LOS ANGELES – Like O.J. Simpson a decade ago, tough-guy actor Robert Blake was cleared of murder charges, only to be hit with $30 million in damages by a civil jury that concluded he was behind the slaying after all.
A jury on Friday ordered the former “Baretta” star to pay wife Bonny Lee Bakley’s children for her 2001 killing in his car outside a restaurant where the couple had just eaten dinner.
After eight days of deliberations, jurors determined by a vote of 10-2 that Blake “intentionally caused the death” of Bakley, who was gunned down on May 4, 2001.
Blake, 72, dressed in a black suit and tie, looked down as the verdicts were read. He left court immediately.
The plaintiffs had argued that Blake either killed Bakley himself or hired someone to do so. The jury was not asked to decide which theory it believed. However, the panel decided that Blake’s handyman, Earle Caldwell, did not collaborate in the killing.
None of Bakley’s four children were in the courtroom when the verdict was read. Daughter Holly Gawron said in a phone interview from Memphis, Tenn., that she was ecstatic.
“It’s been a nightmare, but now it’s time to repair our lives and move on,” said Gawron, 25, who added that the verdict was more important than the monetary award. “I know there isn’t any money to recover from him. I’m not interested in the money.”
Jury foreman Bob Horn said the actor hurt his case during his eight days of testimony. While testifying, Blake lashed out at Dubin, the children’s attorney, and elicited laughter from jurors, lodging his own objections and calling the lawyer “chief,” “junior” or “sonny.”
Blake was acquitted at his criminal trial last March. Bakley’s children sued the actor in 2002, claiming he should be held responsible for their mother’s death and forced to pay damages.
Similarly, O.J. Simpson was acquitted at a criminal trial in 1995 of murdering his ex-wife and a friend of hers, but two years later the former football star was found responsible for the slayings in a civil case and was ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages.
Reached Friday by the Associated Press, Simpson questioned the system that allowed both celebrity defendants to be found liable for murder after being acquitted in criminal court.
“I still don’t get how anyone can be found not guilty of a murder and then be found responsible for it in any way shape or form,” Simpson said in a phone interview from his Florida home. “I’d love to hear how that’s not double jeopardy.”
He said he had no opinion about Blake’s guilt or innocence in the slaying because he did not follow either trial closely.
Unlike Blake’s criminal trial, where 12 jurors had to decide guilt unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, the civil wrongful-death case required only that nine of 12 jurors believe by a “preponderance” of the evidence that Blake was responsible for the crime.
Dubin contended that Blake despised Bakley, believing she trapped him into marriage by getting pregnant, and that he decided to get rid of her so he could raise his adored daughter, Rosie, by himself. Blake did not testify in the criminal trial but took the stand in the civil case and denied the allegations.