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Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 00:06 UK

Mixing US justice and showbiz

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Defence lawyers in a California murder trial may appeal to the US Supreme Court after a district attorney helped the makers of a film based on the killing, starring Justin Timberlake.

When the body of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz was discovered in a shallow grave just outside Los Angeles in August 2000, it set in train a saga which is still unfolding.

Jesse James Hollywood
Hollywood's trial may be moved from the Santa Barbara area

The boy was the brother of a small-time drug dealer and it emerged he had been killed after a dispute over $2,000 (1,000) worth of marijuana.

Four young men from the prosperous San Fernando Valley were arrested and, with emotions running high in the area, were convicted. Three were jailed for life but 21-year-old Ryan Hoyt was sentenced to death.

It emerged during their trial that Nick had been held hostage for several days, before being bound with duct tape, struck over the head with a shovel and shot several times.

All four said they acted out of fear of the gang's leader, Jesse James Hollywood.

Fugitive from justice

He had vanished after reading in a newspaper about the body being found.

In 2003 Nick Cassavetes, the director of movies such as The Notebook and John Q, hired Michael Mehas to research material for a film based on the Markowitz case.

(L to r: Michael Mehas, Justin Timberlake and Nick Cassavetes)
The film was Justin Timberlake's first feature role

The movie, Alpha Dog, was released last year and starred Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and, in his first feature role, pop star Justin Timberlake, whose character was based on 20-year-old Jesse Rugge, who is serving a life sentence for his role in the boy's death.

While researching the film - and writing a book, Stolen Boy, which came out of his research - Mr Mehas contacted the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office and spoke to Ron Zonen, who was keen to track down Hollywood.

Mr Mehas said: "He wanted to use the film as a sort of global wanted poster to help find Hollywood and bring him back to face justice."

Mr Zonen handed over virtually all his case files to Mr Mehas.

But before the film came out Hollywood, who had been on the FBI's Most Wanted list, was captured in a surfing resort in Brazil in 2005 and extradited back to California.

The prosecutor should not be able to act as a consultant to a movie pending prosecution of a defendant who will inevitably not get a fair trial
James Blatt
Hollywood's attorney
His lawyer, James Blatt, soon discovered the cosy relationship between the prosecutors and the film-makers and kicked up a fuss about it.

Attempts were made to prevent the film's release until after Hollywood's trial. In the event the film came out last year to mixed reviews.

Mr Blatt then sought to throw Mr Zonen and his colleagues off the case, claiming their integrity had been compromised.

He said it was the first time a prosecutor had effectively acted as a "co-producer of a film" based on a case he was due to bring to trial.

Mr Blatt told the BBC News website: "Any time you have a major motion picture presenting the district attorney's viewpoint of the case it may have a damaging impact on the chances of someone receiving a fair trial."

'Highly disturbing'

Earlier in May, the California Supreme Court rejected his arguments to have Mr Zonen and his colleagues thrown off the case but he has 90 days to decide whether to appeal to the US Supreme Court.

But Mr Zonen, who has now in fact been replaced on the case, was criticised by the California Supreme Court judges, who said: "We find his actions in turning over his case files... highly inappropriate and disturbing". However, they accepted his motives were honourable - to find Hollywood.

The parents of Nick Markowitz
The parents of Nick Markowitz just want closure

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Franklin said: "The complaint was that he turned his file over to Mr Mehas and that is probably bad form but it was not anything they could not have obtained from the court records. His motivation was that he hoped the film would end with a picture of Hollywood, saying he was a wanted individual."

Despite the success of Alpha Dog and his own book, Mr Mehas said: "Prosecutors should not be involved with the mass media. Justice is about being judged by a jury of your peers and the mass media tilts and slants things.

"I hope no other prosecutor makes a movie or a book and then tries to kill the guy."

But Mr Franklin said there was no rule forbidding prosecutors from contacting the media before or even during a trial.

"The only thing that is not allowed is releasing something to the media which is not factually accurate or may be prejudicial to the defendant. That is a no no," he said.

Mr Mehas said he believed the murder of Nick Markowitz was not as black and white as it had been portrayed.

He said his book made it clear Hollywood, then aged 21, and his gang were young, intoxicated men who were driven by their own fear.

He said: "Hollywood fell out with Markowitz's brother, Ben, and there had been a number of threats made to him. Hollywood's dog was killed and he was frightened."

Panicked

Mr Mehas said that clearly did not excuse the kidnap or murder of Nicholas but he said he felt the gang panicked.

He said the case was a wake-up call to many middle-class parents in prosperous parts of America.

"The parents had slept through it all. They were too preoccupied with their own issues to know what their kids were getting up to," he said.

Hollywood's trial may not take place until next year as his lawyers are seeking to change the venue to reduce the chances of prejudice against him.

If convicted he faces the death penalty.

The parents of the dead boy, Jeff and Susan Markowitz, simply want closure.

The prosecutors hope they may get that soon. Mr Franklin said: "There is a good chance that the trial might be this year... and we will be seeking the death penalty."

Chris.Summers-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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