California court begins screening potential jurors for Robert Blake trial

Monday, October 25th 2004, 9:28 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Robert Blake and his lawyer were not present, but the former ``Baretta'' star was on everyone's mind as prospective jurors were screened for a panel that will decide whether the actor murdered his wife.

``Oh, geez!'' exclaimed one woman when it was announced that the group was called for the high-profile Blake trial, which could last five months. Many of the panelists sighed and shook their heads.

Judge Darlene Schempp has said she wants a pool of 150 to 200 prescreened jurors ready to be quizzed Nov. 15 when lawyers take over. That could involve the screening of as many as 1,800 prospective jurors during three weeks.

A Nov. 2 hearing is scheduled for a status report on how many have been dismissed up to that point.

Of 177 prospects summoned Monday, 133 appeared and only 20 stepped forward when asked if they could serve on such a long trial. At least one wore the uniform of a postal carrier, among government employees who often serve on long trials because they are paid their regular salaries while on jury duty.

The remaining prospects said it would be a hardship to serve that long; they were given forms to fill out with explanations.

Jury Commissioner Gloria Gomez read a statement from Schempp, telling the prospects that they would be excused from service only for legitimate hardships such as interference with employment or studies.

Claimed hardships such as medical problems were to be addressed by the judge later, Gomez said.

The judge, defense lawyers and prosecutors agreed to allow Gomez to conduct the initial screening out of their presence.

Those who said they could serve were given a lengthy questionnaire compiled by the defense and prosecution asking for jurors' views on a wide range of subjects including feelings about whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. Those with strong predetermined views could face dismissal from the panel later.

Blake, 71, will stand trial for murder in the death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Blake told police he found her shot in their car on May 4, 2001, after he went back into the restaurant where they had just dined to retrieve a gun he carried for protection.