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‘Alpha Dog’ murder suspect called 'coward'

Jesse James Hollywood
Jesse James Hollywood, who is accused of orchestrating a plot to kidnap and kill 15-year-old Nick Markowitz, is seen at a federal police precinct in Brazil in 2005.Brazilian federal police via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The murder case against Jesse James Hollywood was expected to resume Monday after opening arguments during which the prosecution called him a "ruthless coward" who ordered that a 15-year-old boy be killed over a drug debt.

Deputy District Attorney Joshua Lynn told the jury Friday that he will present evidence proving Hollywood, whose life was the focus of the 2007 movie "Alpha Dog," was the mastermind behind the crimes.

Hollywood killed Nicholas Markowitz "like he pulled the trigger himself," Lynn said. "The evidence will show Mr. Hollywood is a ruthless coward."

Hollywood, 29, sat between his two defense attorneys wearing a black suit and red tie.

Susan Markowitz, the mother of the victim, also was in the packed courtroom.

Hollywood has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and murder charges. If convicted, he could be sentenced to death.

Defense attorney James Blatt said in his opening statements Friday that his client didn't direct anyone to kill Nicholas and wasn't present when the teen was shot and buried near Santa Barbara.

"This case never involved a shred of evidence of extortion or ransom," he told jurors.

Jesse James Hollywood
FILE - In this 2000 file photo released by the Markowitz family, Nick Markowitz, who was murdered in 2000, is shown at age 15. Nine years after the killing, the trial of Jesse James Hollywood is set to begin Friday, May 15, 2009, in Santa Barbara, Calif., to determine if he ordered the kidnap-murder of Markowitz. If convicted, Hollywood could face the death penalty.MARKOWITZ FAMILY

Lynn told the jury that the victim was a troubled teen trying to find his place in life while smoking marijuana and fighting with his parents.

Prosecutors believe Nicholas was kidnapped by Hollywood and his cohorts in August 2000 just blocks from his home to put pressure on his half-brother Ben Markowitz to repay $1,200 he owed Hollywood for drugs.

Partied with captors?For the next few days, authorities said Nicholas partied with his captors and felt he wasn't in any danger. He was even left unattended by his kidnappers at one point but didn't try to leave or call anyone.

Prosecutors said Hollywood decided to get rid of Nicholas after learning from an attorney that he could face life in prison for kidnapping.

If convicted, Hollywood could face the death penalty.

The case has become a distant memory for many observers — lost among school shootings, salacious celebrity trials and other high-profile crimes across the country.

But back in the summer of 2000, Southern California and much of the nation were intrigued by the brazen daylight kidnapping of Nicholas and the discovery of his body in a shallow grave in the hills above tony Santa Barbara.

Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, said people were interested because the clean-cut players came from middle-class families and appeared to have been swept up in something unusually sinister.

"A case like this, unfortunately, people can relate to a little bit more," Sternheimer said.

Four co-defendants convicted earlier
The witness list includes Ben Markowitz and the victim's parents, Susan and Jeff Markowitz, who declined to comment about the upcoming trial. Four co-defendants who already have been convicted, Hollywood's ex-girlfriend and the attorney who advised him are also on the list of possible witnesses.

Blatt said before the trial that Hollywood is innocent. "There is no question Mr. Hollywood was not present at the time of the shooting, and we are going to prove he did not give any direct or indirect order to commit this murder," Blatt said.

For Hollywood, nearly a third of his life has either been spent in jail or on the run after the Markowitz slaying.

Though small in stature — he stands 5 feet, 5 inches — prosecutors said Hollywood once lived large supplying marijuana to dealers in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles.

Prosecutors claim he enlisted Ryan Hoyt, one of his dealers, to kill Nicholas and delivered a gun and car for Hoyt to use in exchange for erasing his drug debt.

"Hoyt understood that he had to take care of the problem, i.e, that he was to kill Nicholas," Lynn said in court documents. "Hoyt would have his $1,200 debt to Hollywood extinguished if he did so."

Prosecutors said Hoyt hit Nicholas over the head with a shovel and then shot him nine times before burying him. Hikers discovered the body several days later.

Hoyt was found guilty of kidnapping and murder and sentenced to death.

Vegas, Canada stops before Brazil
Hollywood fled soon after the killing, stopping in Las Vegas and Colorado before heading to Canada. He was finally captured by authorities on a beach in Brazil, using a different name, and brought back to the United States.

The case stalled for years after it was learned that Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen had turned over probation reports, police files and other documents to Nick Cassavetes, who directed "Alpha Dog" starring Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Justin Timberlake.

Zonen said in court documents that he gave the files to Cassavetes to help publicize the hunt for Hollywood.

Blatt, however, claimed Zonen acted unethically and the resulting movie demonized his client.

An appeals court removed Zonen, but the state's highest court and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that he and the district attorney's office could stay on the case.

Still, Zonen's bosses assigned another prosecutor to try Hollywood.

Blatt also unsuccessfully tried to block the release of "Alpha Dog," arguing that a jury pool could be tainted by the film, hurting Hollywood's chances of a fair trial.

During a break this week in jury selection, Blatt said he was encouraged because only about 25 percent of the prospective panelists had seen the movie.

"The defense team is confident we will receive a fair trial," he said.