Blue horse, dirty victim

Harland Braun is Robert Blake's "very, very bright" attorney. Even Johnnie Cochran thinks he's gone too far.

Published May 30, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Bonny Lee Bakley. Robert Blake's murdered wife.

Quick: What's your mental picture right now?

If the answer is anything like "grifter," "nude pictures," "star stalker" or "used promises of sex to swindle men through lonely-hearts ads in newspapers," then Harland Braun can congratulate himself on a job well done so far.

Braun is the attorney representing Blake, the former movie and TV star who Los Angeles police say is not a suspect in the May 4 killing of his wife, but who also has not been ruled out. He is flamboyant and, in legal circles, famous, having risen to prominence in the '70s by successfully defending Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in a perjury case. In the '80s he defended movie director John Landis in the "Twilight Zone" manslaughter trial. In the '90s he represented Los Angeles police officer Theodore Briseno in the Rodney King beating, at one point memorably comparing his client's boots to ballet slippers.

Blake hired Braun immediately after Bakley was killed, and within hours Braun embarked on a strategy known in the legal racket as "dirtying the victim."

"She's been involved in these kind of con schemes where you bilk lonely men out of money with ads across the country," Braun was quoted as saying in the initial news reports. "So there could be any number of people that would have had it in for her." In the weeks since, there has been a constant stream of information and evidence from the Blake defense team, and just about all of it has been damaging to Bakley's reputation.

It seems that you cannot talk to a Los Angeles attorney about Braun without hearing the words "excellent lawyer" and "brilliant" and "very, very bright." But if you want to get a handle on just how aggressive Braun's smear campaign on Bakley has been, understand that Johnnie Cochran thinks he has gone too far.

"Braun's an excellent lawyer," Cochran told Greta Van Susteren on CNN May 15. "I'm a little bit amazed, though, even for Harland, the way he's attacked the victim, who's not even buried. I mean, he's attacking her, releasing stuff about her. It's almost like, 'Thou protest too much.' And it's a very strange case. Only in Hollywood that happened. You know, but I -- he's an excellent lawyer."

Bakley, as you must know, was shot in the head as she sat in Blake's car a block from a Studio City, Calif., Italian restaurant where they'd just eaten dinner. (Studio City is, in fact, just over the hill from Hollywood.) Blake says he'd left Bakley in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a legally registered gun he'd left in a booth, and on his return found her slumped over and bleeding. He'd been carrying a gun, he said, because Bakley feared that someone might be stalking her, presumably because of her less-than-savory moneymaking activities.

Here's some of what Braun has said about the 44-year-old Bakley: that the New Jersey native had just completed probation in Arkansas on a conviction for carrying false identification; that she used lonely-hearts ads to get men to send her money in the belief that they would get to meet her; that as part of these scams she sold pornographic pictures of herself and told the men who wrote her that she would have sex with them; that she was obsessed with celebrities and their world, and made it her goal to marry one; that she got pregnant with a child she thought was fathered by Christian Brando -- son of Marlon and a veteran of a previous decade's tawdry Hollywood-fringe scandal -- before DNA tests showed Blake was the father; that audiotapes recovered in her bungalow after her death and turned over to police and the media revealed her talking on the phone with a friend and trying to decide whether she should "go with" Brando or Blake; and that she continued operating her scams after marrying Blake and moving onto his property despite a prenuptial agreement in which she'd agreed not to.

Braun, who didn't return a phone call requesting an interview, has insisted that he's merely trying to get the facts out, trying to force the LAPD to do a thorough investigation. He says the police are focusing solely on Blake and ignoring the fact that "there could be any number of people out there who would have a motive to kill" Bakley.

