Troubled actor Robert Blake pleaded innocent to murdering his wife yesterday (27MAR03) - in his first appearance since being released on bail.

During an arraignment, Blake and his co-defendant EARLE CALDWELL waived their rights to a speedy trial until October (03), when proceedings are likely to begin.

Deputy District Attorney PAT DIXON read off the charges against Blake - murder, solicitation to murder, conspiracy and the special circumstance of lying in wait.

Dixon asked him, "Mr. Blake, to those charges how do you plead?"

Blake replied, "Not guilty, sir."

Caldwell, Blake's former bodyguard, pleaded innocent to a murder conspiracy charge.

The 69-year-old actor is accused of killing 44-year-old Bonny Lee Bakley on 4 May 2001, after they dined at Vitello's restaurant - Blake's longtime hangout in his Studio City, California neighbourhood.

Blake claims he found his wife shot in the head and upper body in their car, after he went back to the restaurant to retrieve a handgun he carried for protection.

But Prosecutors argue that Blake despised Bakley - a con artist with a criminal record - and wanted to find a way to get rid of her but keep their baby. The actor, on the other hand, has suggested she was killed by a victim of one of her con schemes.

At the end of the arraignment Blake praised the Judge who granted him release on $1.5 million (GBP1 million) bail, saying, "I want to thank Judge (Lloyd) NASH for saving my life."

In a message to his supporters, he added, "I believe in America, I'm happy to be an American. I'm standing here in front of you and that's proof that this is still America and it still works."