It was a war between conservative and liberal, id and ego, male and female. In the high-profile murder trial of millionaire Mike Blatt, only the defendant stayed on the sidelines.
CALIFORNIA LAWYER, August 1992
By Nina Martin, a Berkeley-based writer and investigative reporter specializing in legal issues.
CALIFORNIA LAWYER, August 1992
Posted with permission from California Lawyer. This file cannot be downloaded from this page.
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To hear Eual Blansett tell the story, it was all Cristina Arguedas's fault. She would not stay in her place.
Blansett, head of the homicide unit of the San Joaquin County district attorney's office, had pulled a witness aside for a private talk outside the Oakland courtroom where the murder-for-hire retrial of Mike Blatt, the millionaire developer and sports agent, was in its seventh excruciating month. Arguedas and her partner Penelope M. Cooper, two of the most highly regarded criminal lawyers in the country, had rested their defense that morning, and they'd proved as formidable as their reputations.
Blansett had serious damage to repair in this, the case of a lifetime. But now, as he and his witness conferred, Arguedas, very blond, very smart, very shrewd, walked across the hall and positioned herself against the wall just a couple of feet away.
Spying. Or trying to. He was sure of it.
Blansett spun around. "Would you mind leaving?" he demanded. As he recalls it, he was polite enough, which was hard because Arguedas despised him. She clenched her teeth and sent off little blasts of mental Mace whenever he came near. "I'm talking to my witness and I don't want you hear."
Arguedas, chatting with her own witness, didn't budge.
"Would you please move?" he repeated, annoyance flooding his six-foot-plus frame. When he became angry, as he did 10 or 20 times a day during this trial, his voice grew loud and his normally slumped shoulders, pumped with righteous energy, straightened a bit, revived. "We'd like to talk and we can't talk while you're here."
She stood her ground.
In the crowded hallway, no one paid much attention. The trial had been like this since opening statements, an unrelenting rat-a-tat of objections, accusations, insults, tantrums, tirades. Usually Blansett started it, but once he began, Cooper and Arguedas gave no ground, ever. Hard words flew between them like bullets, glares like poison darts. At first, spectators and jurors had been astonished. Now, months later, they were disgusted and bored. Few who attended the trial for even a day could remember anything like it. The feud had escalated into full-scale war, and the hostility that fueled it seemed at times to reflect a rage in the world beyond the courtroom: conservative versus liberal, rich versus populist, id versus ego, male versus female. It had nothing to do anymore with Mike Blatt's guilt or innocence. It had everything to do with power.
This is ridiculous, Arguedas thought wearily. She wore her big-shouldered jacket like a suit of armor, but underneath her back sagged too. If Blansett wanted privacy, he could move.
Perhaps if a different lawyer-a bigger, taller, maler lawyer-had been standing beside him, he would have.
Instead, the months of accumulated frustration finally caught fire. Perhaps it was as simple as this: He was losing. To two women. Mike Blatt was slipping away. Blansett walked to Arguedas, grabbed her arms, and "we went backwards" (his words) four or five steps.
"The only thing I could think of was, 'Well, Miss Arguedas, if you're going to act like a five-year-old, I'm going to have to treat you like a five-year-old,'" Blansett recalled a few months later. Perhaps one of the reasons he thought it appropriate to compare Arguedas to a disobedient child was that she was so much smaller than he, maybe a foot shorter and 75 pounds lighter. "There's no doubt that when someone interjects themselves into a situation-It would be like a five-year-old running out into the traffic," he says. "A five-year-old has a perfect right to run out into traffic, but-I felt like she was trying to provoke a situation and the only thing I wanted to do was to try to remove her from the situation so there would be no provocation."
Wasn't he already provoked? "I wasn't provoked. I wasn't provoked."
What happened next remains unclear. Blansett says Arguedas slipped, perhaps because she might have been wearing the wrong kind of shoes. She told Alameda County sheriffs he pushed her. Whichever it was, she fell to the floor and screamed.
At phone booths, on benches, onlookers stopped, stunned. Had it really, finally, come to this?
A better question might have been: Could it have come to anything else?
Michael Blatt's second murder trial began in the long, furious summer of Thelma and Louise and ended with the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots. In between, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings underscored its themes of sexual and racial tension, abuse of power and bearing witness. A more fitting set of cultural markers would be hard to imagine.
