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Hollywood Murder Mystery: Audio Tapes of Bonny Bakley Released

Aired May 14, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: A Hollywood murder mystery gets even more mysterious as actor Robert Blake's lawyer releases audio tapes of his slain wife's private phone conversations. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, just a week after Bonny Bakley is shot to death outside a Studio City restaurant, her private discussions are released to the police and to CNN.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

As the investigation into the killing of actor Robert Blake's wife continues in Los Angeles, CNN's Charles Feldman has obtained exclusively a copy of a series of tape recordings that Blake's lawyers have turned over as evidence to the Los Angeles Police Department. According to Robert Blake and his attorney, the recordings are of Bonny Bakley's telephone conversations that she made, conversations that she herself made that helped paint a portrait, in her own words, of a woman now at the center of a Hollywood murder mystery.

Here's CNN's Charles Feldman.


CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The audio recordings you are about to hear were discovered by Robert Blake's investigative team, CNN has been told, in the small guest house where Blake's late wife, Bonny Bakley, resided next to her husband's home. The tapes purport to be recordings Bakley made of her own phone conversations over a period of time last year, before she married Blake and while paternity of their infant daughter was still being clinically established.

Blake's lawyers allowed CNN to make complete copies of the recordings after they were turned over to the LAPD as evidence. Blake himself told CNN that the voice on the tape was his wife's. When Bakley gave birth to her daughter, she named her after actor Christian Brando, Marlon Brando's son. She told people she thought it was his child. But CNN has not established that she actually ever knew the younger Brando and our attempts to reach Christian Brando were unsuccessful.

Complicating matters, she had a very real affair with Robert Blake, more than two decades her senior, and paternity tests have clearly determined he is the father of Bakley's baby.


BONNY BAKLEY, WIFE OF ROBERT BLAKE: And I met Blake. I thought, well, when I met Blake I kind of wanted him but I kind of didn't because he wasn't like up to par with the looks, you know? I couldn't remember what he looked like younger. You know, I started looking at movies now but -- and I thought he was cute when he was younger. But like he wasn't what I was looking for and I was already, I thought I was already in love with Christian, you know?

And then, but then I thought well, I don't really, I don't know if I really would want him the rest of my life or -- because he's going to get even older and worse looking and I'm already in love with Christian.

Blake, he come on real mushy and sweet like he's really fallen for me and then, you know, and I was backing off all then, you know? And then all of a sudden I don't know what happened, but I fell for him. And then he started backing off.

And then I got those awful feelings, you know, that pain, that, you know, it's like withdrawal or something, like really sad and lily and depressed.


FELDMAN: Bakley talks about her various legal problems on the tapes.


BAKLEY: Yeah, I know. I've had three years probation just for having different I.D.s, you know? And it wasn't even like I really used them for anything totally, you know, too, too illegal either, you know? I mean it's my business and if I want to, you know, like full guys on the mound say that I'm somebody else, you know, what's the difference?


FELDMAN: In another portion, Bakley goes so far as to wonder how a judge might react if she admitted tricking a well known celebrity into having her child.


BAKLEY: Even if I was to admit and say OK, well, I, no, I didn't take the pill. I told him I was going to take the pill and I didn't take it out that day.


FELDMAN: The question you may be asking is why would Robert Blake's lawyers give this tape to a news organization? While Blake has not been named a suspect in the slaying of his wife, police say they have not ruled him out either. His lawyers contend that something or someone in his wife's past is responsible for her death. The tapes, they claim, bolster that argument.

But it is also possible that they fear Blake might eventually be arrested for the killing and want to create public sympathy for him. Blake's wife clearly had a troubled past and clearly craved the spotlight.


BAKLEY: I was with the kid that everybody hated in school because I was like poor and couldn't dress good, you know, and everybody always made fun of me because I was like a real loner type, you know? So then you grow up saying oh, I'll fix them. I'll show them. I'll be a movie star, you know? And it was too hard because I was always falling for somebody. So I figured well, why not fall for movie stars instead of becoming one, you know?


