'Alpha Dog' Murder Trial Begins; Prosecutor Called Jesse James Hollywood A Coward

(AP Photo/Eric Parsons)
Susan Markowitz (in red), mother of the victim, arrives at Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Barbara, Calif., with Leah Markowitz, Robyn Johnson and Barbara Markowitz on Friday, May 15, 2009, as opening statements began in the Jesse James Hollywood trial.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) Jesse James Hollywood ordered the murder of a 15-year-old boy after kidnapping him to force his half-brother to pay a $1,200 drug debt, a prosecutor said Friday during his opening trial statement in the case that was made into the 2007 movie "Alpha Dog."

Deputy District Attorney Joshua Lynn called Hollywood 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. His chestnut brown hair was combed back, and he often whispered in his lawyers' ears.

He appeared upset at one point while Lynn described the murder.

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.

During his opening statement, defense attorney James Blatt said Nicholas could have freely walked away from his captors numerous times.

In addition, Hollywood didn't direct anyone to kill Nicholas and wasn't present when the teen was shot and buried near Santa Barbara, Blatt said.

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

Opening statements concluded Friday, with testimony expected to begin Monday. The trial could last as long as six weeks.

(AP Photo, File)
Nick Markowitz, who was murdered in 2000, shown at age 15.

Holding a large photo of Nicholas, Lynn told the jury of nine women and three men the victim was a troubled teen trying to find his place in life while smoking marijuana and fighting with his parents.

Prosecutors contend 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 money he owed Hollywood for drugs.

For the next few days, authorities said Nicholas partied with his captors and felt he wasn't in any danger.

Lynn presented a timeline of events surrounding the crime and said he planned to call witnesses who will testify about Hollywood's role. He also said Hollywood provided the gun that killed Nicholas and the car used to drive him to the gravesite.

Hollywood, whose only job was selling marijuana, decided to get rid of Nicholas after learning from an attorney that he could face life in prison for kidnapping, prosecutors have said.

Lynn likened Hollywood to a football offensive coordinator who sits far from the field and calls the plays. Hollywood had dinner with his girlfriend at a steakhouse in the Los Angeles area while Nicholas was murdered and buried, the prosecutor said.

Blatt contended the killing was the work of Ryan Hoyt, who has been convicted of murder in the case and sentenced to death. Hoyt is one of four people convicted in the case.

Blatt also said it was ridiculous for the prosecution to contend Nicholas was kidnapped over a drug debt.

Instead, he told jurors there was a lingering feud between Hollywood and Ben Markowitz, who was jealous over the success of Hollywood and left messages threatening to kill him and his family.

Blatt said Hollywood is "no angel" but was unfairly demonized in "Alpha Dog" and by prosecutors who have painted him as a modern-day "Scarface," the gun-toting gangster glamorized in the film starring Al Pacino.

"Let's forget the labels," Blatt said. "Mr. Hollywood is not a mastermind."

Hollywood fled after the killing and was finally captured more than four years later on a beach in Brazil.

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.

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. However, Lynn was assigned to take it over.