When the case began, with Mike Blatt's arrest in August 1989, the only apparent theme was sleaze, TV-movie-style. The victim was Laurence Carnegie, Blatt's onetime business associate. The killers were James Mackey and Carl Hancock, two black former football players at the University of the Pacific, Blatt's alma mater. In Lodi, outside Stockton, they shot Carnegie with a crossbow and botched the job badly; in the end they strangled him and dumped him off Highway 101 in Sonoma County. This happened in February 1989. Mackey was arrested three months later. After stewing in jail for a while, he claimed Blatt, his hero, his wife's boss, had hired him to do it. He said Blatt told him, "I wouldn't mind if Larry Carnegie weren't around anymore." There were wells of bad blood between Blatt and Carnegie, so Mackey's story was easy enough for police, prosecutors-indeed, many of Blatt's acquaintances-to believe.
Mackey and Hancock each pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and got life imprisonment in exchange for Blansett's promise to recommend them for the earliest possible parole, in 16 years. In return, they promised to testify against Mike Blatt.
Blatt, now 46, was then worth $25 to $50 million, much of it earned as a self-made real estate developer in middle-class, medium-sized, middle-of-the-road Stockton. Frat-boy handsome, oozing heartless confidence, he had dated lots of pretty young women and bested his ex-wife in their divorce settlement. He was involved in more than 30 lawsuits-including one with Carnegie over a $60,000 commission-sometimes, his enemies said, using litigation like a set of brass knuckles. But in a sports-crazy town, he was best-known as a hard-bargaining sports agent who'd infuriated many NFL owners, brokered the recent sale of the Seattle Seahawks to Ken Behring, another Northern California developer, then lost his bid to become that team's permanent general manager. The timing of that disappointment, barely a week before Carnegie's slaying, struck some-especially Blansett--as perhaps not coincidental. The newspapers and magazines loved the whole juicy tale, and Robert Conrad, a television actor who'd once filmed a movie in Blatt's home, optioned it. In Stockton, the issue of Blatt's guilt or innocence had a political subtext: Would the rich and powerful alleged killer be able to buy his way out of justice? Would two black men suffer alone for a white man's arrogance?
The first trial ended in a hung jury, and by May 1992, as Blatt's nine-month-long second trial dragged to a close, the lurid tale had lots its appeal. The press stopped covering the case. The public stopped debating. Conrad dropped the project. And Blatt, once the focus of so much attention, had faded into the background, a bland bit player in the melodrama of his own life. Silent, pleasant, polite, extraordinarily controlled, he was overshadowed by the struggle between Eual Blansett, one of the most loathed and effective prosecutors in Stockton, and Penny Cooper and Cris Arguedas, two women equally stubborn and aggressive.
Blansett had faced almost no women defense attorneys during his tenure in homicide. The men who battled him-lawyers and judges-had learned to give him a wide berth, and in doing so created, in their words, a "Zealot," a "mad dog," a "Prince of Darkness," all the harder to control because juries loved his homespun persona. To Cooper and Arguedas, ardent liberals and feminists, Blansett epitomized what can go wrong with the criminal justice system when prosecutors have too much power.
Cooper and Arguedas knew their best chance to beat Blansett was to force his bullying behavior into the open and then challenge it. Precisely because he was a man and they were women, jurors would not be able to romanticize or explain away his behavior. Cooper and Arguedas were ready to meet him blow for blow, round after round, month after month, if that's what it took.
Jason Tandeta, a juror, recalls what happened with a kind of awe. "It was like World War III."
Eual D. Blansett Jr., 49, is a born prosecutor. Proudly and deeply conservative, a Bible school teacher who refers often to his Christianity, he says he believes so strongly in stability, law and religion that "during the Revolutionary War, I'd have probably been a Tory." After a stint as a teacher during the height of the '60s, he attended Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco with the intention of trying criminals. Defending them was never an option: "I couldn't sit next to a person who was charged with a criminal offense...and do everything I could to get them off. Unfortunately, that appears to be the approach of most defense attorneys."
He is a formidably built man who exudes a populist distrust of other people's power and wealth. His stride is slow and achy, his shoulders weary and stooped. His clothes-he seems to own one jacket, navy blue, and three shirts, pale blue, light blue and baby blue--often look weary too. His drawl twangs of small-town California and the pre-Dust Bowl Oklahoma of his parents; his manner with jurors and in conversation is aw-shucks and genial. But under the surface flows a remarkable energy, and in court he displays the persistence peculiar to men who are bigger than everyone else.
