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Actor Robert Blake’s wife had barely been shot to death in Los Angeles when defense attorney Harland W. Braun began his public crusade against her. It is the kind of news media campaign Braun has come to master in high-profile cases during the decades he has been counted among a handful of top criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles. Accessible, outspoken and sometimes flippant, the 59-year-old lawyer has been criticized for his public remarks even as he is praised for his winning strategies. Braun, a solo practitioner since his five years in the district attorney’s office ended in 1973, usually works privately and comments on other lawyers’ cases only for print, not broadcast, media. However, he has gone on television during several high-profile trials to make his points. They include the 1980s political bribery case against former U.S. Representative Bobbie Fiedler, R.-Calif., and the 1987 trial of director John Landis and four others in the deaths of three actors during the filming of the movie “Twilight Zone.” He also successfully defended one of the four Los Angeles police officers charged in the 1993 federal civil rights case arising out of the videotaped beating of Rodney King. The city had erupted in rioting when the same officers were acquitted in state court the year before. More recently he defended one of the nine L.A. police officers accused of violating the rights of alleged gang members in the Rampart scandal. FEW MURDER CASES Braun, who received his law degree in 1967 from the University of California at Los Angeles, has handled only a few murder cases, none well-known. In the most prominent, he won the acquittal of two doctors with the nonprofit HMO Kaiser Permanente who were charged with murder for disconnecting a comatose patient’s ventilator. If prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Blake, he would not have taken the case because he lacks experience in capital cases, Braun says. “I’m a middle-class criminal lawyer, and people who are middle class generally don’t shoot people in 7-Eleven stores,” he says. The Blake case was referred to him by an entertainment law firm near his office. Blake, 68, was immediately suspected of the fatal shooting of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, 44, in May 2001. Blake told the police he had left her waiting in his car, returned to a restaurant where they had just eaten to retrieve a pistol he had left behind, then returned to the car to find his wife shot to death. The actor hired Braun, who began inundating the authorities with information about the slain woman’s activities. Investigators spent months traveling the country trying to track down leads from thousands of Bakley’s documents Braun had given them. Nearly a year passed before Blake and his bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, were arrested on April 18. Soon after the killing, the attorney started describing that material publicly, saying it showed that many men had reason to kill Bakley. “Everyone who ever came in contact with her wanted to kill her,” says Braun, whose defense is based on the now-documented fact that the victim engaged in bilking men out of money in exchange for nude photos and sex, which was never provided. Some lawyers believe Braun’s efforts to smear Bakley have been excessive and unnecessary. Some also question his willingness to concede, so early in the case, his client’s motive — sheer hatred for the woman who reportedly coerced him into marriage. He also shocked the legal community when he told a television interviewer he is trying the case in the press. “Any high-profile client is going to be tried in the press,” Braun says. “You can only neutralize the prosecution in the press. To say you’re not going to try it in the press is like saying you’re not going to show up the first day of trial, because the trial starts the first day the prosecution starts leaking evidence.” Former Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner says Braun has tempered his early remarks. “Think back to when the killing occurred,” he says. “Harland was having a high old time, and we had a good time watching and listening to him. He can be delightful taking outrageousness to a new level.” The defense, as well as the prosecution, is expected to rely on Blake’s fondness for 2-year-old Rosie, his and Bakley’s daughter. Braun argues that his client married Bakley in November 2000 to protect the baby from “a demon-possessed” mother who neglected and abused her. Authorities describe the defendant as a possessive father who wanted to rid himself and his child of the woman who tricked him into an unwanted marriage. “The defense is trying to send the message that this is not about the baby losing a good mom,” says Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School. “But that’s a double-edged sword, because it feeds into motive. If she was threatening to take the baby away, he would do extreme things. Or would he take this risk of losing that child forever?” Some lawyers see a subtext in Braun’s message. “There’s always the chance that, even if the jurors believe Blake did it there may be one or two who don’t want to convict him because she deserved it,” says Professor Stan Goldman of Loyola