LOS ANGELES - A judge ruled yesterday that actor Robert Blake had the motive and opportunity to fatally shoot his wife and ordered him to stand trial on murder charges. Then, in a surprising turn, the judge reversed himself and set bail for Blake at $1.5 million.
Blake, who had been staring forlornly through most of the morning's proceeding, took a deep breath and cried as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lloyd M. Nash announced the bail decision.
It was a partial victory for the defense in the 10-day preliminary hearing that ended with the judge ordering the Emmy Award-winning actor to stand trial on charges of soliciting two Hollywood stuntmen to kill Bonny Lee Bakley and, when they refused, pulling the trigger himself.
His co-defendant, Earle S. Caldwell, 46, of Burbank, will stand trial on a conspiracy charge, but Nash said the evidence against Caldwell appeared to be too thin for a conviction by a jury.
Nash concluded that Blake was motivated by "extreme hostility" for Bakley, whom he married in November 2000 after a paternity test confirmed he had fathered her child.
After Nash's ruling, Blake was returned to the downtown jail cell where he has been held for the past 11 months.
One of Blake's lawyers, Barry Felsen, said he believes he can post a $1.5 million bond as early as today, and if not, by Monday. Felsen said Blake would not live with his daughters, Delinah and Rose, but plans to see them when he is released.
Deputy District Attorney Patrick R. Dixon said he will not challenge the bail ruling.
Another judge, Darlene E. Schempp, who will try the case, must approve Blake's release. Under Nash's ruling, the release would be conditional on Blake's confinement at an unspecified residence at all times under electronic monitoring.
Nash pointedly reminded the lawyers that the standard of evidence he used to bind Blake over for trial is much lower than a jury would be required to convict. Nash said he was "most concerned" about the sufficiency of evidence to support the special circumstance of lying in wait, which has been the grounds for denying Blake bail since his arrest on April 18.
Prosecutors argued that the former Baretta star is not entitled to bail because he is charged with ambushing his wife, a legal "special circumstance" that is punishable by death, although prosecutors have said they will not ask for capital punishment in this case.
Bakley, 44, was fatally shot May 4, 2001, while sitting in the passenger seat of Blake's black Dodge Stealth near the Studio City restaurant where the couple had dined. Blake told police that he had returned to Vitello's to get a handgun he said he had left at his table. He said when he returned to the car, he found Bakley shot.
At first, Nash agreed with prosecutors that California law did not permit him to grant bail because of the ambush allegation. "I do not believe that I have the legal authority to grant bail at this time. I feel basically like I am kind of boxed in," he said, offering defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. a last chance to sway his opinion.
The lying-in-wait evidence presented by prosecutors fell short of showing a "great presumption" that Blake was guilty of the special circumstance, which Mesereau argued was necessary to deny bail. Then he made a direct appeal to Nash.
"You would not be violating the law or the spirit of the law if you were to grant reasonable bail to Mr. Blake based on what you are hearing," he said. "It would be the humane thing to do."
A trial date has not been set, and neither side would predict when it would take place.
Jean Guccione and Andrew Blankstein write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.