Blansett landed his first job, with the San Joaquin County DA's office, in 1975 and worked his way up through the ranks, challenging his boss, Richard Eichenberger, for the top job in 1986. When it became clear he would lose, he backed deputy DA John Phillips, who won and appointed him homicide chief. He is widely rumored to be planning a challenge to Phillips in 1994.
"The problem with Eual is he sees the world as black and white," says Patrick Piggott, a criminal defense attorney who has faced him many times. "If you're not on his side, you're on the wrong side. He is the judge, not a deputy district attorney. With him it's a moral crusade instead of a profession, and he is avenging society and enjoying his role. That's what makes him scary."
Blansett admits he thinks nothing of "telling judges what I think of them," slamming books, pounding desks. His worst behavior usually occurs outside the jury's presence; what jurors see is an ardent advocate for the People. "The public loves the guy because he's got the reputation of being dogged," says James J. Simonelli, another Stockton attorney. "If you go to trial with him, you'd better gird your loins and gnash your teeth because he won't back down. He'll kill you."
Blansett has also earned a reputation for withholding discovery from defense lawyers, and worse. Kenneth Meleyco, a DA turned defense attorney, recently won reversal of a murder conviction after the Third District Court of Appeal found Blansett had ignored the defendant's request for a lawyer before deciding to take a polygraph test. He says Blansett is so tenacious and "intimidating" that "I think people [judges] are scared to control him."
Blansett retorts, "I am aggressive in the courtroom because I am supposed to ably represent the people of California. I don't mind being aggressive. I don't mind being beyond embarrassment." A murder trial, he insists, is a "battle for justice. It's a battle for truth as we can ascertain it as human beings."
In his view, the fight has three combatants: the prosecution, the defense and the judge. "I have a very democratic view of the courtroom. I am a member of the executive branch, which is an equal branch to the judiciary. And unfortunately, some judges have the idea they are somehow superior to others in the adversary system." Blansett adds, "I cringe every time I say, 'Judge' and 'Your Honor.' I think they're archaic terms."
It's a measure of how disliked Mike Blatt is in Stockton that when Blansett was assigned his case, people cheered. Blansett's style as a prosecutor reminded many of Blatt's as a businessman. And it's a measure of how unpopular Blansett is that when pretrial publicity forced a change of venue to Oakland, many joked the DA had planned it. "It sure has been quiet around here for the past three years," one lawyer says.
Blatt's first trial was the perfect showcase for Blansett's style. From almost the moment Carnegie's body had been found, Blansett was sure Blatt was guilty. He was at the center of efforts to get James Mackey to turn on Blatt, and he never doubted Mackey's credibility, though there was plenty of reason to do so. Blansett wanted the death penalty.
Representing Blatt were Michael Thorman of Bonjour & Thorman in Hayward and Richard Zimmer of Andersen & Zimmer in Oakland. Both had solid reputations and just the kind of low-key personalities needed, it seemed, to soften their client's callous image. They didn't bother assailing Blansett or curbing his attacks; they figured sophisticated Oakland jurors would think he was a buffoon. They hoped Blatt would profit from the comparison. Besides, says Thorman, "as a defense attorney I think I would have a very difficult time getting away with the stuff Blansett does because we have to sell our credibility-we represent the bad guy."
Zimmer is more succinct: "You don't piss with a skunk. You can't win."
Theirs was the wrong tactic. Blansett recalls, "If there was a breach in the courtroom in what they thought was proper courtroom decorum, [Thorman and Zimmer] would be like a timid general, General McClellan, for example, in the Civil War. They would see the breach, but they have their own style which would not allow them to take advantage of that breach." Thorman and Zimmer would object once or twice to Blansett's questions, then let them go. Blansett got in much damaging-and probably irrelevant-evidence about Blatt's history of sharp business deals and his wife's paltry divorce settlement.
Blatt's appearance made things worse. His gray suit and aviator glasses, intended to project sober propriety, only seemed to corroborate testimony that portrayed him as cutthroat. His graying brushed-back hair-in jail he could no longer dye it-looked disreputable and faintly desperate, especially when his young girlfriends paraded through.
This image rubbed off on Thorman and Zimmer. Their politeness was interpreted as insincerity. When Zimmer made a passing reference to a witness's fancy car and said he wished he had one as nice, the jurors looked at Zimmer's suit, his client, his very white maleness, and snorted inwardly. They'd seen his type on TV: They figured him for a rich hired gun.