Law School. Braun says he does not plan to try the victim, only to counter publicity generated by the police in order to keep prospective jurors’ minds open to reasonable doubt of his client’s guilt. One of the theories he has suggested is that Bakley might have hired someone to kill her husband in a plan that backfired. “If you throw enough things up, something’s going to stick,” says Deputy District Attorney Lea P. D’Agostino, who prosecuted the “Twilight Zone” case. Landis and his co-defendants were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges in a trial marked by acrimony between defense attorneys and the prosecution. “Harland comes out with these outlandish remarks,” D’Agostino says. “Many times he acts in a manner people might think is buffoonery. But I think he choreographs that so people don’t realize how bright he is and how knowledgeable in the law. You’re taken by surprise. And he has admitted that his job in the trial was to try to rattle me.” Braun, affable and humorous outside the courthouse, is known for taking the offensive early, seeking prosecutors’ weaknesses and pursuing his case aggressively in trial, says Levenson, who prosecuted one of Braun’s clients in the 1980s when she was an Assistant U.S. Attorney. “He can make a prosecutor’s life hell,” she says. “But I think Harland is one of the smartest lawyers in town. He fights really hard for his clients. And he’s bolder in his tactics than other lawyers. There are some things only Harland would say in court with a straight face.” One example she cited was from the 1993 federal trial of officers who beat Rodney King. At one point Braun showed the jury the heavy boot his client wore while kicking King and called it “a ballet slipper,” saying it could not have caused harm. CITING THE BIBLE In his closing argument, delivered on Good Friday, Braun quoted from the Bible and told the jury the prosecutor would have indicted the Christian apostles and that Christ was put to death because of fears of riots in the city. “He loved to try to get under our skin,” says Associate Professor Steven D. Clymer of Cornell Law School, who prosecuted the case when he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney. “But during his closing argument his explanation of reasonable doubt was probably the most creative and thought-provoking and funny of any I have ever heard.” During that argument Braun also assured the jurors the public would “understand” if they acquitted the four officers, even though the officers’ acquittal in state court triggered the 1992 Los Angeles riot that killed 53 people. The federal jury convicted two of the officers and acquitted two, including Braun’s client, Theodore Briseno. In the Blake case, Braun faces fallout from the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson, who was charged with the stabbing deaths of his wife, Nicole, and a friend, Ron Goldman. Jurors were widely derided for acquitting the former football star, who was later held responsible for the killings in a civil case brought by the victims’ families. “All I’m trying to do is trying to keep the public’s mind open so a jury can look at this evidence without having to worry they will be made fun of, like the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson juries,” Braun says. Attorneys see few parallels between the cases of Simpson and Blake, whose acting career dwindled in the 1990s. He was best known for his childhood role in the “Our Gang” comedies and as a police detective in the 1970s television series “Baretta.” He also won acclaim for his portrayal of a killer in the 1967 movie “In Cold Blood.” “There isn’t anything about this case that takes it out of the low-rent category,” Reiner says. “Taking the allegations coming out of the DA’s office at face value, it’s just a matter of flashpoint anger and someone getting killed. That happens often in L.A. It got attention because there was no freeway chase that night, and here’s this guy with some residual name recognition from ‘Baretta.’” TRAGEDY AND POLITICS Braun, however, says that the case has the dimensions of a Shakespearian tragedy. And it accommodates one of his favorite themes — political prosecution. Although voicing variations on that theme got him slapped with a gag order in the Rodney King case, he started leveling similar accusations against police and prosecutors after Chief Bernard Parks, who was to leave office the next day, held a news conference last month to allege that Blake was the trigger man. Prosecutors have charged the actor with the special circumstance of lying in wait, which makes him ineligible for bail and subjects him to life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted. “They will go to any lengths to convict him, because of the acquittals in O.J. Simpson and Rodney King,” Braun says. “It is political in the sense that they will do anything they can to win. And what physical evidence do they have? There was no blood on his clothes, and they haven’t traced the murder weapon to anyone.” Prosecutors have the statements of two stunt men who claim Blake solicited them to kill his wife. Braun attributes those claims to Hollywood gossip. “Hollywood,” he says, “can really be a trip through a sewer in a glass-bottom boat.”

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