FELDMAN: And so, in death, Bonny Bakley found what she never did in life. She is now famous.

Charles Feldman, CNN, Los Angeles.


COSSACK: Joining us today from Los Angeles is criminal defense attorney Erick Ward and here in Washington, Casey Kamat (ph). Criminal defense attorney Bernard Grimm, also, and in the back, sitting up there by himself, Court Williams (ph). And also joining us here in Washington as communications law expert John Watson.

Bernie, interesting action to allow the tapes by Robert Blake's lawyer, Harland Braun, to have these tapes be made public. It brings up, I would think, as a prosecutor, all kinds of issues. From my point of view, if I'm prosecuting this case it's clear to me that one of the things I'm saying is isn't it interesting how the effort is being made by the defense attorney to dirty up this victim?

BERNARD GRIMM, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yeah. He's right out of the block selling the victim before his client even gets charged. But I think Braun's theory is Mr. Blake's attorney, is right now my client's the only suspect. As time goes on, people are going to keep believing that he must be the one unless I can reverse the flow here and essentially that's what he's doing is polluting any potential jurors that are out there.

COSSACK: Erick, in a situation like this where you start releasing selected tapes, don't you run into the problem of all of a sudden, if you leave some out -- and I don't know whether Harland Braun has released every single tape that he found. I would think and guess probably not. But don't you run into this problem of having somebody say isn't that interesting, you just hear the ones that you want them to hear? ERICK WARD, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, Roger, that's an interesting question. I think the thing to remember here is that Mr. Blake has not yet even been charged with a crime. So in that sense him coming forward or rather Mr. Braun coming forward with these tapes is just like any other citizen coming forward with potentially exculpatory evidence.

Now, Mr. Blake and Mr. Braun both have proposed the theory that a stalker, some mysterious man, may been the one to pull the trigger. I think these tapes could have some potential evidence that would show the motive, possible motives of the killer and so on and so forth. So in that regard, I think that Mr. Braun was correct in coming forward with this evidence.

COSSACK: Why come forward with the evidence now when, as you point out, Blake hasn't been charged with anything? Why come out today and start attempting to manipulate people's thoughts before, when you're presumed innocent and hasn't even been charged?

WARD: Well, I have no information whatsoever as to when these tapes were actually discovered, but I guess I could pose the question in return, then, how would it look if these tapes suddenly came out at some later point in the proceedings? How would it look if Mr. Braun were to wait until Mr. Blake was actually charged with the crime and then release these tapes?

I think it shows a lot of honesty and it shows that Mr. Braun is trying to be forthright and cooperate in the investigation.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When you die, are you still protected under privacy laws? How can you control your private items after you're deceased? Don't go away.


To date, the federal investigations and trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols have cost taxpayers an estimated $80 million.




CHIEF BERNARD PARKS, LOS ANGELES POLICE: We're not going to speculate about evidence. We're not going to respond to the attorneys that are out commenting on issues. But I think we have to let this case be investigated, allow it to come to a conclusion and then talk about the facts.


COSSACK: Police in Los Angeles are investigating the shooting death of Bonny Bakley, the wife of actor Robert Blake. Bakley was killed 10 days ago while sitting in her car outside a restaurant in Studio City. Now, Blake's legal team has released audio tapes of Bakley's phone conversations.

John, let's talk a little bit about privacy and what one, even someone who is deceased like Bonny Bakley, what kind of rights of privacy does she have? Here's some tapes that she made of herself -- allegedly she made of herself speaking on the phone. One would think that she had a right of privacy in that. Is that right of privacy gone? Did she have a right of privacy?

JOHN WATSON, COMMUNICATIONS LAW PROFESSOR: Well, it depends on how those tapes are used. If they are used in a commercial setting, then she still has privacy rights, or I should say her heirs have privacy rights.

COSSACK: Her estate?


COSSACK: All right.