Even so, Thorman and Zimmer managed to hold Blansett to a deadlock, 9-3 for conviction. Afterward jurors conceded that they'd had serious doubts about Mackey's truthfulness and about Blatt's motive, but they just couldn't believe someone who looked like Blatt wasn't guilty of something. And they liked Blansett very much. He was so sincere, so hard-working, so passionate.
Blansett went to work fine-tuning his case. Next time around, he was certain he'd win hands down.
After his close brush with Death Row, Mike Blatt decided he needed new, more forceful counsel for his second trial. With money no objective, he considered some of the top male attorneys in Northern California. Then he chose Penny Cooper & Cris Arguedas.
The ideal client, renowned trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams was fond of saying, is a rich man who is scared. And the best attorneys this scared, rich man could have for his retrial were "two nice women in pantsuits who the jury would believe believed him," thought private investigator, Jacqueline Tully, part of the original defense team and a partner with Mason & Tully. For a defendant with Blatt's image, a similarly slick white man might spell disaster.
Still, some in Stockton considered Cooper and Arguedas a stunning choice for a man with Blatt's scumbag-playboy reputation. "Are you kidding? He's a complete sexist," says a woman who knows him well. Whereas Blatt's girlfriends were arm accessories, Cooper, 53 and Arguedas, 38, had succeeded the same way he had: through brains, guts and a willingness, when necessary, to press hard and play rough. There was nothing remotely soft or sweet about them. After the trial one juror described Cooper, with her pixie dark-brown hair, Roy Orbsion glasses and Armani suits, as looking like a super-hip Mafiosa about to have somebody deep-sixed. Arguedas, more East Coast stodgy with her power jackets and pleated trousers, exudes the cool, almost calculating bravado of someone who's never met a man she couldn't outsmart.
But Blatt liked what he called their "chameleon" quality, their seen-it-all ability to do whatever the situation called for. They'd gotten another Bay Area millionaire, Donald Webey, a light sentence in a sex-with-minors case, and had attracted major national press for their defense of Franklin Chinn, an Ed Meese crony, in the Wedtech scandal trials in New York. It said something that, in almost 11 years, Cooper, Arguedas & Cassman in Emeryville, outside Berkeley had become the defense lawyers of choice for a generation of Hell's Angels, drug kingpins and other Northern California low-life. "I knew after 15 minutes" they were the right lawyers for the job, Blatt says.
One of the delicious ironies of the Blatt retrial is that Cooper and Arguedas are exactly what jurors assumed Thorman and Zimmer were: very well-paid hired guns. While Thorman works out of an extremely modest building near a Hayward shopping center, Cooper and Arguedas's offices are designer chic, from the black leather chaise to the hand-beaded lamp shades. In contrast to Zimmer's pickup truck, Cooper has a red Mercedes. (Arguedas wouldn't let her drive it to court, prompting Cooper to complain one day, "It's six years old. It's dirty. Don't you think the jury will think I deserve it?") They cultivate a casual image as women who aren't in it just for the money or the glory or the hormonal rush, but Cooper and Arguedas are killers.
Arguedas met Cooper when they were in trial in adjacent courtrooms: Both won, and they decided to team up. Despite the 15-year age difference, there is no hint of a big sister/little sister relationship between them. "They're complete equals," says their partner, Ted Cassman. "There's no hierarchy." Tully echoes, "They ask everyone's advice, they're very open to ideas. All they care about is doing the best possible job for their client. It's a very female way of doing things, and it's one of the reasons they're so good."
A native of Colorado and 1964 graduate of Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, Cooper says she is a "people person" with a quick grasp of character. "Basically, I enjoy talking to the defendant and his family and unraveling the puzzle," she says. "The thing I enjoy about a case is putting his life on track."
Cooper began as an Alameda County public defender, but stirred a ruckus by signing a petition opposing the Vietnam War. When she went into private practice in 1969, "almost everyone you knew got arrested at least once a day, so there was a lot of business," she says. She parlayed her first famous case-the first-degree murder acquittal of a Hell's Angel-into a virtual lock on major Hell's Angel cases in the Bay Area. Cooper, says Cassman, is a "shoot from the hip" cowboy, a master of "contextual examination"-deftly weaving her questions into a believable narrative.
Like Blansett, Cooper has been called devious and manipulative. Some prosecutors and police officers claim she sometimes walks the legal edge, but they won't talk about her on the record.
