LOS ANGELES — A jury acquitted tough-guy actor Robert Blake of murder Wednesday in the shooting death of his wife four years ago, bringing a stunning end to a case that played out like pulp fiction.
The jury also acquitted Blake of one charge of trying to get someone to kill his wife, but deadlocked on a second solicitation charge. The jury voted 11-1 in favor of acquittal and the judge dismissed the count.
The 71-year-old star of the 1970s detective drama “Baretta” dropped his head, trembled with emotion and sobbed heavily as the verdict was read. He hugged his lawyer and later almost fell while reaching for a water bottle.
The adult daughter of Blake’s wife sobbed quietly in the back of the courtroom.
The jury of seven men and five women delivered the verdicts on its ninth day of deliberations, following a trial with a cast of characters that included two Hollywood stuntmen who said Blake tried to get them to bump off his wife.
Blake had faced life in prison; prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.
Blake was charged with shooting 44-year-old Bonny Lee Bakley in their car outside the actor’s favorite Italian restaurant on May 4, 2001, less than six months after their marriage.
The defense called it a weak case built largely on the testimony of the two stuntmen — both of whom were once heavy drug users.
No eyewitnesses, blood or DNA evidence linked Blake to the crime. The murder weapon, found in a trash bin, could not be traced to Blake, and witnesses said the minuscule amounts of gunshot residue found on Blake’s hands could have come from a different gun he said he carried for protection.
Prosecutors said Blake believed his wife trapped him into a loveless marriage by getting pregnant. They said Blake soon became smitten with the baby, Rosie, and desperately wanted to keep the child away from Bakley, whom he considered an unfit mother.
Bakley had been married several times, had a record for mail fraud and made a living scamming men out of money with nude pictures of herself and promises of sex.
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“He was tricked by Bonny Lee and he hated her for it,” prosecutor Shellie Samuels said in closing arguments. “He got taken by a small-time grifter.”
The four-month trial was part of a wave of celebrity court cases in California that have provided endless fodder for the tabloids and cable networks. The Michael Jackson child molestation trial was starting just as the Blake case was wrapping up, and rock ’n’ roll producer Phil Spector will stand trial later this year in Los Angeles for allegedly murdering a B-movie actress.
In another murder case that was seemingly made for the tabloids, Scott Peterson was sent to death row just a few hours before the Blake verdict for killing his pregnant wife and her unborn fetus.
Blake has been in front of the camera from childhood, back when he was sad-eyed little Mickey in the “Our Gang” movie shorts, and was nominated for an Oscar for the 1967 movie “In Cold Blood,” in which he portrayed a killer who dies on the gallows.
In “Baretta,” Blake played a tough-talking, street-smart detective whose catchphrase was “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”
Those acting successes seemed well in the past by the time a divorced and lonely Blake met Bakley at a jazz club five years ago. They had sex in his truck that night, and she was soon carrying Blake’s child. They were wed in 2000 in a no-frills ceremony at which the bride wore an electronic monitoring bracelet because she was still on probation for fraud.
Prosecutors said Blake killed his wife after failing to persuade a street thug-turned-minister and two stuntmen from his “Baretta” days to do the job. One of the stuntmen said Blake talked about having Bakley “snuffed” and mentioned locations for the killing, including the Grand Canyon.
Also, a former detective who worked for Blake as a private investigator testified that the actor proposed to kidnap Bakley, force her to have an abortion and, if that did not work, “whack her.”
The defense portrayed the stuntmen as drug users prone to hallucinations and delusions.
The police “convicted Mr. Blake on the night of the murder, and then they conducted an incompetent investigation,” defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach said.
Blake told authorities that he walked his wife to the car after dinner, then discovered he had left his gun back in the booth at Vitello’s Restaurant. He went back to get it, then returned to the car and found his wife shot, he said.
But some witnesses testified that Blake did not appear to be sincere as he wept and moaned over the slaying that night. One witness said the actor appeared to be “turning it on and off.”
Blake did not testify. But his lawyer showed the jury a videotape of a jailhouse interview with Barbara Walters in which he denied killing his wife.
“It’s all about Rosie. It’s always been about Rosie,” Blake said. “The greatest gift in the world, and I’m going to try to mess it up by being selfish?”
Rosie, now 4, is being raised by Blake’s adult daughter.
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