Spector, Blake cases highlight nuances of L.A.'s bail system

One man free, other jailed based on circumstances of respective situations

February 06, 2003|By Steve Berry and Greg Krikorian | Steve Berry and Greg Krikorian,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES - While famed music producer Phil Spector is free on $1 million bail after being arrested Monday on suspicion of murdering a woman in his Alhambra mansion, actor Robert Blake is sitting in jail without bail pending trial on charges that he shot and killed his wife.

Is that a quirky aberration in the Los Angeles County bail system? Hardly, say legal experts. If the circumstances of the case were reversed, so would the places of the two celebrities, they say.

"It is not a science," said Judge Dale S. Fischer, who heads Superior Court's bail committee.

The county's bail system is based on a preset schedule that specifies a base amount for every crime alleged. Accused criminals have a constitutional right to a reasonable bail with one exception - people accused of a murder that could put them on death row or in prison for life without the possibility of parole.

Blake's case meets that exception. Spector's doesn't.

Blake, star of the 1970s crime drama Baretta, is accused of capital murder, with prosecutors charging that he killed his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, in an ambush. The charge of lying in wait is one of several "special circumstances" under which prosecutors can seek either the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole. Either way, the special circumstance disqualifies Blake from eligibility for bail.

In all, 23 defendants are in jail under such circumstances in Los Angeles County, Fischer said.

Spector has not been formally charged with murder by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. The Sheriff's Department has booked him on suspicion of murder, and has not alleged any special circumstances that would make the case a capital murder.

As a result, Spector qualified for $1 million bail, which he posted Monday by providing the usual 10 percent to a bail bondsman.

Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said prosecutors probably will not be asked to consider filing charges until tomorrow at the earliest, and possibly not until next week. She said Spector is scheduled for a court appearance March 3 as a result of his having posted bond.

Spector's attorney, Robert Shapiro, did not return calls for comment Tuesday, and Spector's whereabouts were not known. Sheriff's officials said he was not allowed to re-enter his mansion, which is being guarded by Alhambra police as a crime scene. Authorities arrested Spector on Monday after finding the body of 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson in the foyer, struck by at least one bullet from a handgun.

Although most murder defendants cannot raise $1 million bail, it's not unheard of to do so. Last year, real estate executive Bruce D. Koklich of Lakewood was released on $1 million bond on charges that he killed his wife, Jana, the daughter of the late state Sen. Paul Carpenter. Koklich remains free while awaiting trial.

There are 207 defendants whose cases are scheduled in the downtown Los Angeles criminal courthouse who face noncapital murder charges. Theoretically, they could get out of jail on $1 million bail unless they are parole or probation violators. Most, however, do not have $1 million in assets or the $100,000 to pay out for bond, which they would not get back under any circumstances.

Although some critics of the justice system argue that wealthy defendants have an advantage when pursuing bail in murder cases, Fischer said that is not an issue that the courts can or should adjudicate when setting bail schedules.

"There is nothing in the statutes that suggests we can set different amounts in our bail schedule depending on how much money a defendant has," said Fischer.

After all, she said, "when we set bail schedules, we are not looking at any particular defendant. We are looking at the crime."

Law enforcement officers or prosecutors can ask judges to set bail higher than $1 million, but in such cases they have to show that the suspect poses a danger to the community or is likely to flee if released.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department did not ask a judge to set Spector's bail higher than $1 million, said Capt. Frank Merriman, head of the sheriff's homicide bureau. Merriman said an effort to challenge the bail would have "diverted our resources away from the investigation" and taken up valuable time of key investigators as well as prosecutors. "I don't believe he is a flight risk," Merriman added.

Sometimes, however, $1 million bail does not guarantee someone will appear in court.

In Ventura County, a judge initially set $10 million bail for Max Factor heir Andrew Luster, who was accused of dozens of sex offenses, including rape, because prosecutors said his wealth and foreign contacts made him a flight risk. An appellate court later reduced it to $1 million.

During his recent trial, Luster fled. The judge ordered the trial to continue without him. Luster, who was convicted, remains at large.

Los Angeles defense lawyer Harland Braun, who was Blake's first lawyer, said law enforcement agencies frequently find it to their advantage not to oppose bail because it gives them more time to gather evidence against suspects.

In cases in which a suspect is not freed on bail, the prosecution is required to file charges within two days, Braun said.

Steve Berry and Greg Krikorian write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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