Recently, however, she landed in some trouble. The Blatt trial delayed until July a long-planned hearing before the U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of San Francisco over whether Cooper and Doron Weinberg, another local defense attorney, accepted $50,000 from their client, Oakland drug kingpin Rudy Henderson, without telling Patel, who subsequently awarded the lawyers $500,000 in fees from Henderson's seized assets. Cooper denies any wrongdoing.
Arguedas, a 1979 graduate of Rutgers School of Law, brings to her practice a Vietnam-Watergate-era cynicism. "I am a person who is happy to derail the government as the train is about to run over my client," she once said. Just out of law school, she came west to work on landmark battered-women's cases, helped defend one of Patty Hearst's kidnappers, then took a job as a federal public defender in San Francisco. At 26, she stunned the court by filing suit, in conjunction with the Larry Layton-People's Temple murder trial, to have the local grand jury selection process declared unconstitutional on racial grounds. In 1983, when she was 29, Time magazine named her one of the country's five most promising women lawyers under 35.
Arguedas is methodical: In the Blatt trial, she kept daily lists of 18 key points she needed to make during the trial, filing and cross-referencing them each evening. But she has her moments of showmanship. Cassman remembers how, in his first trial with the firm, Arguedas was unexpectedly called onto do voir dire in a federal drug case in Tacoma. She convinced the prosecutor to cut a deal by going nose to nose with an elderly white female prospective juror and asking, "How do you feel about bad language? How do you feel about the word FUCK?"
The chance to take on, without male co-counsel, a murder case as prominent as Blatt's was irresistible. It was a "fantastically interesting" challenge says Cooper, her eyes glinting. "You're cleaning up somebody else's mess, basically." The evidence against Blatt was formidable, including money, checks, and ambiguous tape made by Mackey for police, and statements Mackey made to friends before the killing. "It just seemed too difficult," she says of the evidence. "It was all bad."
Cooper spent nearly four months reviewing more than 10,000 pages of transcripts, and concluded that the best she and Arguedas could expect was another hung jury and to hope the high cost (at least $1 million after the two trials, reports the Stockton Record) would dissuade the San Joaquin district attorney's office from trying Blatt a third time.
She and the rest of her team-including Cassman, private detective Tully, jury consultant Karen Koonan and Kriss Ott, an old Blatt family friend-also concluded they needed to recast Blatt's image. The sharpie suits were replaced by pastel sweaters. Blatt's hair was styled to make him look more dignified, less Dating Game, and the aviator glasses were banned, giving him a slightly befuddled look. Arguedas blew up one day at the sight of his cheesy-looking gray shoes. "I want him in penny loafers from now on," she decreed. Blatt, a man "used to running his own businesses, and controlling everything," says Ott, gave complete control of his case and his life to Arguedas and Cooper. "He hated penny loafers," she says.
The core of their strategy had little to do with Blatt at all. The first trial, they thought, had been loaded with irrelevant details of Blatt's personal dealings; in the end the jury seemed to pass judgment on his whole life. Cooper and Arguedas decided to remove Blatt as much as possible from the proceedings and center the case around Mackey, the admitted shooter. It was Mackey's testimony that provided the most direct link between Blatt and the murder; if Mackey could be challenged, so could the link. It wasn't enough to attack his credibility, as Thorman and Zimmer had done quite ably: The strands of his lies had to be woven into an overarching story that explained the evidence in favor of Blatt.
The theory they settled on was a sort of Strangers on a Train defense reminiscent of the Hitchcock thriller. Perhaps Blatt had casually mentioned at some point that he "wouldn't mind if Carnegie weren't around anymore," but Mackey had decided on his own to do murder in order to ingratiate himself with Blatt, whom he thought had the money, style and women he wanted for himself.
They also knew they needed to recast the prosecutor from a bumbler to a bully. Where Thorman and Zimmer had let his behavior pass, Cooper and Arguedas would object-and object and objective. They would also try to persuade jurors that Blansett had unfairly molded and tainted the evidence against Blatt. To do this, they would have to convince jurors Blansett was not a nice man. "We didn't want him to have any more authority in front of this jury," Cooper says. "It didn't matter if they ended up disliking us, as long as they ended up disliking him too."
It was a strategy few, if any, of Blansett's male opponents had ever had the stamina or will to pursue. It was a particularly agonizing approach for women to choose, playing against gender stereotype at the risk of offending jurors.
