Eight months after Robert Blake was acquitted at a criminal trial of murdering his wife, a civil jury decided Friday the tough-guy actor was behind the slaying, and ordered him to pay Bonny Lee Bakley's children $30 million.
The jury deliberated eight days before ruling in a 10-2 vote that the former "Baretta" star "intentionally caused the death" of Bakley, who was gunned down in 2001 in the actor's car outside a restaurant where the couple had just dined.
Blake, dressed in a black suit and tie, looked down as the verdicts were read. He left court immediately without comment.
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 was in the courtroom for the verdict. Their attorney, Eric Dubin, called it a "good day for justice."
"These kids lost their mom, and that got overlooked over the years," he said. "This was a real family. This was a real person. And to have that validated in a court of law means an awful lot to these kids."
Jury foreman Bob Horn said the actor hurt his case during his eight days of testimony. "We believe that Mr. Blake was probably his worst enemy on the stand," Horn said outside court.
While testifying, Blake lashed out at plaintiffs' attorney Eric Dubin and elicited laughter from jurors, lodging his own objections and calling the lawyer "chief," "junior" or "sonny."
"We expected Mr. Blake to conduct himself in a professional manner," juror David Lopez said. "He was always very angry, back and forth with Mr. Dubin."
Asked if he was concerned that Blake, who claims he is broke, might not pay the damages, Dubin said: "I'm not worried about that issue. I have every reason to believe he will pay."
Blake was acquitted at his murder trial last March. But Bakley's children sued the 72-year-old 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.
Simpson questioned the system that allowed both celebrity defendants to be found liable for murder after being acquitted in criminal court, reports CBS Radio News.
"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 an Associated Press 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 the daughter he adored, Rosie, by himself.
Blake did not testify in the criminal trial but took the stand in the civil case and denied the allegations.
He said that on the night of the killing, he left the 44-year-old Bakley in the car while he went back inside the restaurant to retrieve a gun he carried for protection but had accidentally left in their booth. Blake said he found Bakley wounded when he went back out to the car.
Blake's lawyer, Peter Ezzell, argued there were many people who wanted Bakley dead. He portrayed her as a grifter who preyed on lonely men, selling them nude pictures of herself and extracting money with promises of sex and marriage. She was on probation for fraud when Blake married her.
Ezell also suggested that Christian Brando, Marlon Brando's son, killed Bakley. Bakley at one time claimed Christian Brando had fathered her child, and the jury listened to a taped telephone conversation in which Brando told Bakley she was lucky someone didn't put a bullet in her head.
The younger Brando took the stand and refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Also, a criminalist testified for Blake that there were only scant traces of gunshot residue on the actor's clothing.
Prosecutors at the criminal trial relied heavily on two stuntmen who claimed Blake tried to get them to kill his wife. But their credibility was undermined by testimony about their extensive drug use.
Dubin, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said after the verdict that members of the jury told him that Blake's testimony hurt him. "They hated him on the stand," Dubin said. "They all nodded in unison like he was just out of control."
Dubin relied on testimony from the criminal trial from one of the stuntmen and called the other as a witness. The attorney also used depositions from Blake, an investigator for the actor and others to claim that Blake had a plan to kidnap Rosie and get Bakley arrested and jailed, and if that failed, to have Bakley killed.
Blake got his start as sad-eyed Mickey in the "Our Gang" movie shorts and gained critical acclaim for his role as a murderer in the 1967 movie "In Cold Blood." He starred as a street-wise detective in TV's "Baretta" during the 1970s.
By the time the civil trial began, Blake, once a wealthy man, said he was broke, his money having gone to a long succession of lawyers.
The civil trial, which lasted two months, was by turns comical and combative. During Blake's eight days on the stand, the tough-talking actor lashed out at Dubin and elicited laughter from the jurors, lodging his own objections and calling the lawyer "chief," "junior" or "sonny."
"My fervent hope and prayers," he said on his last day of testimony, "are that when this is over that everyone get on with their lives."