LOS ANGELES – The jurors who found Robert Blake liable for damages in his wife's death after he was acquitted of murder were out to get him even before the civil trial began, the actor's attorney said Tuesday as he appealed the case.
The jurors, who ordered Blake to pay the survivors of Bonny Lee Bakley $30 million for her 2001 death, were incompetent, guilty of misconduct and issued an award "so grossly excessive that it shocks the conscience," M. Gerald Schwartzbach told a three-judge panel of California's 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Bakley family lawyer Eric Dubin responded that while the jury might have committed some minor errors, its verdict should stand.
"Either you're going to trust the system or you're not. These jurors were good people. They worked hard," he said, adding that minor errors can occur in any trial.
The panel didn't indicate when it might issue a ruling. Blake, 74, was not in court.
Bakley was sitting in Blake's car in May 2001 when she was shot outside a restaurant where the two had just eaten dinner. The actor told police he left her alone briefly when he returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he carried for protection and had accidentally left behind.
A criminal court jury acquitted Blake of murder in 2005, but Bakley's survivors had already filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, and that proceeded to trial with a different legal team. In November 2005 Blake was found liable for his 44-year-old wife's death and ordered the $30 million award.
Schwartzbach represented Blake in his criminal trial but not in the civil case. He said outside court Tuesday that he returned to handle the civil appeal because he believes in the innocence of Blake, who starred in "In Cold Blood" and the "Baretta" TV series.
"That's why I'm here. I'm not getting paid," he said, adding that his once-wealthy client is now broke and filing for bankruptcy. He declined to discuss Blake's whereabouts or that of the 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, that Blake had with Bakley.
During the hourlong hearing, Schwartzbach reiterated many of the points he made in lengthy appeals briefs he filed with the court last year.
He said he had obtained sworn declarations from several jurors in which they acknowledged violating the judge's orders by discussing the case before hearing all the evidence and of disliking Blake from the beginning.
One of the jurors also admitted he was so hard of hearing, Schwartzbach said, that he couldn't follow much of the testimony and relied on others to fill him in. He said jurors also acknowledged discussing O.J. Simpson's acquittal on murder charges and Michael Jackson's acquittal on child molestation charges, saying their verdict would send a message to the public that not every celebrity gets off.
"It is unrebutted that jurors said the amount of damages would send a message to the world," Schwartzbach said. "It is unrebutted that three jurors talked about the O.J. Simpson case."
The judges at times appeared skeptical.
"So what, counsel? So what if they did?" Judge Patti Kitching replied when Schwartzbach said the jurors had talked about Simpson and Jackson.
Judge Richard Aldrich noted that some of the jurors said in their statements that their discussions of the case before the trial concluded didn't amount to much and that their discussion of Simpson and Jackson didn't influence their final decision.
"The problem here is you're trying to impeach the jurors with a he said-she said," Aldrich told Schwartzbach.
At the same time, some on the panel expressed concern that one juror didn't disclose before being selected that her daughter was serving a life sentence in prison for murder and that jurors acknowledged they did have at least some discussions before the trial concluded.
"Wasn't it true that they were ordered not to discuss the case until it was completed?" asked Judge R. Walter Croskey.