California High Court Okays Prosecutor-Movie Director Deal

California's Supreme Court yesterday reversed a lower court's finding that a Santa Barbara County prosecutor should have been disqualified in the sensational Jesse James Hollywood (pictured, upper left) murder trial after forming a partnership with a movie director.

Veteran deputy district attorney Ronald Zonen confided in and loaned his official files to Nick Cassavetes in 2003 so that the filmmaker could write what eventually became Alpha Dog starring Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis. The film made $15.1 million at the box office and was featured on cable networks. But Zonen's goal was not monetary—he had no financial interest in the film. He cooperated only to help publicize the crime and apprehend Hollywood, who'd fled the country after the bizarre kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas “Nick” Markowitz.

Two years later, authorities captured Hollywood in Brazil and returned him to California for trial, where he claimed Zonen's arrangement with the movie maker had been illegal and that the prosecutor should recuse himself. A superior court judge didn't agree with Hollywood, but an appellate court panel did—fretting that they didn't want to “embolden other prosecutors to assist the media in the public vilification of a defendant in a case which is yet to be tried . . . . Prosecutors should try their cases in courtrooms, not in the newspapers, television or in the movies. To say that Zonen went too far is an understatement.”

Supreme Court justices agreed that Zonen's acts may have been “distasteful” but did not violate Hollywood's right to a fair trial. “The trial court concluded Zonen was only convening his honest assessments of a fugitive defendant to Cassavetes and others in the hope their subsequent portrayal would lead to the fugitive's capture,” the justices wrote in an 18-page opinion. “This was not an abuse of discretion.”

The ruling might have an impact Orange County prosecutors who have charged a group of people with the sensational 2004 murder of a retired couple at sea. Thomas and Jackie Hawks were bound, tied to an anchor and dropped into the Pacific Ocean somewhere off Southern California during an attempt to steal the expensive boat. Skylar Deleon, a former actor (pictured, lower left), awaits a trial that has garnered interest from local reporters, book authors, network news shows and Los Angeles filmmakers. In 2006, Deleon's wife, Jennifer, was found guilty on two counts of first degree murder for the crime after just four hours of jury deliberation.

— R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly

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