Jean Hollywood smiled from the witness stand on Monday and replied, “Yes, he is,” to defense co-counsel Alex Kessel’s question of whether the recently convicted first-degree murderer Jesse James Hollywood was her grandson. And so when the first day of the penalty phase of Jesse James Hollywood’s trial.
Now in its final days, proceedings have consisted largely of emotional testimony from both the defendant’s family and that of Nicholas Markowitz, the 15-year-old slain in Santa Barbara in August 2000. Based on these testimonies and evidence from the guilt phase of the trial, the jury of nine women and three men must decide between two options: sentencing Hollywood to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Ryan Hoyt, who shot Nicholas Markowitz nine times, is currently on death row. On Wednesday, the jury found Hollywood guilty of ordering Hoyt to commit that murder, even though he was not present at the crime. Outside the presence of the jury, the defense has made a motion for a mistrial due to alleged juror misconduct, but the motion has so far been denied.
On Monday, Jesse James Hollywood smiled as his mother, Laurie Haynes, who mouthed “I love you” to him from the witness stand. Despite last Wednesday’s guilty verdict, Hollywood’s grandmother, brother, mother, and two of his aunts proudly spoke of their love for the defendant and their belief that he is a compassionate, caring person. Haynes and J.P. Hollywood, a 21-year-old Santa Barbara City College student and the younger brother of the defendant, both said that they disagreed with the guilty verdict.
However, Judge Brian Hill instructed the jury not to base their sentencing decision simply on any sympathy they might feel for the defendant’s family. Luckily for Hollywood, the defense also brought in two witnesses who did not know him until he was arrested in 2005. Laura Hanan, a nurse at the Santa Barbara County Jail, testified that Hollywood was unique in comparison to other inmates that she has treated. Not only was he never hostile or aggressive, she said, but he would also strike up conversations with her about his love for his family, his love of animals, and his pride in his son in Brazil whom he has never even met. “He’d say to me, ‘Laura, you don’t look well. You okay?” Hanan said. “I saw a friend to me who was actively concerned about me.” And a Deputy Hamill, who was assigned to be on the security team for Hollywood’s trial, described the defendant as “very cordial.”
But the jury must also consider the pain inflicted on the Markowitz family, who testified on Monday for the prosecution. Lead prosecutor Josh Lynn told the jury in his opening arguments that, under the law, the death penalty is the worst form of punishment reserved for the worst kind of murder. Because Nicholas Markowitz was only 15 when he died and had never threatened or harmed Hollywood in anyway, Lynn argued that this murder warrants the harshest punishment. In their decision, the jurors also must also evaluate how the murder has impacted the victim’s family.
Ben Markowitz, the victim’s older half brother, appeared to be especially hurt, as his family cut off contact with him in the five years following the murder. He testified that none of his family members outright blamed him for the crime, but he nonetheless felt responsible, as he and Hollywood were involved in the marijuana trade together in the year 2000. Their friendship ended after Markowitz racked up a $1,200 drug debt, leading to a feud between the two men, with Markowitz smashing the windows in Hollywood’s home. Hollywood himself had admitted during the guilt phase of his trial that he and three others were searching for Ben Markowitz after the window-smashing incident, but instead, they came across Nicholas Markowitz walking on the side of the road. They then impulsively decided to throw him in a van and drive him from the Los Angeles area to Santa Barbara. The prosecution has argued that Hollywood, after learning from his attorney that the kidnapping could land him a life sentence in jail, then ordered Markowitz to be killed to avoid the punishment. Ironically, the jury last Wednesday found Hollywood guilty of simple kidnapping, which, unlike aggravated kidnapping, only warrants a 3- to 8-year sentence.
On the witness stand Monday, Ben Markowitz cried heavily over his responsibility in his brother’s death. “He trusted me, and looked up to me like my son does now. It’s just then I was such a piece of shit that I didn’t respect that,” he said.
Susan Markowitz, the victim’s mother, smiled politely throughout her testimony and apologized for having any answers that might seem strange. “I had to detach to survive,” she explained in a quiet voice. “I’ve separated myself. I don’t have the joys that I used to.”
The victim’s father Jeffrey Markowitz and older sister Leah also testified to the void that the murder has left in the family. Multiple jurors watched the Markowitz family cying and hugging each other in the audience.
The jurors themselves became the center of attention on Tuesday. Lead defense attorney James Blatt began Tuesday’s proceeding by reporting information he heard from the defendant’s father, Jack Hollywood. According to Blatt, Jack Hollywood was approached by an audience member who claimed to be married to one of the jurors. Blatt said that the juror had not been able to sleep since the guilty verdict because of something that happened in the juror deliberation room. Hill discussed the matter further outside the presence of the press, but later in the day, with the jury in the deliberation room, the attorneys and judge revealed some of the events that took place during the hearing. One of the jurors had apparently made a joke about Casey Sheehan, a witness who is an electrician, electrocuting Jesse James Hollywood. Another juror then told her husband that the joke made her uncomfortable. Judge Hill ruled that the joke, though crass, did not indicate that the juror was unfair in making her individual decision.
One of the bailiffs, Matt Banks, was then put on the stand so that the court could evaluate the conduct of another juror. Banks said that, after the jurors reached their first verdict, the foreman, out of “pure morbid curiosity,” asked to see the gun that Hoyt had used to shoot Markowitz. After making sure that it was safe, Banks unlocked the gun and allowed “nine or 10” jurors to hold it. During that time, the foreman made comments that disturbed the bailiff. “At some point, he talked about [having] a concealed weapons permit in Arizona,” Banks said. The foreman then asked Banks whether it would be legal to own that type of gun. “It all clicked that this was improper,” Banks said. Hill agreed to hold a separate hearing on the matter because Blatt, referencing the jury questionnaires, said he did not remember any of the jurors admitting to having a concealed weapons permit.
Despite the potential misconduct, Lynn told the jurors during his closing argument that he trusted them. “You have already shown the conviction of character that Mr. Hollywood lacks,” Lynn said. The jurors began deliberating over Hollywood’s sentence on Tuesday afternoon and they will continue on Wednesday at 9 a.m.
Amy Silverstein is an Independent intern.