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Conflicted

Dec 29, 2007
I had no idea that my work on a motion picture would cause a high-profile death penalty case to end up with the California Supreme Court. Jesse James Hollywood had been gone for nearly three years by the time I became involved. He had totally disappeared. Vanished into thin air. And he seemed so completely removed from the writing project I was about to begin.

The FBI and other federal and local law enforcement authorities trails had all but dried up. That's why the prosecutor assigned to the case, Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen, who had also prosecuted Hollywood's four co-defendants -- and a guy named Michael Jackson -- agreed to work with us. Mr. Zonen had wanted to create a sort of global wanted poster to see if someone somewhere in the world might be able to ID Hollywood, pick up the phone, and help global law enforcement authorities nab him. Zonen had already worked with the producers from the television show America's Most Wanted, who featured the fugitive on nine of its shows between 2000 and 2003, and he wanted his man, badly.

Hollywood's name had become daily fodder for national headlines after word of the murder originally hit in early August of 2000. All the news pundits had named him as the ringleader of a band of middleclass, pot-selling social misfits, and the one responsible for orchestrating the fifteen-year-old's kidnapping and murder. But no one apparently had a clue as to where he had disappeared to when I took the call from an old buddy who wanted to make a motion picture about the youngest man ever on the FBI's Most Wanted List.

In April of 2003, writer/director Nick Cassavetes and I trekked up north to meet with Mr. Zonen at the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office. Ronald J. Zonen had been Chief Trial Deputy for the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office since 1991. He was an affable man with a smooth demeanor and when we were finished, he gave us several volumes of trial transcripts from Hollywood's co-defendants, and we left. At the time, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey McGuire were set to produce Alpha Dog, and I had no idea that I'd end up writing a highly controversial novel based on the tragic story, or that I'd end up being a crusader in the battle to save Mr. Hollywood's life. I was also not prescient enough to envision DiCaprio or McGuire falling off the project, nor Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Anton Yelchin, Emile Hirsch, or Ben Foster climbing on.

After reading through the transcripts that Mr. Zonen had provided, plus others from Hollywood's co-defendants' trials and appeals, I realized we did not have enough information to write a truthful story about what had actually taken place. I talked this over with Cassavetes, and we agreed that I should go back to Santa Barbara to get more information from Mr. Zonen. We needed more detail and deeper insight into character and motivation for story purposes. We needed police reports, photographs, witness interviews and much more. And amazingly, we got them. I got Mr. Zonen's entire file from prosecuting Hollywood's four co-defendants, including copies of all the videos and audiotapes, the defendants' confessions, the prosecutor's trial notebook, the defendants' psychological records and probation reports, and more. I also arranged to have Mr. Zonen -- along with the lead detective working the case -- take us up to Lizard's Mouth, a trailhead located atop the mountains separating Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley, to discuss the murder with us at the very spot where the victim's body had been discovered in a shallow grave some three years earlier.

This combined with all the information accrued from the interviews Cassavetes and I had conducted enabled me to prepare a 239-page story chronology that I used to help Nick write his screenplay. He went on to direct Alpha Dog and I set out to write my book. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, in March of 2005, after one of the greatest international manhunts in history, Jesse James Hollywood was captured in a Brazilian jungle, and I was about to be thrust into the legal hot seat.

James Blatt is one of America's most astute criminal defense attorneys. He dresses like a zillion bucks and wears the disarming smile of a ruthless professional. After Jesse Hollywood's capture, his father, Jack, who was a consultant on Alpha Dog, told Mr. Blatt about all the information I had gathered for the film and book projects; how I had become the world's leading authority on the case. He thought I might be able to aid Mr. Blatt in trying to save his son's life. When we met, Blatt questioned me about all the information I had gathered. By the time the meeting ended, the defense attorney appeared quite impressed with what he had heard. Later that summer, he asked me to testify in his client's death penalty case. He wanted to build a record of all informational exchanges between Mr. Zonen and myself. He wanted to recuse the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office for prosecutorial misconduct for having turned over their file to me.

