LOS ANGELES – Actor Robert Blake's urge to speak out as he awaits a murder trial has cost him two criminal defense attorneys in two months, and already has led him to snap at a third.
But Thomas Mesereau Jr., who has saved downtrodden minority defendants from the death penalty and boxer Mike Tyson from rape charges, says he's not planning to join the game of legal musical chairs. And the outcome of Blake's recent tongue-lashing suggests a difficult celebrity defendant may have found his lawyer.
Blake, 69, former star of the TV show Baretta, is awaiting trial on charges of shooting his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, 44, to death in his car near a Studio City restaurant where they had just dined on May 4, 2001.
Defense attorneys Harland Braun and Jennifer Keller resigned from the case because the actor tried to arrange TV interviews. Mesereau threatened to do the same last week during an on-camera civil deposition in which he told Blake to keep quiet.
Blake berated Mesereau for ordering his silence and suggested the attorney would be haunted forever if Blake died before telling his story.
"I'm an old man. I'm pushing 70. If I'm going to die in that box, I want to talk before I go," Blake said.
But he stopped after Mesereau's threat. He munched an apple and drank milk, but said no more.
"I didn't take anything he said personally," Mesereau said. "I think the man's innocent."
Blake has denied killing Bakley, whom he married after she gave birth to their daughter, Rosie. Bakley's adult children have sued him for wrongful death, a complication which led to unusual civil depositions in advance of his criminal trial.
Loyola University Law School Professor Laurie Levenson said Mesereau may have the perfect temperament to deal with Blake.
"He's willing to take the abuse as long as Blake follows the rules," she said. "I think it's interesting that despite how much Blake berated him, he didn't give the deposition."
Mesereau, 52, an imposing figure with a shock of longish white hair, has a reputation for winning -- seven acquittals and a hung jury in a one-year period -- and he has handled a number of high-profile cases.
He helped convince San Bernardino County authorities not to file rape charges against Tyson. Once a year, he travels to Alabama to defend a death penalty case at his own expense, and he prides himself on saving defendants from execution. His latest case there begins next week.
Mesereau said he understands Blake in part because both men have done humanitarian work.
"Something about the two of us resonated," he said. "I understand Robert. I know what a sensitive, vulnerable, decent man he is. And I know how hurt he is that people have prejudged him."
Prosecutors have refused to comment on Blake's changing representation. District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons would say only that prosecutors have been ready for trial for a long time and want no further delays.
Mesereau has promised Superior Court Judge Lloyd Nash that he will be ready for Blake's much postponed preliminary hearing on Feb. 26.