On this day in 2005, after a three-month-long criminal trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, a jury acquits Robert Blake, star of the 1970s television detective show Baretta, of the murder of his 44-year-old wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.
Blake, who was born Mickey Gubitosi in 1933 in New Jersey, made his movie debut at the age of six, in MGM’s 1939 movie Bridal Suite; the studio soon featured him in its Our Gang series of short films. After changing his name to Robert Blake, he starred in the 1960 gangster movie The Purple Gang and numerous other films. In 1967, Blake memorably portrayed Perry Smith, one of two real-life murderers at the center of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, when the book was adapted for the big screen. As an actor, Blake was best known for his Emmy-winning work as the street-smart plainclothes policeman Tony Baretta in the ABC series Baretta. The show ran from 1975 to 1978, and Blake won an Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series at the end of its first season.
During his criminal trial, Blake’s defense team portrayed the aging actor as a rather pathetic figure and argued that Bakley had a pattern of sending letters and nude photos of herself to famous men and had trapped Blake into marrying her by becoming pregnant. The couple’s daughter, Rose, was born in June 2000, and though Bakley initially claimed that the child was fathered by Christian Brando, son of the celebrated actor Marlon Brando, a paternity test proved the baby was Blake’s. Blake and Bakley married that November. Their brief, unhappy union lasted until May 4, 2001, when Bakley was shot to death as she sat in a car outside a Los Angeles restaurant.
Blake was arrested for the murder, and the prosecution produced two former stunt doubles who claimed the actor had recruited them to kill his wife. During cross-examination, the stuntmen were revealed to be cocaine and methamphetamine users. In their acquittal of Blake, the jury made it clear they didn’t believe the stuntmen’s statements, and also concluded that the prosecution had failed to place the murder weapon in Blake’s hands.
In November 2005, eight months after the criminal trial ended, Robert Blake was found guilty in a civil trial of “intentionally” causing Bonny Lee Bakley’s death; he was ordered to pay $30 million to Bakley’s children. Rose remained in the care of Blake’s eldest daughter, Delinah. Though he did not testify in the criminal trial, Blake did take the stand during his civil trial to deny the accusations.