"Harland Braun is an excellent attorney," begins Gloria Allred, the outspoken feminist lawyer who is even more famous than Braun -- more famous than Blake, really -- and who represents Sondra Blake, a former actress Allred refers to as Blake's "only surviving ex-wife." She calls Braun's strategy "a pretty outrageous example" of dirtying the victim. "It's one of the worst, because I have to believe as an attorney that Mr. Braun would not do this unless he were authorized by his client to do it. So that means Mr. Blake is in the process through his agent, namely his attorney, of smearing the mother of his child, a murder victim," she says. The child, a girl, is now almost a year old.

But Charles Weisselberg, a professor at UC-Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school, points out that Braun's strategy may be an attempt to prevent Blake from being hastily arrested. "He may be doing it because this is a high-profile case and he wants to take some heat off the district attorney, who may be feeling some pressure to go at Mr. Blake," Weisselberg says. "In other words, you've got an elected district attorney in Los Angeles, and an elected district attorney doesn't want the public to feel that he's soft on somebody because of their celebrity status, and this tactic may in part make it easier for the district attorney to go slow with Mr. Blake."

Lea Purwin D'Agostino is a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who opposed Braun for 10 months as the prosecutor in the "Twilight Zone" manslaughter trial in 1986 and '87. In one famous incident during that trial, an incident D'Agostino says she doesn't remember because it was just one among many, Braun called her "pond scum." Now, she says, they're good friends.

"I certainly know Harland Braun very well, and he's a very, very, very bright man and a brilliant attorney, and if I were in trouble I'd certainly want someone like Braun on my side," she says -- and this is apropos of nothing, but she sounds like Lauren Bacall on the phone. "But you know, do I agree with his policy of attacking a victim and smearing a victim? Absolutely not. But this is something, there's an adage: The best defense is a good offense, and that's what he's doing."

Allred isn't so sure it's a good strategy, though. "I think it's going to have a different impact than it might have pre-O.J. Simpson, when Nicole Brown Simpson was trashed. People are a little bit more sophisticated now," she says, "especially L.A. County Superior Court juries are a little bit more sophisticated about defense tactics, and the attack on the mother of Mr. Blake's child I don't think is going to go over very well. I mean, whatever she did, she didn't deserve to be murdered."

How did it take so long for us to get to O.J. Simpson? Just as the TV show that made Blake a household name in the '70s, "Baretta," was a pale rewrite of an earlier series called "Toma," the matter of Bakley's murder has seemed to exist as a shadow version of the 1994 killings and subsequent trials that held this country riveted in a way that, even just a few years later, seems a little hard to believe.

You have your B-list celebrity, your late-night murder, your strange, hard-to-swallow alibi (why did he leave her alone in that car if they were afraid she was being stalked? Why didn't they park in the restaurant's lot instead of on a dark side street? Allred and the Bakley family attorney, Cary Goldstein, have both used the word "absurd" in describing Blake's story), your high-powered attorneys, your tourists hanging around outside the star's house, your endless nattering on Geraldo Rivera, Larry King & Co. You even have your Italian restaurant where a last meal was eaten.

The football star turned actor turned strange man liable for the wrongful death of his ex-wife and her friend has even weighed in, expressing compassion for Blake in an interview on the TV show "Extra" and urging him "not to watch TV, Robert, whatever you do."

Blake isn't as glamorous as Simpson, who after all was one of the great athletic heroes of his century, and Bakley certainly wasn't as pretty or sympathetic as Nicole Brown Simpson. And perhaps what's really missing is Kato Kaelin, although it could be argued that the Kato character was the victim in this sequel. But even if the Bakley case won't ever rise to the level of "trial of the century" -- only one case in the next 99 years will, right? -- it's still a high-profile case, and that means trouble for everyone involved.

"There's intense press coverage, obviously, and actually that hurts the prosecution in many cases," says D'Agostino, the L.A. prosecutor, speaking generally because she can't comment on the Bakley case, which her office might someday prosecute. "The media, the tabloids, for example, go and seek out witnesses, they interview them and they pay them before they even testify, which of course destroys them as witnesses for the prosecution, and sometimes precludes us from even being able to call them as witnesses."

