O.J.-Vu All Over Again

© Copyright 2002 Catholic Exchange

James Bemis is a columnist for the California Political Review, and has been published in many other Catholic and secular publications.

It’s OJ-vu all over again!

While the Los Angeles murder trial of pugnacious actor Robert Blake is just starting, the media spectacle began some time back. Already satellite trucks, cameras, and souvenir hawkers have created a bizarre circus outside the County Superior Courthouse building. Downtown LA is once again awash in reporters and photographers.

Ever since May 4, 2001, when Blake’s wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, was shot and killed while waiting in Blake's car after dinner at ritzy Vitello’s restaurant, the press has salivated over this story like hungry hounds awaiting red meat. Blake, best known for playing streetwise detective Tony Baretta in the 1970s TV series “Baretta,” is just the sort of murder suspect journalists love: famous, wealthy, and colorful.

To recap, Blake told police that on the night Bakley was killed, he remembered forgetting a handgun at the restaurant and walked blocks back to Vitello’s to retrieve it, leaving his wife alone in the car late at night. He returned to find a mortally wounded Bakley slumped over in the passenger seat of his Dodge Stealth. (Sorry, folks, no white Bronco.)

Prosecutors, though, insist Blake drove Bakley to the restaurant, parked his car behind a dumpster, lowered the passenger window, got out of the car, and then shot her twice with an unregistered military handgun. The gun was found in a nearby trash can shortly after the slaying.

They say Blake also may have recruited his bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, to assist him in the crime. According to the criminal complaint, Blake directed Caldwell, who pleaded not guilty to a murder conspiracy charge, to make a list of supplies needed to kill Bakley: two shovels, small sledge hammer, blank gun, crowbar, old rugs, a plant, duct tape, Drano, pool acid, and lye.

If this is true, the boy may have been cold but he was thorough.

Furthermore, police believe Blake hatched several other aborted plots to murder his wife. Blake is accused of offering two potential killers a small-caliber gun in a zippered case and told them the gun was untraceable. Blake allegedly requested one prospective hit-man to hide in his van in a remote desert area and kill Bakley in March 2001. The same month, police say Blake asked the second unidentified person to kill Bakley as she sat in a parked car near Bullhead City, Arizona. He apparently told one of them that Caldwell would have “dug holes for burial.”

Of course, part of this case’s allure for the press is its likeness to the O.J. Simpson trial. Don’t think for a moment media executives have forgotten that TV viewers were glued to the tube and newspaper sales soared during OJ’s court proceedings. Advertising revenue skyrocketed and media stars were made: CNN’s Greta Van Susteran, AP’s Linda Deutsch (also covering Blake’s trial), CNBC’s Geraldo Rivera, and many others benefited from the public’s insatiable appetite for O.J. coverage.

You can already hear the speculation: Who’ll be the new Judge Ito? Will airhead showboats like Marcia Clark and Chris Darden be assigned to the prosecution? Is Earle Caldwell another Kato Kaelin? Who’ll play the roles of Mark Fuhrman, Rosa Lopez, and Allan Park? Is a hero like Fred Goldman lurking somewhere? Can Blake afford a new Dream Team?

Despite the trial’s similarity to Simpson’s, let’s hope we don’t repeat that awful experience. Perhaps no other event exposed the depravity and absurdness of modern American life so effectively: obsession with celebrity, explosive racial and gender fault lines, the whimsicality of the U.S. “injustice” system, and the sad emptiness of the lives of millions whose dead souls were reanimated temporarily by images on flickering electromagnetic screen, falling back into nothingness once the cameras turned off and the scaffolding disappeared from outside the LA County Criminal Courts building.

The O.J. trial represents one of our country’s saddest and most pathetic moments. Collectively, the experience was traumatic without being therapeutic. My stomach churns just thinking about going through it again.

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