WATSON: But as for her individually, privacy, I don't think so. Usually privacy rights relate to your right to be let alone, your right to be free from embarrassment, your right to be portrayed in a fair and truthful light. And generally once you're deceased, your privacy rights pretty much are gone outside of a commercial setting.

COSSACK: Well, let's talk about whether or not this could even be in some way construed a commercial setting. Now, commercial normally means some kind of a profit making where you, perhaps if someone would take these tapes and put them on a CD and sell them. You know, that's a commercial use. But what if the lawyer for Robert Blake was using these tapes to try and manipulate public opinion one way or the other? It's not a traditional commercial use, but it's certainly for the benefit of his client. Come close or am I stretching?

WATSON: Yeah, I think that's a little bit of a stretch. Usually privacy rights are used against the media, news media, entertainment media. If we're talking about the news media, first of all, the courts have said the newsworthiness defense is almost a complete blanket. It's hard to say anything is a complete blanket, but this is probably as close as you're going to get in law.

Moving to place a commercial heading on what the lawyer is doing here, I think, is also probably a stretch. The lawyer, I would presume, is trying to get the best public opinion flow for his client. I mean, of course, he hasn't been charged yet, but what the lawyer appears to be doing is what we in academia usually refer to as litigation public relations.


WATSON: Even if the litigation hasn't started yet. And in a sense it's a fair thing to do. It's a reasonable, rational thing to do because everybody across the country has seen and heard these news stories and many people have come to conclusions already. What the attorney is apparently doing, I think, is trying to add some balance to that, to not make the story appear detrimental to his client even though is client clearly has not yet been charged.

COSSACK: What, is there any different responsibility or any different role that the defense attorney has, for example, than the prosecutor has? And let me just back up a second and say in terms of the ownership of these tapes, California is a community property state. Could they argue, I suppose, that Robert Blake had as much interest in those tapes as his deceased wife and therefore could do anything he wants with them?

WATSON: In the purely legal sense, I think that might be right. But rationally you see it's, it could be self-serving if he becomes a suspect.

COSSACK: All right, now, what, let's turn it around a little bit and say the prosecutor had released tapes and in these tapes they weren't, perhaps, as exculpatory, if you will, for Mr. Blake. Let's say that these, let's say that on, hypothetically, that these tapes contained statements by Ms. Bakley where she said, you know, I'm afraid of my husband and she, and the prosecutor released those tapes. Would there be any other, would there be a different kind of a problem?

WATSON: Well, it would clearly be harmful to Robert Blake in that case. And I think even without going to that step, the simple fact that the circumstances and the information being released causes some sort of suspicion to be cast upon him and I think his attorney is doing a smart thing by bringing out some of the other side of the story.

The, to me this is more than a legal question. This is an ethical question, not only ethical in terms of the news media, but ethical in terms of lawyers. From the very first code of ethics for attorneys, there was a provision that allowed them to address the media with respect to the defense of their client whenever it became necessary. That essentially hasn't changed over a century or so.

Lawyers have recognized that what happens in the public eye is very often as important as what happens in a courtroom. Sometimes by dealing with your case in the media in advance, you can even forestall a criminal prosecution. I'm not saying that's going to apply to this case, but in my personal experience as a journalist, I've seen how the byplay in the media has prevented a prosecution.

COSSACK: All right, let me go to Erick for a second. Erick, as a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, is the fact that there seems to be tapes out here that cast the deceased in a not necessarily favorable light, is that going to have any influence on the district attorney's office as to whether or not they charge in this case?

WARD: Well, I can't speak for the district attorney's office, Roger. But I think Mr. Watson brings up a very interesting point, and that is that successful defense lawyers have realized the importance of public opinion and in that sense, a successful defense lawyer succeeds in deflecting some of this negative attention away from his client and onto himself. And I think in that sense Mr. Braun's strategy here, you can call it that, has been a successful one. COSSACK: OK, let me take a break. At times, private eyes can turn up evidence that police haven't turned up. But do they help an investigation? Stay with us.


Q: Why did a British artist receive a letter from Yoko Ono's lawyers?

