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Jesse James Hollywood found guilty of murder

He could receive the death penalty for the slaying of teenager Nicholas Markowitz in 2000.

July 09, 2009|Steve Chawkins

SANTA BARBARA — After five years on the run and a movie based on his high-profile case, Jesse James Hollywood was convicted of first-degree murder Wednesday in the 2000 slaying of a West Hills teenager.

Hollywood, 29, could be sentenced to death. He also was convicted of kidnapping, a conviction that carries a maximum prison term of eight years.

His father, Jack Hollywood, was stunned after the verdict, which took the jury four days to reach.

"I can't believe they found him guilty of that murder," he told reporters, choking up. "I feel that it wasn't a just verdict."

Susan Markowitz, the mother of victim Nicholas Markowitz, declined to comment at length but said she was relieved, adding that she has a book deal and is "ready to carry Nick's story to the world."

The case inspired the 2006 movie "Alpha Dog," which depicted a dark side of middle-class suburbia, a world of frequently stoned young people who were willing to take orders from a criminal mastermind.

Hollywood was accused of snatching Markowitz, 15, off a San Fernando Valley street, taking him to Santa Barbara with some friends, and after three days, ordering his execution.

Prosecutors contended that Markowitz's death was meant to avenge a $1,200 drug debt owed to Hollywood by the boy's older half-brother Ben.

The jury did not buy the prosecution's assertion that the kidnapping was for ransom or extortion, choosing to convict on a lesser kidnapping charge.

Defense attorneys James Blatt and Alex Kessel cast Hollywood as a victim. On the witness stand, Hollywood, a former marijuana dealer, acknowledged participating in the kidnapping, saying it was an impulsive, "stupid" act aimed to retaliate against Ben Markowitz, a self-styled tough guy who had been harassing him for months.

But Hollywood told jurors that after Nicholas was forced into a van for a trip up the coast, the boy smoked pot and played video games with his captors and others. Hollywood returned to his West Hills home, where he replaced windows that had been smashed by Ben Markowitz. Nicholas Markowitz, Hollywood said, was free to leave Santa Barbara. That is, until friends of Hollywood eager for his approval dug a grave for the boy at a hiking spot outside of town, bound him with duct tape, hit him with a shovel and shot him nine times.

During the six-week trial, several witnesses testified that Nicholas appeared to be enjoying himself in Santa Barbara and could easily have slipped away. But prosecutor Joshua Lynn said that Hollywood, while only 5 foot 4, was a take-charge type who used fear to manipulate weaker people, including Nicholas. He portrayed the convicted triggerman, Ryan Hoyt, as an old Little League buddy of Hollywood's who became his lackey -- an insecure slacker who owed Hollywood money and, at his instruction, committed murder to clear the books.

For prosecutors, one big hurdle in securing a murder conviction was the absence of direct evidence that Hollywood issued an order. Hoyt, the shooter, is on death row and was not called to testify. His conviction is on appeal and, had he testified, he could have risked self-incrimination.

The jury found that Hollywood provided Hoyt with the murder weapon, a Tec-9 assault weapon. A "special circumstance" in the language of the law, that made Hollywood subject to the death penalty. In a separate hearing, the jury on Monday will hear evidence in the trial's penalty phase.

Prosecutors relied on testimony from Graham Pressley, who dug Nicholas' grave. Pressley said another figure in the plot, Jesse Rugge, told him that Hollywood had futilely offered him $2,000 to kill Nicholas. Defense attorneys called Pressley "a little weasel" who fabricated testimony to gain an early release from a juvenile facility where he spent five years for second-degree murder.

The defense also confronted formidable challenges. The day before the murder, Hollywood emptied his bank account of $25,000. He consulted an attorney, a family friend who told him that kidnapping could carry a life sentence. The gun -- which was buried with Nicholas' body -- had belonged to Hollywood, who had the trigger shaved so it could be converted into a fully automatic weapon.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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