Jury selection begins without public notice in Blake murder trial


Friday, January 9th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Jury selection in the Robert Blake murder trial went on for nearly a week before word leaked out, catching the public, news media and even public information officers for the district attorney and court by surprise.

Although Los Angeles Superior Court officials said jury selection in Blake's trial would begin Feb. 9, it actually started Monday. Hundreds of prospective jurors were interviewed before word got out that the process, which was scheduled to continue Friday, was under way.

Court spokesman Allan Parachini said Thursday he believed the process began quietly in an effort to protect the identity of prospective jurors and not to deceive the public. He said he didn't learn until Wednesday that something was going on in the case and only found out that selection was under way when he went to the Van Nuys courthouse where the trial will be held.

``It was not a deliberate attempt to deceive anyone, particularly the media,'' Parachini said. ``There was some confusion that resulted, for which we apologize.''

Blake, the 70-year-old star of the old ``Baretta'' TV show, is accused of murdering his wife, 44-year-old Bonny Lee Bakley, on May 4, 2001. Free on bail, he could receive a life sentence if convicted.

``There have been serious allegations of criminal conduct which, if true, could imply a risk to juror safety,'' Parachini said Thursday. He added that Blake has said there are several people who may have wanted Bakley dead.

``The implication is that ... those alleged parties might still be active and we don't want any juror to have an iota of fear that his or her safety will be in question if he or she serves on such a case,'' Parachini said.

During the trial, he said, jurors will be identified only by three-digit numbers.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers were on hand during the selection process, but veteran district attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said she didn't know until Thursday what was up.

``This just kind of sneaked up on us all,'' she said.

About 200 jurors were screened for hardship Monday and a similar number were brought in Thursday. Candidates were being asked if it would be a hardship for them to take part in a trial that could last three to six months.

On Thursday, 85 people who said they would be available for the trial went on to the next step by filling out questionnaires about their opinions on the case.

The selection process could continue until late next week and the goal is to have a final jury pool of 125 to 150 people, said Kyle Christopherson, another court spokesman.

Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp ruled this week that questions for jurors won't be made public, Blake defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. said.

Unlike other high-profile cases, the media had no opportunity to request the questions be made public or to bring in lawyers to litigate the issue.

Lawyers will begin questioning prospective jurors on Feb. 17.

Mesereau said there was no intention to mislead the press or public.

``We just did what the judge asked us to do,'' he said. ``She wanted to start screening prospective jurors for hardship.''