The defense attorney is booted due to conflicts between him and the defendant.

LOS ANGELES (AP) – The Robert Blake murder case was thrown into disarray Thursday when the judge relieved the actor’s defense attorney because of “irreconcilable differences” with his client.

The action forced an indefinite postponement of Blake’s trial, which had been scheduled to enter the final phase of jury selection Feb. 17.

“I’m sorry,” Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp said after stunning the courtroom with her announcement. “I just did not have a choice in the matter.”

Schempp set a hearing for Feb. 23, by which time she said she hoped Blake would find a replacement for Thomas Mesereau Jr.

Schempp spent nearly an hour in her chambers with Blake and Mesereau before announcing her decision. As they left court, neither Blake nor Mesereau would discuss the nature of the dispute that ended their relationship after some 14 months.

“I’m very, very sorry, that Mr. Mesereau left,” Blake said outside court. “I am deeply, deeply grateful to him for saving my life.”

It was Mesereau who won Blake’s release on $1.5 million bail after many months in jail.

Blake, 70, is charged with shooting his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, 44, to death as she sat in a car outside an Italian restaurant where the two had just eaten dinner in 2001.

Blake is best known for playing a tough-talking cop on the 1970s show “Baretta.”

The announcement is certain to have a huge impact on the trial. A spokeswoman said preliminary jury selection done weeks ago must now be scrapped.

, and the new lawyer will have to digest reams of evidence in a short period of time.

“We had no idea this was coming,” Gibbons said. “It’s like being punched in the stomach. It’s like having the rug pulled out from under us. We’re a little shell-shocked right now.”

Blake’s original lawyer, Harland Braun, left in November 2002, followed by attorney Jennifer Keller in January 2003. His fourth lawyer could be the toughest to find.

“How can a new lawyer get up to speed with 60,000 pages of evidence?” said Mesereau’s former co-counsel, Dana Cole. “And what highly capable lawyer is going to step into this hornet’s nest?”

Sources close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was Mesereau’s decision to leave the case, and that Blake wanted him to remain.

Cole, who won a dismissal of charges for Blake’s co-defendant, Earle Caldwell, said he spoke to Blake after the announcement.

“I know what was not the reason,” Cole said. “It was nothing pertaining to an evidentiary issue. And he does not want to represent himself. But it had to be something so significant that the judge would let them do this.

“It has to be an issue of client control or a colossal ethical issue,” Cole said.

Blake said of his departing counsel: “I’m sure Mr. Mesereau will have a great life and a great career. I’m 70 years old. I’ve learned I have to go forward … I wish him all the very best.”

Blake sang “Amazing Grace” as he walked to his car after the court session.

AP-ES-02-05-04 1933EST

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