complained that he had no money left. Quoting Johnny Cochran, he quipped, "You're innocent until proven broke."

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