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Robert Blake's Fate

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CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen explains why the defense of the former child star should be easier than the job that faced lawyers for Scott Peterson.



Poor Robert Blake. Even as a murder defendant he can't get top billing.

Sandwiched between the circus that was the Scott Peterson murder trial and the mega-circus-to-be that is the Michael Jackson child sex trial, Blake's holiday-time proceedings are bound to attract far less attention than you might have thought a few years ago when the actor first was charged with killing his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Back then, it looked like the former "Baretta" star would be this decade's answer to O.J. Simpson: a fading actor who gets back into the limelight by being accused of whacking his wife.

But the Blake case has a lot more similarities to the Peterson trial than it does to the trial of O.J. Simpson. In each recent case, there were no confessions. In each case, there were no eyewitnesses to the crime. In each case, there isn't a whole lot of physical evidence linking the defendant to the murder. And in each case, prosecutors hope(d) to use motive as a way to weave together the otherwise disparate pieces of their fairly weak case.

In the Peterson case, prosecutors effectively used motive to convince jurors that only Peterson would have wanted his wife, Laci, murdered. In the Blake case, prosecutors will try to convince jurors that the defendant killed his wife because he hated her and her family and thus didn't want her raising the child they had together.

But there is a quantitative and qualitative difference here on this score and it is a big one; in fact, unless prosecutors have more evidence against Blake than I think they do, it could be a difference that gets him off the hook.

One of the many problems Peterson faced was the fact that his wife had no known enemies; indeed, part of the media allure of the Peterson story was that Laci was so beloved by so many people and that Scott was such a fink.

That made it difficult, and we now know impossible, for Peterson's attorneys to convince jurors that someone else might have wanted Laci dead. And, in the end, the dichotomy between sweet, innocent Laci and lying, cheating Scott helped pushed jurors toward the death penalty.

Things are quite different in the Blake case, however. Bakley was no Laci. And Blake is no Scott.

As defense attorneys plan to point out, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who might have had a motive to kill Bakley, mostly because she apparently made a career with a scam in which she would entice lonely men to send her money by showing them pictures of herself and then promising to visit them. They'd send the money but she wouldn't show up.

Also, Bakley purportedly had several aliases, a criminal record, and was married so many times that according to Court TV, "several of her former husbands don't know how many marriages she's had or whether she was even divorced when she remarried."

For these reasons, it's going to be a lot harder for prosecutors to portray this case as the sort of angel-meets-devil scenario we saw play out in the Peterson case.

And Blake himself is going to make that harder. He may not have been the greatest actor in his time, but at least he wasn't on the telephone at his wife's memorial service lying to his girlfriend about being in Paris (like Peterson was).

Especially now that he has let his hair go to gray, Blake can reasonably sit in front of jurors, appear sympathetic and allow his lawyers to tell the panel with straight faces that their client may not be sorry that his wife is dead but he isn't her killer.

Then there is the baby angle. Whereas jurors believed that Scott Peterson murdered Laci because he did not want to be trapped with her once their child was born, Blake has fought hard to try to make sure that he maintains control over the baby he had with Bakley.

That's a fairly remarkable and sympathetic posture to take - and it didn't happen only after the murder, either - especially for a 71-year-old man who, if acquitted, faces a future as the sole parent of a young child.

Blake is much more appealing as a defendant than Scott Peterson was and Bakley is far less appealing as a victim than was Laci. This dynamic gives Blake the opportunity for an acquittal that Peterson never really had.

Look at it this way. If the Blake defense is good enough, jurors might at the end of the trial think that they would have liked to kill Bakley themselves, or at least find themselves able to forgive Blake for doing so.

With the reverse-sympathy angle playing well for the defense, you could call this the Anti-Peterson case. And that's a fairly compelling storyline.

So maybe it's too bad that so many people will see the Blake trial as the "intermission" between the story of Scott and Laci and the freak show that is the Jackson case.

Blake's television luck hasn't changed. But legally speaking, I like his odds.

By Andrew Cohen