Saying the jury's exposure to a tape recording was "very prejudicial" to the case, an appeals court on Wednesday overturned the kidnapping and murder conviction of one member of the so-called "Billionaire Boys Club."
In a 3-0 vote, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered a new trial for Reza Eslaminia, 36, after ruling that the recording of a police interview with Eslaminia's brother contained statements that "seriously undermined" the defense and may have led to the verdict.
Eslaminia and co-defendant Arben "Ben" Dosti were convicted 10 years ago of kidnapping and murdering Eslaminia's wealthy Iranian father in the summer of 1984. Both defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
At the trial, the prosecution introduced as evidence a tape recording of a police interview with Eslaminia. During their deliberations, the jury listened to both that interview and the reverse side of the tape, which contained comments by Eslaminia's brother, Ali Eslaminia, that had not been introduced as evidence.
The appeals court said that among those comments were remarks that impugned the character and credibility of an important defense witness, which "may very well have caused the jury to doubt important elements of testimony helpful to the defense . . .
"Much of the damage to the defense might have been mitigated had there been an opportunity to cross-examine Ali at trial," the appeals court said. "Instead, Ali was effectively allowed to 'testify' in a completely unfiltered fashion, without the presence of a judge or counsel."
The appeals court concluded that the tape recording was prejudicial because the credibility of witnesses "was the central issue" in the case.
Eslaminia and Dosti were members of a fast-lane social and investment fraternity that had been founded in Los Angeles in 1982 by Joe Hunt, a youthful and charismatic accountant and commodities trader.
Prosecutors said the fraternity of socially prominent young men--later popularized in the media and a movie as the Billionaire Boys Club--was bound together by Hunt's "paradox philosophy," which sanctioned lying, cheating and stealing as a means to achieving personal goals.
In the early spring of 1984, Ron Levin, 42, a skilled con man, duped Hunt in a high-stakes commodities swindle. Investigators said that a few months later, Hunt and his bodyguard, Jim Pittman, killed Levin and hid the corpse in the Angeles National Forest. Levin's body has never been found.
Prosecutors said the club's financial schemes began to founder after Levin's death, but Dosti's introduction to Eslaminia gave Hunt renewed hope.
Eslaminia's father, Hedayat Eslaminia--an Iranian exile living in the affluent Bay Area community of Belmont--had been a high-ranking official in Iran during the Shah's regime and had amassed a $30-million fortune.
The Boys Club's plan, prosecutors said, was to kidnap the elder Eslaminia, torture him in the basement of a rented house in West Los Angeles until he transferred his assets to the group, and then kill him.
The plan went awry shortly after the kidnapping, officials said. They said Hedayat Eslaminia suffocated in a steamer trunk in the back of a pickup truck being driven down the I-5 by Hunt.
Later that same year, several club members began talking to police. As a result, Hunt, Pittman, Dosti and Reza Eslaminia were arrested.
In April 1987, Hunt was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Pittman pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of accessory to murder and was sentenced to the three years and six months he had already served. Several years later, boasting that laws against double jeopardy precluded another trial, Pittman bragged during a television interview that he had been the triggerman in Levin's death.
On Jan. 25, 1988, Eslaminia was convicted in the kidnapping and death of his father. The appeals court now says that the 10 days of deliberations may show that the prosecutors' case "was less than overwhelming."
Dosti was convicted in the same trial. Whether the overturning of the verdict against Eslaminia will have any implications in the Dosti case was not immediately clear.
During the 1988 trial, Eslaminia contended that he had not in any way participated in the kidnapping and slaying of his father. He said that at the time the crimes were committed, he was spending the weekend at the home of a girlfriend.
Eslaminia said that he participated in a subsequent search for his father's assets in Switzerland only because Hunt threatened to kill him, his family and his girlfriend.