LOS ANGELES – Robert Blake left court playing a role he hasn’t known for a long time: that of a man no longer charged with killing his wife, no longer cast as the lead villain in a bizarre murder trial.
The 71-year-old star of the 1970s detective drama “Baretta” was acquitted of murder Wednesday in the 2001 shooting death of his wife, bringing a dramatic end to a trial that played out like 1940s film noir.
The former tough-guy actor sobbed uncontrollably as the verdict was read, embraced his attorney and exhaled heavily. His lawyers at his side, Blake later stood before a phalanx of reporters and delivered a rambling speech in which he said, “this small band of dedicated warriors saved my life.”
At one point, Blake asked someone in the audience for something to remove his electronic monitoring bracelet. He then bent down and cut off the device.
“If you want to know how to go through $10 million in five years, ask me,” said Blake, who was free on bail during his trial but under house arrest. “I’m broke. I need a job.”
The jury also acquitted Blake of one charge of trying to get someone to kill Bonny Lee Bakley. The jury was deadlocked 11-1 on a second solicitation charge. The judge dismissed the count.
The jury of seven men and five women delivered the verdicts on its ninth day of deliberations, following a trial with a cast of characters that included two Hollywood stuntmen who said Blake tried to get them to bump off his wife.
Blake had faced life in prison; prosecutors didn’t seek the death penalty.
Blake was charged with shooting the 44-year-old Bakley in their car outside the actor’s favorite Italian restaurant on May 4, 2001, less than six months after their marriage.
The defense called it a weak case built largely on the testimony of the two stuntmen – both of whom were once heavy drug users.
No eyewitnesses, blood or DNA evidence linked Blake to the crime. The murder weapon, found in a trash bin, could not be traced to Blake, and witnesses said the minuscule amounts of gunshot residue found on Blake’s hands could have come from a different gun he said he carried for protection.
“They couldn’t put the gun in his hand,” jury foreman Thomas Nicholson told reporters outside court, adding that the evidence could “never connect all the links in the chain.”
Prosecutors said Blake believed his wife trapped him into a loveless marriage by getting pregnant. They said Blake soon became smitten with the baby, Rosie, and desperately wanted to keep the child away from Bakley, whom he considered an unfit mother.
Bakley had been married several times, had a record for mail fraud and made a living scamming men out of money with nude pictures of herself and promises of sex.
“He was tricked by Bonny Lee and he hated her for it,” prosecutor Shellie Samuels said in closing arguments. “He got taken by a small-time grifter.”
Prosecutors said Blake killed his wife after failing to persuade a street thug-turned-minister and two stuntmen from his “Baretta” days to do the job. One of the stuntmen said Blake talked about having Bakley “snuffed.”
Also, a former detective who worked for Blake as a private investigator testified that the actor proposed to kidnap Bakley, force her to have an abortion and, if that did not work, “whack her.”
The defense portrayed the stuntmen as drug users prone to hallucinations and delusions.
Blake told authorities that he walked his wife to the car after dinner, then discovered he had left his gun back in the booth at Vitello’s Restaurant. He went back to get it, then returned to the car and found his wife shot, he said.
But some witnesses testified that Blake did not appear to be sincere as he wept over the slaying that night. One witness said the actor appeared to be “turning it on and off.”
Blake did not testify. But his lawyer showed the jury a videotape of a jailhouse interview with Barbara Walters in which he denied killing his wife.
“It’s all about Rosie. It’s always been about Rosie,” Blake said. “The greatest gift in the world, and I’m going to try to mess it up by being selfish?”
Rosie, now 4, is being raised by Blake’s adult daughter.
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