Impressions of a Juror
A Peek Inside the Hollywood Jury’s Deliberations
Friday, August 14, 2009
Jesse James Hollywood’s attorneys weren’t shy about sharing their misgivings about the jury that found Hollywood guilty of kidnapping and first degree murder, and now one of those jurors has spoken up, saying she thinks the group acted appropriately and professionally, doing their job as directed by Judge Brian Hill.
The juror, a middle-aged woman, agreed to speak to The Independent on the condition that she not be identified. For weeks the jury listened to arguments and witness testimony that led them to conclude that Hollywood ordered the murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in the mountains above Santa Barbara in August 2000. Markowitz’s older brother, Ben, owed Hollywood drug money; those two had been involved in an escalating feud for months before Hollywood and some friends randomly happened upon Nick Markowitz and kidnapped him. Hollywood’s friend Ryan Hoyt later killed the boy. After finding Hollywood guilty, the jury recommended that Hollywood serve life in prison without parole.
Ironically, this particular juror is an avid watcher of America’s Most Wanted, a television show dedicated to finding fugitive suspects. Hollywood had been featured on the show a dozen times while on the lam, and even testified on the stand that he saw his story on the show once. Just a few weeks after concluding her juror service, the woman sat down to watch the show as usual, and was surprised to see an update to Hollywood’s case. It was after watching the show that she began to feel at ease. AMW showed a video clip of a confession from Hoyt, in which Hoyt explained that Hollywood told him to kill the boy. The clip hadn’t been shown at trial, but after hearing some of the additional details of the case that had been left out, including Hoyt’s description of exactly what happened, she was confident in the conviction. “I feel really good about the decision we made.”
Earlier this summer, after weeks of witness testimony and hours of arguments from attorneys, the jury finally disappeared behind closed doors to decide Hollywood’s fate. They all sat down, looked at each other and said, “Where do we go from here?” the juror recounted. They picked a foreperson and began to look at the jury instructions given to them by Judge Brian Hill. But before they even began to discuss guilt or innocence, the jury sent questions to the judge, hoping to clarify the law. On the first day of deliberations, the jury of nine women and three men asked the judge for legal definitions of extortion and ransom. Days later, the jury asked whether or not a note must be sent or a phone call made in order for there to be ransom in a kidnapping.
The jurors took their first vote several days into deliberations, and the result was 8-4 in favor of first degree murder. While the others weren’t necessarily on the side of a not-guilty verdict, they weren’t sure Hollywood’s involvement added up to first degree murder, according to the juror who spoke to The Independent.
“Jesse James Hollywood was responsible from when Nick was put into the van to his death,” the juror said.
After the initial 8-4 vote, the group remained “really open-minded,” she said, with each one pleading his or her case to the others. Those who felt strongly that Hollywood was guilty took the time to show the others the evidence that led them to that conclusion. A second vote turned up 10-2 in favor of guilt. The process continued, and finally the jurors all sided together: “Jesse James Hollywood was responsible from when Nick was put into the van to his death,” the juror said.
There were loud moments throughout the discussion, but everyone remained seated and reasonably calm. There was no crying and little emotion in the jury room, though a few jurors were extremely nervous prior to the reading of the verdict in court. “I told them to keep their eyes on the judge,” she said. “You could feel people watching you and trying to read you.”
Ironically, it was telephone records, the juror said, that played a really important part in determining what happened. Defense attorney Alex Kessel harped on the phone records in his closing statements, saying the records didn’t reflect the events portrayed in the prosecution’s outline of what occurred. But the jury dug through the records and did see the connection to the prosecution’s narrative. “As we looked at the evidence we found more and more things,” she said. “It told us a lot about timing.”
Though the absence of Jesse Rugge (who is serving a life sentence for aggravated kidnapping) and Hoyt at trial were never explained to the jury, it didn’t raise questions for this juror in particular, and wasn’t discussed by the group as a whole. For her part, she felt that Hollywood probably had a chance to communicate with them since the murder and would’ve influenced their testimony.
Hoyt didn’t testify because he is appealing his death sentence. Rugge had been expected to be called by prosecutors, but wasn’t.
In the opinion of this juror, Hollywood’s testimony came across as formed around what had been heard in court up to the point when he took the stand.
Aside from some dirt-slinging, both sides put on good cases, the juror said, though both had some holes in them. Hollywood himself had a chance to plug a lot of the holes, but he didn’t. Instead, at least in the opinion of this juror, Hollywood’s testimony came across as formed around what had been heard in court up to the point when he took the stand. “He didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear,” she said. “He only said what he knew was right based on what he heard. He only gave us so much and that was it. He wasn’t going to elaborate on it.” She noted he often had a smirking look on his face, and was often eyeing his attorneys or his mother “like he was sending a signal.”
As for other witnesses, the juror thought witness Graham Pressley-who was also convicted of murder-“told a lot of truth,” and she used the testimony of Natasha Adams and Kelly Carpenter to back up Pressley’s testimony. On the other hand, Chas Saulsbury, another witness called by the prosecution and a former friend of Hollywood’s, who recounted Hollywood spilling the beans to him after the murder, was “not credible at all for me personally,” she explained. He was talking in circles and “a little off,” she said.
There was also a lot of truth behind the testimony of Ben Markowitz, according to the juror, despite his past, and the motivation he had to put his brother’s alleged killer behind bars. “He admitted who he was back then,” she said, referencing Markowitz’s time as a ruthless thug and drug dealer whose feud with Hollywood precipitated the events. “It was good for him to bring out the things he did after Nick’s death,” including time he spent behind bars for an armed robbery attempt.
Contrary to the claims of Hollywood attorney James Blatt, the juror was confident the judge’s repeated admonitions were followed.
After delivering their guilty verdict and hearing testimony from family members during the penalty phase, the 12 returned to the jury room to deliberate the sentence recommendation. Only one person favored the death penalty. The majority “just felt he had had enough. Both families, regardless of the decision, are going to lose,” she said. Eventually, all jurors agreed.
Contrary to the claims of Hollywood attorney James Blatt, the juror was confident the judge’s repeated admonitions were followed. She personally never got on the Internet; she had friends collect newspapers to keep her from reading it; and she stayed away from the television news. “I think we all did,” she said.
After the trial, Blatt said to reporters, “Some of the jurors are deeply troubled about something that happened in this trial. We’re going to find out what that is.” Though jurors were invited to speak with attorneys from either side, none did, a fact both Blatt and Kessel said was suspicious. Blatt explained that during the guilt phase of the trial, one of the jurors had made a joke about Hollywood receiving the electric chair. Hill ruled that the joke did not indicate the juror was prejudicial, however. Blatt said he planned to file a motion for a mistrial in time for Hollywood’s sentencing, scheduled for October 21.