The Real Reason Robert Blake Was Acquitted Of His Wife's Murder

Actor Robert Blake gained fame for his roles in movies and TV shows, but in 2001, he became the subject of headlines for a different reason. Back then, Blake was married to his second wife named Bonny Lee Bakley, and the actor was ultimately charged with her murder.

On May 4, 2001, Blake and Bakley had dinner at an Italian restaurant in California. As the couple walked back to their car after dinner, Blake realized he left his revolver in the restaurant. He then went back inside to get it, and when he got back to his vehicle, he discovered Bakley bleeding from a gunshot wound on her head. Blake called for assistance, but Bakley eventually died, per ThoughtCo. Investigators found an unregistered handgun in the dumpster near the incident, and it was identified as the weapon that fired the shots that killed Bakley.

As is typically the case when a person is murdered, the closest to the victim is investigated first. Blake insisted that he had nothing to do with his wife's death. Almost a year after the incident, however, Blake was charged with his wife's murder, as reported by Biography.

Robert Blake's criminal trial

According to LAPD Online, investigators pored over approximately 900 pieces of evidence in connection to Bonny Lee Bakley's murder and concluded that it was her husband, Robert Blake, who had killed her. Bakley's bodyguard Earle Caldwell was also arrested for conspiring to kill Bakley. Blake was charged with one count of murder with special circumstances and two counts of solicitation of murder; he pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Blake's trial began in December 2004. Prosecutors said that Blake attempted to hire two men to kill Bakley, but they declined his offer. Two stuntmen appeared before the court as witnesses and claimed that Blake offered them money to kill Bakley, per ABC News. He then allegedly decided to carry out the murder himself. The defense argued that Blake couldn't have killed Bakley as he had no gunshot residue on his hands. "Bonny was shot twice, Robert had no gunshot residue on him. The conclusion is he never fired that weapon," Blake's attorney, Gerry Schwartzbach, said.

The reasoning behind the aquittal

After 12 weeks, Robert Blake's trial ended with his acquittal, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. The jury deliberated for nine days before coming to a conclusion. According to the jurors, they did not believe the statements of the two stuntmen who testified that they were solicited for murder. The defense was able to poke holes in the witnesses' credibility, as they both admitted to using drugs that could have caused delusions.

On the charge of murder, on the other hand, Blake was acquitted because there was no forensic evidence that could prove that he was the one who fired the gun that killed Bonny Lee Bakley. Furthermore, there were no witnesses who could say that Blake was near his vehicle when Bakley was shot. Overall, the reason why Blake was acquitted was that the prosecution wasn't able to prove — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that he paid someone to murder his wife, nor that he had done the deed himself.

A different civil verdict

Up until now, we've been talking about Robert Blake's criminal trial — not his civil trial. Criminal trials, as we know, require a unanimous decision from the jury to pass its "beyond the shadow of a doubt" benchmark. Civil trials are a bit more flexible, as the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts describes. They occur between two parties, not between the government and an accused. They also work by a "preponderance of the evidence," not an either-or decision. They also may or may not, as a judge decides, use a jury. And if they do use a jury, as Thought Co explains, the jury isn't required to make a unanimous decision — just a majority.

And so it was that Blake's civil trial didn't go in his favor. He lost his civil suit by a vote of 10 to 2, and the court ordered him to pay $30 million to Bonnie Lee Bakley's four children as a result: Glenn Paul Gawron, Holly Lee Gawron, Jeri Lee Lewis, and Rose Lenore Sophia Blake. Blake's appeal cut the sum in half to $15 million (per Reuters). Even so, he was forced to declare bankruptcy as a result. 

Blake maintained his innocence the rest of his life, and he died of heart disease at the age of 89 in 2023.