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Expert: Gunshot residue does not mean Robert Blake killed his wife

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

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VAN NUYS, California (Court TV) -- A forensics expert who found gunshot residue particles on Robert Blake's hands and clothes told jurors Tuesday that the evidence does not link the actor to his wife's shooting.

Criminalist Steven Dowell of the L.A. County Department of Coroner testified that Blake could have picked up the gunshot residue (GSR) from guns that were not murder weapons, including the actor's licensed revolver or other guns allegedly in his home.

However, Dowell also testified that he could not rule out the possibility that Blake murdered Bonny Lee Bakley.

"Is there anything about your tests that can exclude the possibility that the defendant fired the gun?" prosecutor Shellie Samuels asked.

"I can't exclude that possibility," Dowell said.

Dowell previously testified that he found gunshot residue (GSR) on the clothes Blake was wearing the night Bakley was murdered -- including a pair of black leather boots, a black cotton T-shirt, Levi's blue jeans, a turquoise belt buckle, and a pair of black socks.

Dowell, who was recalled to the stand to complete his testimony from last week, reaffirmed what several GSR experts have testified to -- that the sticky residue can easily be transferred from surface to surface, that it can stick to clothing for years, and that it is not a reliable indicator of whether the actor fired the gun that killed Bakley.

Dowell also testified during cross-examination that if Blake had been shooting at a firing range, he may have had GSR on his boots for an extended time.

"Since the socks were worn under his boots, and the tops of his boots were covered by his jeans, the discovery of GSR on the socks may well have been because the socks, jeans, T-shirt and boots were all put in a box together?" defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbach asked Dowell.

"Yes, it's possible," Dowell said.

The detective who collected Blake's clothes previously testified that he put them in a lidless cardboard box and left the items in the trunk of his patrol car over the weekend.

Dowell told jurors he was concerned about whether the trunk of the detective's car contained GSR that could have fallen on the clothing, so he conducted a simulation test. He placed a new white cotton T-shirt inside a lidless cardboard box, put that box inside a second lidless box, let it sit over the weekend in the same patrol car's trunk, and then performed GSR tests.

The test shirt was negative for GSR particles, Dowell testified, but the inside of the box that was not touching the clothing tested positive for GSR. Dowell could not offer the defense a reason for why he did not test the interior of box that came in contact with the clothing.

Blake's gun

Blake owned several guns, including a revolver he had with him on May 4, 2001, when Bakley was shot to death as she sat in his parked Dodge Stealth near Vitello's, an Italian restaurant where they had just dined. Blake's revolver was not the murder weapon.

On Tuesday, jurors got to see his revolver for the first time when Sgt. Melvin Patton returned to the stand to identify it as the weapon he collected from the actor on the night of the murder.

Patton took the firearm out of its black leather holster and described it as a Smith & Wesson .38 special five-shooter.

Police dabbed Blake's hands for GSR samples about two and a half hours after the murder, and Dowell testified that the tests revealed five consistent particles of GSR.

The presence of GSR, Dowell testified, indicates a person may have discharged a firearm, was in an environment where a gun was fired, or touched a surface containing GSR.

Dowell told jurors Tuesday that he found "many" highly specific particles of GSR on Blake's revolver, holster and on the inside and outside of the evidence envelope in which they was contained.

His findings neither hurt nor helped the defense's contention that the GSR on Blake's hands came from handling his gun, because on cross-examination, Dowell confirmed that the weapon had been test-fired by LAPD prior to examination.

Though Dowell conceded that the test-firing "compromised" his results, he maintained that test-firing almost always leaves GSR on the shooter's hands. Yet in the thousands of real-life cases he has worked on, including suicides, it wasn't unusual to find that the shooter had no GSR particles on his or her hands.

Jurors appeared restless as the defense spent the entire day cross-examining the GSR expert and questioning him in-depth about the chemical components of each particle of gunshot residue found.

Several jurors left their notebooks sitting in their laps and rarely took notes. One male alternate juror returned from a break drinking a can of Red Bull caffeinated soda.

Prosecutors say Blake, 71, killed Bakley, 44, because he hated her and was obsessed with gaining custody of their infant daughter. He faces life in prison without parole if convicted.

Blake denies any involvement in the shooting and claims he was retrieving his .38 that he accidentally left under the booth at the restaurant when Bakley was killed.

The murder weapon, a 9mm Walther P-38, was discovered the next morning in a Dumpster near Blake's car. It was ultimately untraceable and no prints could be recovered from it.


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