And then once the case reaches trial, "you know that everything you do is going to be analyzed and second-guessed," D'Agostino says. "As a prosecutor, if you stop and think about it, it isn't a heck of a lot of fun working under the conditions of being second-guessed by, you know, sometimes panels of experts on the boob tube, mostly experts from New York, who don't know California law. And if they do know California law, the bottom line is that none of these experts really knows your case."

Even more troubling for the prosecution in a case that potentially involves a celebrity such as Blake, D'Agostino says, is that it's just plain hard to convict famous people. "We don't have royalty in America," she says, "and movie stars have become our royalty, and it's very difficult. People are very starstruck. Let's not mince words about it, they are, and that makes it hard."

Weisselberg, the law professor, agrees. "With a high-profile defendant, one who doesn't have a criminal record, it seems like the jury really is able to afford the person the presumption of innocence," he says. "And there are many people in the criminal justice system who think that folks with prior criminal records or people represented in run-of-the-mill cases are not looked at the same way by the jury."

Weisselberg says high-profile cases are "just another animal. There's just so much more going on."

One of the things going on, maybe, is the tainting of the jury pool. That's what Braun's critics say he's been trying to do -- plant the idea in potential jurors' minds that Bakley was a tawdry figure, that Blake didn't kill her, someone from her shadowy past did.

If pretrial publicity becomes too heavy, a change of venue can be ordered, usually at the behest of the defense. But that doesn't seem likely in the Bakley murder.

"A typical case with a change of venue might be a high-profile homicide case in a relatively modest-size county, where lots of people in the county knew the victim, or everybody followed the case," Weisselberg says. "It's hard for me to imagine that the level of publicity thus far in the Blake case has tainted a jury in a county the size of Los Angeles to the degree that a fair trial can't be found there. That's kind of hard for me to imagine."

That means prosecutors may someday have to deal with a jury that's been exposed to the L.A. media excitement surrounding the case, which, while not reaching Simpson levels, has been and will likely continue to be formidable. That potential jury will have been worked on by a master in Harland Braun. A Los Angeles Times profile of Braun painted him as something of a loose cannon, prone to saying outrageous things at any time.

D'Agostino says he's no loose cannon. "I think Harland knows exactly what he's doing," she says. "I think because a lot of the comments that he makes are so off the wall, people don't realize how bright he is, and I sometimes think perhaps he does that to mask the brilliance."

Can a jury overcome this sort of thing and reach an impartial verdict?

"They do say that they will only judge a case by the admissible evidence that's presented in a court of law and will remain fair and impartial and try to set aside whatever they've learned outside of the court of law," Allred says. "Having said that, they're human beings, and it's hard to unring a bell once it's been rung. If you've seen an elephant in a room and someone says, 'Forget that you've seen that elephant in the room,' it may be difficult."

That bell that's been rung and can't be unrung is a favorite metaphor for lawyers. D'Agostino uses it too, and she also recalls a movie called "Heat of Anger," in which Susan Hayward played a lawyer defending a prominent client. "She's in front of a jury, and I just always think of this particular line," D'Agostino says. "There was this incredible amount of publicity on that particular case, and she tells all the jurors to close their eyes, and she stands in front of them as only this beautiful Susan Hayward could do, and she says, 'Now I want you to think of anything in the world that you want to think about except a blue horse. Whatever you do, do not think of a blue horse. Whatever you do, do not think of a blue horse.'

"And then she pauses for a while -- of course you can't do this in court -- and she says, 'Open your eyes,' and she looked at them and she started smiling and she says, 'And of course, that's all any of you could think of was the blue horse because I told you not to.'"

Maybe you can't do it in court, but you can still do it. And as Robert Blake waits in seclusion at an undisclosed location, Harland Braun is painting a giant blue horse for some future jury to try not to think about.

"Harland really is an excellent attorney," D'Agostino says. "He truly is."

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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