Robert Blake Ordered to Pay $30 Million For Wife's Death

By Sonya Geis and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 19, 2005

BURBANK, Calif., Nov. 18 -- It's an expensive rerun for Robert Blake. The actor killed his wife or had someone else do it, according to jurors in a civil trial that ended Friday with an order that Blake pay her children $30 million in "wrongful death" damages, money the former 1970s TV star says he doesn't have.

"I'll take a cashier's check or cash, whatever he wants," said Eric Dubin, the lawyer for the four children. "Hopefully not in quarters."

It was just eight months ago that Blake, 72, was celebrating after a criminal jury found him not guilty of the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley, who police had charged was shot by Blake while she waited in his car outside an Italian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley in 2001. Prosecutors in the criminal trial alleged that Blake "whacked" (the actor's word, according to witnesses) Bakley because he hated her for tricking him into marriage and was fighting for custody of their daughter, Rosie, now 5. (Rosie is one of the four Bakley children who are plaintiffs in the suit.)

Friday, Blake hung his head as the jury's decision was read. The tough-talking actor who played "Baretta" on television left the courthouse through a back door without making a statement. But one of Blake's lawyers, Gary Austin, sought to put a positive spin on the day. "Mr. Blake is very happy to return to a life that has none of this," he said, waving his arm at the media throng surrounding him outside the courthouse. "A life that has no cameras, no verdicts, none of this."

Austin conceded: "We're a little frustrated with the fact that we have some liability. But we're happy to have no more verdicts, no more anything. He's looking forward to just waking up and going back to work." Blake will serve no jail time and he will likely appeal the damage award.

A civil trial is much different from a criminal one; for instance, the standards of weighing guilt are much lower in a civil trial. On Friday, 10 of the 12 jurors agreed that a "preponderance" of evidence -- meaning it is "more likely than not" -- showed that Blake was "responsible" for Bakley's death. The jury did not have to decide whether Blake shot his wife or had someone else do it. But it decided that Blake's former handyman, Earle Caldwell, did not collaborate in the killing.

As the jurors assembled in front of the courthouse, they were asked if they believed Blake pulled the trigger. The group shrugged. Juror Tony Aldana said, "We're not sure."

Some jurors said they found Blake "arrogant" and were disturbed that he showed no "remorse." "The message we're sending is a deterrent. The majority of us feel Mr. Blake was guilty and there is no price that can be put on the love of a parent," juror Lonnie Lucero said.

The Blake case follows the arc of O.J. Simpson's: He was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend but later was found liable for their deaths in a civil trial and ordered to pay $33.5 million. To date, Simpson has paid about $400,000 -- most of which has gone to attorney fees, according to the Associated Press.

Blake did not take the stand in his criminal trial but did testify during the two-month civil trial, which was mostly ignored by the entertainment media. Blake told jurors he loved Bakley (though he was not "in love" with her) and had nothing to do with her murder. Blake testified that Bakley tried to offer her adult daughter to him for sex. She was also involved in a scam whereby she sold her nude photos to men through a lonely-hearts club.

Juror David Lopez said: "No matter how bad a person she might have been, no matter what kind of business she might have been in, it shouldn't be a factor. It's not right to take somebody's life."

The civil jurors also got to hear -- sort of -- from Christian Brando, the late actor Marlon Brando's son. Bakley once claimed that Christian Brando, not Blake, was her daughter's father, and the defense team sought to point blame for Bakley's death toward Brando. Brando, though, repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.


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