The first taste of trouble came during pretrial motions, when Arguedas and Cooper refused to exchange any pleasantries with Blansett. They also moved to recuse him. "That [a recusal motion] happens every time I'm on a case," Blansett says. "Nobody wants me on the other side. I take it as a compliment." But the defense's "discourtesy" was "very disturbing," he adds.
This time around, Blansett had help at his table from Ronald J. Richards, another Stockton prosecutor. Blansett also had made a new strategic decision, to drop the death penalty. This was a risk: With a death-qualified jury he was assured of assembling a more conservative panel. On the other hand, without the death penalty he could get more black jurors-who are more likely to be against the death penalty and thus are less plentiful in capital cases-who might have more sympathy with Mackey. In the first trial, all three black jurors voted for Blatt's conviction.
For the same reason, Cooper and Arguedas wanted to keep as many blacks off the panel as possible and to aim for well-educated and upwardly mobile jurors who'd be less likely to hold Blatt's wealth and business practices against him. When the jury selection began, in July 1991, through sheer luck the first panel had only one black. Cooper and Arguedas stuck with that group. They figured only four of the 12 jurors were likely to vote with them, but it would take unanimity to convict. As long as they kept only one juror, they could count on a mistrial at least.
By opening arguments it was clear a long trial lay ahead. Blansett objected so often during Cooper's fiery statement that, after barely 15 minutes, she asked Judge Duane Martin for an in-chamber conference. When they returned, Blansett's disgusted was obvious. At one point he even stormed out of the room. "In 27 years in practice, I've never seen anything like it," Cooper says.
Cooper and Arguedas had divvied up the case so that Cooper would tear into Mackey and Hancock and related witnesses, leaving Arguedas to concentrate on the rest of the case. The lawyers assumed that, as a result, Blansett-and possibly , jurors-would focus most of their wrath on Cooper; Arguedas in contrast, would come off as professional and above the fray.
It didn't work out that way. Because Arguedas was responsible for all the prosecution witnesses who testified in the first two months, she, rather than Cooper, was on the front lines of the battle with Blansett. Arguedas objected to Blansett's very first questions, and he retaliated by doing the same to her. For days, it seemed as if the lawyers objected to nearly every word the other said.
Arguedas refused to utter a single word to Blansett, directly all her comments to the judge. This seemed to infuriate Blansett. As she grew more openly disdainful, he became increasingly piqued at his inability to wrest control of the courtroom from her. One day early in the trial Judge Martin ordered Blansett to hand Arguedas a document. "If she wants it, she can come over here," Blansett snapped.
"No," Martin ordered. "I said present it to her now."
"She can come over here now," Blansett retorted, and on and on.
In the first trial Blansett had often gotten his way simply by persistence. "We decided early on that, obnoxious as this strategy was, we weren't going to let him have the last word," Arguedas says. "So he'd say something and we'd say something. We wasted a lot of time, but we had to do it."
In one of the more petty incidents, Blansett repeatedly objected during Cooper's cross-examinations because she stood in his line of sight and he could not watch his witnesses's face. Arguedas finally took out a pair of running shoes and set them out to mark the line so that Cooper would not walk over it.
With neither side willing to give in, the exchanges grew more charged. At one point, objecting to Arguedas's objections, Blansett said loudly enough for the jurors to hear, "She'd better stop that or I'm going to throw this glass of water in her face."
"The jurors, to a person, emitted a huge gasp," says Kriss Ott. "It was like time was suspended because you couldn't believe what you'd heard."
Meanwhile, the courtroom was already buzzing over the name-calling. All the members of the defense team say Blansett routinely called them names, usually under his breath, sometimes loudly enough for them to hear. "In my hearing," Ott says "he referred to [Cooper and Arguedas] as 'dykes.'" If the comments were loud enough, Martin would admonish Blansett, as when he called the defense lawyers "these people who defend drug dealers." Blansett insists that Cooper and Arguedas made "insults" under their breath "all the time" to him.
Martin cited Blansett for contempt three times-for refusing to hand a daily witness list to the defense team, for mentioning a detail he had been ordered not to disclose, and for failing to turn over some 80 pages of discovery gathered during the course of the retrial. Cooper was cited once as well, for asking a question against Martin's orders. Cooper's charge and one of Blansett's have been purged; Blansett owes around $400 in fines on the other two.
Blansett blames Martin for much of the contentiousness. "I felt the judge had some sort of agenda and that what he began to do was to focus on the reputation of Mr. Blansett rather than on the realities of the courtroom and what was going on there," says Blansett. "He ended up turning Arguedas and Cooper loose."
