When Robert Blake went on trial for the murder of his wife, U.S. media roundly denounced him as yet another example of celebrity gone psycho, an obviously guilty party who would get his. This even as he was supposed to be afforded due process protections, a reasonably fair trial by a jury of as many untainted peers as could be found.
On 16 March, he was acquitted on two of the three counts against him (a less than convinced jury deadlocked over the last conspiracy count which the judge then dismissed). No sooner had Blake finished his bizarre, stream-of-consciousness rant at the post-verdict press conference than the experts and so-called legal analysts poured out of the charlatan woodwork where they hole up between court cases. All agreed that the defense did a marvelous job and the prosecution was hampered by flimsy circumstantial evidence and horribly untrustworthy witnesses.
The commentators shared another feeling. They knew he was guilty. Robert Blake had killed his wife, and, like OJ Simpson, had bought his way out of a lifetime prison term (or in Blake’s case, a likely death sentence). Gone is the notion of innocent until proven guilty or even that a jury of 12 individuals, honest and true, had determined the facts of this case. Now the cable-news cyclers pass judgment, hourly. This means that for the rich and famous—and especially the strange and famous—there is no such thing as an assumption of innocence. Because we think they think they can do or say anything with impunity, when they fuck up, we want a reckoning. As Michael Jackson has demonstrated for over a decade now, those who boogie to a different drummer face the wrath of an unforgiving public who haven’t themselves mastered the star’s own insular dance moves.
As a post-pubescent icon, Michael appeared to be a humble artist with a special soul to match his magnificent voice. Even as he evolved, both musically and rhinoplastically, fans bowed to his brilliance. But somewhere around 1993, Michael shifted from Moonwalker to monster, his visage evoking Dorian Gray’s portrait. Today, he’s a freak, so alien that consumers assume he is capable of all manner of corruptions, actual and presumed.
Robert Blake has endured a similar trajectory. When he performed with the Little Rascals, he was cute and precocious. Throughout his adolescence, he took small roles in hopes that, one day, starring parts would come his way. It wasn’t until 1967’s In Cold Blood, however, that Blake hit Hollywood pay-dirt. His portrayal of murderer Perry Smith put him squarely amongst the Method men of his era, and it wasn’t long before he had numerous name-above-the-marquee moments on the big screen. In what he would later call the biggest mistake of his life, Blake ditched movies for TV’s Baretta. For three years, this cockatoo-loving, scrappy street pig spewed catchphrases (“And that’s the name of that tune”), turning the actor into a certifiable superstar.
But Blake never managed his public persona well. He was constantly bellyaching, in between Emmys, that he was above the minor values of the small screen. But he never recaptured his Tinsel Town glory. As he soured on his chosen profession, Blake seemed increasingly on the verge of explosive rage, venting at a world that refuses to acknowledge his genius. But unless you count his mid-‘90s ersatz-comeback—including, again, a potent portrayal of family killer John List—Blake was just a buffoonish and annoying braggart. Combine that with his ticking-time-bomb temperament, and the dark clouds of controversy were already swirling.
So, in 2001, when Blake’s wife, a woman of questionable substance known as Bonnie Lee Bakley, was murdered near an Italian restaurant, it seemed like a story lifted from a hack Hollywood screenwriter’s battered Powerbook. When it came to light that Blake had left his spouse alone in the car to retrieve a handgun he carried for “protection,” and that Bakley had more or less blackmailed the actor into marriage, the story turned even surreal. Suddenly, everything Blake ever said, from film dialogue to his most despondent interviews, fueled prognostication and diagnosis. By the time he was finally arrested, he had been tried, convicted, drawn, quartered and quarantined by the media. Looking both visibly unhinged and yet connivingly callous, he couldn’t be anything other than guilty, right?
Actually, the answer is “no.” You see, if our legal system is built on anything, it’s the notion that justice is served in courtrooms, not by public opinion. But mass media—from scandal sheets to sketch artists to Court TV—have never waited for legal verdicts. Court TV’s indiscretions seem especially egregious, because its reach is so vast. Once the network started treating the judicial process like a tractor pull, the solemnity of the jury trial was lost.
Most observers point to the OJ case as a breaking point in televisual excess. Whether you believe he did it or not, the former Heisman Trophy winner with a broad smile and larger ego, managed to duck a date with the prison mortician by perfectly playing the system against itself. Pouring cash into the coffers of everyone involved, from the news programs to the attorneys (who almost all have gone on to their own pundit positions, thank you), the Simpson case proved that the combination of judiciary and media is fatally flawed, partial to the rich and unable to address certain social issues.
The Blake case was a near-negative image of OJ. While Nicole Brown was an innocent victim, by all accounts, Bonnie Bakley was, at the very least, a confidence artist. The evidence in the Simpson case led to the defendant. But while Blake’s motives seemed concrete, the proof was wholly circumstantial. Today man think OJ beat the rap because of a jury intent on protesting the mistreatment of minorities by government. In Blake’s case, the jury acquitted him based on a flimsy case, poorly presented.
Now the media yowlers are angry, and their reasoning is simple. You remember when you were a kid, and Mom and Dad “explained” themselves by announcing, “Because I said so.” Since the trial’s close, tv’s arrogant talking heads are not dissecting the crappy case or finding fault with the State of California’s presentation. Instead, they roll their eyes, smile smugly, and pronounce Blake is a killer. Why? Well, because they say so, that’s why. No analysis. No proof. Just their word as “experts” and their ability to repeat it, ad nauseam, 24 hours a day across dozens of channels.
A sad truth remains overlooked by the media machine: no matter how many outraged family members you parade in front of the cameras, no matter how loose you play with the boundaries of defamation of character and actual slander, no matter how many credentials your Monday morning quarterback offers, Robert Blake is still innocent. He started out that way when he was brought before the bar, and he walked out that way when a jury failed to find him accountable. While a civil trial might determine “liability,” wrongful death is not the same as murder. Murder has intent. Murder has motive. And don’t let anyone fool you. Civil courts are not about justice. They’re about punishment and big cash rewards. Bakley’s family won’t face the criminal system’s higher standards of proof. But they have a bigger obstacle, one that affects any civil case: the appearance of replacing bitter loss with cold hard cash.
So, as Blake goes off to “cowboy” for a few months and awaits the process server, he still bears a large red “M” on his chest. For all we know, he did do it. But according to the law, and the Constitution we used to hold so dear, Blake is an innocent man. Just don’t expect the media to take the court’s word for it. They have their own axe to grind, and right now, you can hear them honing the blade… over and over and over again.