A: Artist Joanne Shaw had sent two portraits of John Lennon for his old school to aid its fund-raising efforts. Ono owns exclusive rights to Lennon's image.



COSSACK: The LAPD has another high profile murder case on its hands as detectives search for clues in the killing of Bonny Bakley, the wife of former BARETTA star Robert Blake. Now, Blake has hired a criminal defense attorney as well as a private investigator and over the weekend his legal team released audio recordings of Blake's late wife's private phone conversations.

Now, Bernie, in this situation it's clear that there is a strategy and the strategy is before anything happens in this case, Harland Braun, his attorney, who I happen to know and is a very fine lawyer in Los Angeles, it's clear that his strategy is to sully you, if you will, the victim in this case. Is the hope in that going to be that if, in fact, is it two things, one is let's see if we can slow down the investigation and two, if we do have to face a jury, this jury is going to know as much about the victim beforehand as they ever will?

GRIMM: Working backwards, in answer to your second question, it's yes. I think Mr. Braun, who's an outstanding lawyer, may be thinking these tapes may not be admissible at a trial and if they're not, I want to get them out there now so everybody hears the fact that this woman, unfortunate for her, was a gold digger and a con artist. There are plenty of other suspects out there who wanted her dead. And two, normally the defense is reactive because a defendant is charged and then they have to react to that. He's not charged yet so the best defense is a good offense here so they're going to be proactive and try to keep pace with the investigation themselves.

COSSACK: OK, so now he gets, they get out the fact that she was allegedly a gold digger and not a particularly good woman, however you want to describe it. But you know what? The evidence is also going to show that apparently he knew all of that when he married her. He fathered her child and married her. And then the argument is going to be by that prosecution tell me what you didn't know about this, Mr. Blake, about this woman you were marrying, and what you did was you married her. You knew all these things about her and then you shot her.

So where's the surprise that you're releasing all these things? It isn't like you were taken by surprise or somehow didn't know this stuff?

GRIMM: That's a good point and that goes back to the fact that they're just putting those tapes out there now just to sully this woman. And so you get some sort of nullification and some sympathy going for Blake at an early stage in this investigation.

COSSACK: Before I ask Erick a question, I want to once again reiterate that under no circumstances has Robert Blake been charged with anything. He is, the police have not said that he is a suspect and we are talking in hypothetical terms only, so I don't want anybody here to think that in any way I know anything more than what the rest of you do in terms of whether or not Mr. Blake will ever be anything more than what he is right now, someone who is the husband of the deceased.

But Erick, let me just go to you now and talk a little bit more, as we were talking hypothetically, and you can remove Robert Blake or put him in there. The notion of coming out and trying to affect a jury ahead of time, is it a successful tactic?

WARD: Well, it depends. Sometimes it can be, but I'm of the opinion that the average juror is actually pretty intelligent and I think the public is actually pretty intelligent, overall, and I think that they're going to be able to see through an obvious smokescreen. But I think the important thing to remember is what it looks like to the public that this defense attorney is being so forthcoming with evidence.

If we take it in the context that Mr. Blake hasn't yet been charged with any crime, he has the same duties as any other citizen to come forward with evidence that may have any bearing on who had motive in this crime and how that evidence is going to come out?

COSSACK: Right. But Eric, he doesn't have a duty to release the evidence to the press, though, does he?

WARD: Well, that's certainly true. But the evidence needs to come out in one way or another.

COSSACK: I mean I suspect this obligation is to turn over all evidence he may have to the police, but not necessarily to the media.

WARD: Well, I think the important thing to remember is that there is a theory that's being proposed by Mr. Blake and by Mr. Braun that there is a third person involved in this crime, this mysterious stranger with the buzz cut. In that sense, the more people that can understand the details of the crime, the more people that can understand the information behind Ms. Bakley and her relationship with Mr. Blake, I think the argument could be made that the more people make, step forward with information on this third person.

COSSACK: OK, all right, I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching. Join us again tomorrow for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll be back and I'll see you again. Bye-bye.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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