By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Robert Blake, acquitted eight months ago of murdering his wife, was found liable on Friday for her slaying in a wrongful death civil suit brought by her children and was ordered to pay $30 million in damages.
The actor appeared pale and stunned as the verdict was read, ending an 11-week civil trial in which Blake testified in open court for the first time about the 2001 shooting death of his spouse, Bonny Lee Bakley.
Blake's courtroom appearance worked against him, and a majority of the nine men and three women on the Los Angeles Superior Court jury in Burbank rejected his contention that Bakley was a victim of her own checkered background.
A number of jurors said later they discounted the efforts of Blake's lawyers to highlight Bakley's past as a career swindler who ran a lonely hearts scam and spent time in jail.
"It is not right to take someone else's life regardless of what kind of person they were," juror David Lopez said.
The civil court panel split 9-3 on the $30 million award and 10-2 in favor of finding that the former star of the TV detective show "Baretta" intentionally caused Bakley's death.
By a 9-3 jury vote, Blake's co-defendant in the case, his former bodyguard and handyman Earle Caldwell, was cleared of a separate charge that he conspired with the actor to kill his wife.
After the verdict, Blake and his lawyers quickly left the courthouse. They made no comment to the media.
The $30 million judgment, if upheld, could financially ruin the 72-year-old actor. During pretrial talks aimed at reaching an out-of-court settlement, he had said the most he could pay was $250,000.
JURY 'HATED' BLAKE ON STAND
"I have every reason to believe that Robert Blake will make good on the judgment that he was ordered to pay," said Eric Dubin, attorney for Bakley's estate and her four children
He said interviews with jurors after the verdict revealed that Blake's testimony during the trial damaged his case. "They hated him on the stand. He was just out of control," Dubin said. Jury foreman Bob Horn later added, "We believe Mr. Blake was probably his worst enemy on the stand."
Blake insisted under oath that he loved Bakley, never harmed her and was planning a life with her so they could raise their daughter, Rose, now 5. He also described Bakley as someone who "could charm the eyes out of a rattlesnake."
Bakley was shot to death in Blake's car a short time after the two dined together at a restaurant on March 4, 2001.
Blake told police said he had gone back to the restaurant to retrieve a handgun he mistakenly left behind and returned to the car to find Bakley slumped over, bleeding to death.
In March of this year, a jury acquitted Blake of charges he committed the murder after trying to solicit others to kill his wife. Caldwell was initially charged as a conspirator in the criminal case before a judge dismissed the charge. The outcome of the Blake trials was reminiscent of mixed verdicts returned in the case of former football star O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of criminal charges he murdered his ex-wife and her friend but later found liable for their deaths in a civil suit and ordered to pay $33.5 million.
At his murder trial, prosecutors said the actor killed his wife to gain custody of his daughter from a woman he despised and considered a bad influence.
Prosecutors and lawyers for Bakley's estate argued that Blake was furious at Bakley when she became pregnant in 1999 and pressured her to have an abortion. They said he tried kidnapping the baby, then married Bakley in November 2000 to get her to drop child abduction charges against him.