The only problem with this strategy was that my testimony was needed to do it. Since I was the only one to repeatedly meet with Mr. Zonen, I was the only one who could testify as to what he had given me. I found myself caught in a "Sophie's Choice" type situation. If I testified, I could help save Jesse James Hollywood from death row. But at the same time, my testimony could be used as the cornerstone for criminal prosecution against Mr. Zonen and his office for what Mr. Blatt termed "illegal misconduct." Since I'm totally against bringing death to any living being, I wanted to help Mr. Blatt save his client's life. But on the other hand, Mr. Zonen had been very good to me. He had been totally cooperative in providing us with material for the movie and book. As conflicted as I felt, as much as I wanted to help save Jack Hollywood's son's life, I could not be responsible for bringing criminal charges against a man I considered a good friend. So I refused to testify. Ultimately, the California Attorney General agreed not to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Zonen or the DA's office, and I reversed my position and agreed to testify.

In September 2005, Hollywood's attorney filed a motion to recuse the entire District Attorney's office. In support of the motion, Mr. Blatt declared that he had attended "the first and only public screening to date" of Alpha Dog, and that the film portrayed his client "in an extremely inflammatory manner, as extremely manipulative, vicious, selfish, and without any redeeming character traits whatsoever." He further stated that several of the public movie viewers had described his client as being nothing short of a "monster," and that at the conclusion of the film, special thanks were given to the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department and to Ron Zonen.

The trial court denied Hollywood's motion, but ended up ordering me to turn over the notes and tapes from all the interviews I conducted. The defense then appealed the case. In its wisdom, the California Court of Appeal agreed with the defense and, after an evidentiary hearing by the trial court, recused Zonen (but not his entire office) from the case. In his concurring opinion, Justice Gilbert succinctly noted: "However appalling the crime for which defendant was charged, he, like anyone charged with a criminal offense, is entitled to a fair trial with all its attendant constitutional and statutory safeguards." In this case, the prosecution had fallen short of this requirement.

Every high-profile case carries with it the risk of the prosecutor falling into the trap of cozying up too much with the media. Prosecutors, as well as other law enforcement agencies, often find themselves playing up to the media as if there are two trials to win -- the one in the courtroom as well as the one with the court of public opinion. When handling high-profile cases, prosecutors must take to heart the conflict of interest they create when buddying up to the media. They can easily become lost in the quest for personal glory or profit. This appeared to be what happened with the case involving the Duke lacrosse team, where the DA's pretrial contacts with the media raised questions about his ability to handle the matter fairly, resulting in his recusal. There were similar complaints regarding the prosecution of the Jenna 6 case out of Louisiana.

Prosecutors do not represent clients. Rather, all decisions made in their cases are supposed to center around the best interests of the public. And part of these considerations must be to act responsibly when interacting with the media. There are certain guidelines they must follow to make sure their statements (and actions) do not materially prejudice a legal proceeding. According to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, prosecutors must make sure their comments do not have a "substantial likelihood of heightened public condemnation of the accused." They must also be sure to prevent "investigators, law enforcement personnel" and other employees or persons assisting from making such statements to the media.

Prosecutors do, in the alternative, have certain First Amendment rights. However, again, those rights do not go unlimited when dealing with the media in a high-profile case. The prosecutor must still be responsible for pursuing a just result. He or she must act in a manner that puts the public's interest above that of the individual prosecutor. Thus, their goal must be to make sure that justice is done in all instances, not that they win the case.

In the Hollywood matter, I was afraid that the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office had lost sight of their responsibilities. They had continuously misrepresented the true facts and the motivations involved in the case to the media, and they seemed totally bent upon demonizing Hollywood and his co-defendants. For all intents and purposes, Hollywood, during his nearly five years of being at large, had been convicted in absentia. I believed there to be no way for him to receive a fair trial. Public sentiment wanted him dead for what they believed he had done. And this was due to the way the prosecutor and associated law enforcement agencies had dealt with the media. They acted as though their only goals were to assure that Jesse James Hollywood was not only captured, but that the public was set up to convict him and sentence him to death. True justice did not seem to be a part of their plan. I felt it my moral responsibility as a fellow human being to do what I could to make sure this did not happen.
About the Author
Michael Mehas is a writer, attorney and associate producer of the 2007 film Alpha Dog. His extensive research for the film became the book Stolen Boy, a fictionalized account of the youngest person on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Visit Stolen Boy
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