An appeals court on Thursday ordered a deputy district attorney removed from a high-profile death penalty case because the prosecutor had shared confidential files with movie producers.
Defense attorneys had asked for the entire Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office to be removed from the case against Jesse James Hollywood.
Hollywood is accused of masterminding a plot to kidnap and kill 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in August 2000 because the teenager’s older half-brother owed Hollywood a $1,200 drug debt.
But the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura said that only Ron Zonen, Santa Barbara County senior deputy district attorney, overstepped his authority when he served as a consultant for the film “Alpha Dog,” shown at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and based on the Markowitz killing.
Zonen’s “actions allowed ‘show business’ to cast an unseemly shadow over this case,” wrote Presiding Judge Arthur Gilbert. “The prosecution of criminal cases and entertainment enterprises are best kept separate.”
Phone messages left after hours Thursday for the district attorney’s office and Zonen were not immediately returned.
Zonen said in court documents that he decided to turn over probation reports, police files and other materials to director Nick Cassavetes because he thought the movie would be the last chance to catch Hollywood.
“We’re very gratified by the court’s decision to recuse Mr. Zonen,” said Hollywood’s attorney James Blatt. “The court made it crystal clear that actions like these by a prosecutor will not be tolerated and, if done, will be removed from the case.”
Blatt said he plans to ask a federal court later this month to block the release of the film, which stars Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Justin Timberlake, before Hollywood stands trial.
Markowitz’s body was found in a remote Santa Barbara County camping area in 2000, and Hollywood fled after being charged with the murder. He was captured in Brazil last year and brought to Santa Barbara, where he has pleaded not guilty to charges that carry the death penalty.
Four people have already been convicted in connection with the murder.