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Defense Wants D.A.'s Office Off Murder Case

Attorneys for Jesse James Hollywood tell appellate justices that a Santa Barbara County prosecutor was wrong to aid a film producer.

July 14, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Lawyers for Jesse James Hollywood argued Thursday that the Santa Barbara County district attorney's office should be booted off the murder case because a lead prosecutor shared confidential files with the producers of an upcoming movie.

The unusual hearing before the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura was unanimously ordered by the state Supreme Court in April. Earlier, the appellate panel had upheld -- without a hearing -- a Santa Barbara County judge who had rejected Hollywood's motion to bar local prosecutors from the case.

The central issue is the propriety of Santa Barbara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen turning over probation reports, police files and other materials to the producers of "Alpha Dog," a film based on the notorious kidnapping and slaying of a 15-year-old San Fernando Valley boy.

Hollywood, the alleged mastermind of a plot to kill Nicholas Markowitz over a disputed drug deal, fled the United States after the slaying in 2000. In the years since, four other men involved were convicted -- all of them prosecuted by Zonen, who was contacted by producer Nick Cassavetes about the case.

On Thursday, Deputy Atty. Gen. David Glassman defended Zonen before the three-judge panel, contending that his cooperation with the producer was "an innocent effort to increase publicity in order to affect the apprehension of a fugitive who had been at large for years."

Hollywood was arrested last year in Brazil. "Alpha Dog," starring Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis and Justin Timberlake, has not yet been released.

Whether the appellate justices will order Zonen and perhaps the entire Santa Barbara D.A.'s office off the case will not be known until they issue their opinion in two to three months. However, justices Thursday signaled displeasure with Zonen's actions.

Framing a hypothetical question, Justice Arthur Gilbert asked: "If his motive is 'I want to be a star,' then it's bad, but if it's 'I want to do justice,' then it's OK?"

Zonen accepted no payment for acting as a consultant to Cassavetes, Glassman said. He acknowledged that the prosecutor had contemplated one day writing a book about the case but said that did not affect his ability to be fair in his job.

But however benign Zonen's motivation may have been, his decision to share ordinarily closed files with a producer was grounds for recusal, contended Armand Arabian, a former state Supreme Court justice who is representing Hollywood in the matter.

"Justice stands here insulted -- her blindfold askew, her scales unbalanced," he told the appeals court in an argument laced with Latin legal maxims.

Although Glassman maintained that Zonen's behind-the-scenes role in "Alpha Dog" had not diminished Hollywood's chances of a fair trial, Arabian argued that it had tainted potential witnesses and stacked the deck against his client.

Arabian also contended that the attorney general's office should take charge of the prosecution because Santa Barbara Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon may have condoned Zonen's relationship with the producer. However, Glassman said there is no evidence that was the case.

Craig Smith, a legal analyst and a former Santa Barbara prosecutor, agreed. After attending the hearing, he said he didn't think the panel was given arguments persuasive enough to convince them that Hollywood could not receive a fair trial with Santa Barbara County prosecutors.

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