Cooper thinks that by blaming Martin, Blansett is being fundamentally "sexist" because he is denying Cooper and Arguedas credit for the strategic fight they were waging. "I think he thought we were hysterical women," Cooper says. "I really do."
As for Judge Martin, he retorts, "I don't see how Mr. Blansett can blame someone else for his behavior." He says he had "no agenda other than to see that Mr. Blatt got a fair trial."
In December came Cooper's cross-examination of the prosecution's star witness, James Mackey. For five days, she dissected Mackey's history of old lies. She even caught him in a few new ones, which she deftly wove into context. "She was brilliant," recalls one of the reporters who watched her performance. "Really harsh, but she just tore him apart," recalls a juror. It was, in retrospect, the pivotal point of the trial: In fact, it was the end.
But no one knew it, or, perhaps, would admit it. Two months later came the hallway push-and-fall incident. Blansett told sheriffs he believed Arguedas wanted to provoke a mistrial because she and Cooper were losing. "I felt they were really discouraged," Blansett repeated in an interview during jury deliberations. "Things were not going well for them [the defense] and she was trying to provoke a situation." Blansett may have been wrong about the trial, but even her friends don't doubt Arguedas might have been provocative. "I can see little Cris saying, 'I'm going to screw with this guy,'" jokes George Niespolo, a former prosecutor who has known her for years.
Arguedas won't discuss the matter except to say, "It was the essence of gender bias" and "totally inappropriate, even as he describes it." She decided not to press battery charges with the Alameda County district attorney and instead filed a complaint in June with the State Bar.
The trial continued for two months more, consuming in all more than eight months of testimony. The rancor between the lawyers continued to the final moments. The 20th day of deliberations, May 12, was Cooper's father's 80th birthday. She'd arranged a lunch-time party for him at a Berkeley senior citizens center; when she asked the judge if he would postpone calling back the jurors for an hour, Blansett protested. Martin finally agreed to the delay.
The judge had already given the lawyers the news: The jury had deadlocked. Cooper had achieved her aim but dreaded the possibility of another trial. So did everyone in the courtroom.
The jurors filed in...and Martin asked for the count.
"Eleven to one-" said the foreman.
There was a gasp, and a deep spreading dread. A retrial suddenly seemed certain.
"-for acquittal," the foreman added. The holdout was the jury's lone black, who said she was the only one who understood James Mackey and thus could believe him. Newspaper reports about the Rodney King verdict-and one juror who had let herself be swayed by the majority-had convinced her not to give in.
Cooper punched the air, stunned. It was almost complete victory, totally unexpected. Blatt wiped furtive tears. His supporters openly sobbed. Blansett was ashen as he fled from reporters, refusing to answer questions.
The jurors, it turned out, simply had too many doubts about Mackey. He had lied to his wife, his family, his mistress, teachers, prospective lawyers, and, for a time, the police. Why shouldn't he lie about Blatt to save his own skin? They thought Blansett had been "obsessed," "over the edge," not a man they would invite to dinner; they liked Cooper and Arguedas better, but thought them tough, harsh, sometimes whiny, sometimes as "unprofessional" as Blansett. But jurors insisted the lawyers' behavior had made no difference: "We just tried to ignore it and do our jobs and concentrate on the evidence," said one.
The only major player who seemed to have left no impression was Blatt. Most didn't have enough sense of him to decide whether he was capable of what Mackey and Blansett had claimed. He was a smiling, polite enigma wrapped in pastel Italian wool.
Three weeks later, on June 1, Blansett returned to the same hallway, telling reporters his interviews with jurors showed that most believed Blatt was guilty and only voted for acquittal because of the judge's instructions regarding circumstantial evidence. In her own press conference, Arguedas accused Blansett of trying to distort jurors' statements to persuade San Joaquin County District Attorney John Phillips to try the case a third time.
Two days later Phillips called a press conference to announce that his office wouldn't retry Blatt. Analysis of jurors' comments had led his staff to conclude it could never win a conviction. A reporter asked Phillips if he'd heard Blansett had told Larry Carnegie's family that the case would not be retried "at this time." Phillips blanched. He said the case would probably never be retried.
One day later, Mike Blatt walked into the sunlight for the first time in three years. He thanked the women who helped set him free. He was wearing a sweater and a pair of penny loafers.