One week after jurors found Jesse James Hollywood guilty of first degree murder, they deliberated again, this time to decide between sentencing him with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. On Wednesday, after approximately three hours of deliberation spread over two days, the jury recommended the life imprisonment sentence. They sat calmly as the verdict was announced, and Judge Brian Hill, after thanking the jurors for the service, cleared the courthouse within a few minutes.
After the court clerk read the verdict before a quiet and relatively empty court room - family members and the press were present, but very few people from the general public attended - defense co-counsel Alex Kessel turned his head toward the jury and said, “Thank you.” Outside the courthouse, however, Kessel and lead defense attorney James Blatt shared their misgivings about the jury. They plan to make a motion for a mistrial on October 21, at the formal sentencing hearing.
“It is not over,” Blatt said. “We are confident that things will turn around.” But lead prosecutor Joshua Lynn celebrated the original guilty verdict. Lynn had been pushing for the death penalty, but he said he trusted the jury’s decision and was relieved that the trial was complete. “I hope it’s over. I think it’s over. It ought to be over,” Lynn said.
For the first time since the trial began, Hill lifted his gag order, finally allowing the families and attorneys to speak with the press. The defense lawyers took that opportunity to assert their client’s innocence. They blamed the jury, the court instructions, and the media for the guilty verdict. “Some of the jurors are deeply troubled about something that happened in this trial. We’re going to find out what that is,” Blatt told reporters. Blatt said that, during the guilt phase of the trial, one of the jurors had made a joke about Hollywood receiving the electric chair. After the jury convicted Hollywood of first degree murder, a juror’s husband approached the defendant’s father, Jack Hollywood. The attorneys discussed the incident on Tuesday, and Hill ruled that the joke did not indicate that the juror was prejudicial. In front of the press, however, Blatt and Kessel continued to argue for a new trial. “Her husband was so concerned that he approached Mr. Hollywood,” Blatt said, going on to explain that the juror may have been bullied into agreeing on a guilty verdict.
After the sentencing verdict was read on Wednesday, Hill invited the jurors to talk with the attorneys from either side, an invitation that all the jurors declined. Blatt and Kessel said they found the jury’s silence to be suspicious. Blatt also said he found the jury instructions to be potentially confusing, particularly an instruction that Hill had made about a felony-murder ruling.
Blatt and Kessel also blamed the media for the verdict, particularly Alpha Dog, a 2006 feature film based on this case.
“This is the first time in the history of our country, where a movie is made about a criminal act prior to the trial,” Blatt said. Ron Zonen, the original prosecutor who was eventually taken off the Hollywood case, consulted with the director of Alpha Dog, so the film was based solely on the prosecution’s theory, Kessel argued. “Sometimes the power of the media, the power of the movie, can be very subtle and great,” Blatt said.
Prosecutor Joshua Lynn was more reserved around the press, choosing instead to thank the Markowitz family, the jury, and his co-counsel Hans Almgren. He did not go into his trial strategy, or his risky decision to not call Hollywood associate Jesse Rugge to testify, something that the defense harped on in their closing arguments. Lynn said that the decision was a “tactical issue.” “I’m not going to elaborate on that any further,” he said.
The parents of the victim, Nicholas Markowitz, have had nine years to grieve since their son was shot by Ryan Hoyt in the foothills of Santa Barbara in August 2000. They appeared to be relaxed and grateful in front of the press, with the mother Susan Markowitz showing off a pin on her jacket that holds a picture of her late son. “There are an awful lot of families out there who haven’t had the success we had,” said Jeffery Markowitz, the victim’s father, with his arm around his wife. “Some of the media attention was a little biased we felt, at times,” he said, but he also thanked the media for their attention and support. “We’ve had some compassion from the Hollywood family,” he said. “They’ve probably all had something nice to say to us.”
“Not me,” retorted Susan, who said she has never had any communication with them. But her husband excused the Hollywoods, saying that it is more intimidating to talk to the mother of the victim than the father.
Hollywood was not present at the shooting in August 2000, that killed Markowitz, but he essentially admitted to kidnapping the boy and bringing him from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. The jury found him guilty of ordering another associate, Ryan Hoyt, to commit the murder. (Hoyt was convicted of the crime and is now on death row.) The Markowitz family nonetheless expressed some sympathy for the man convicted of masterminding their son’s kidnapping and murder. “As a mother, I would not be thrilled or relieved that [Jesse James Hollywood] received the death penalty,” Susan Markowitz said. Susan Markowitz said that she finally received some degree of closure in 2005, after Hollywood was captured after having eluded authorities in Brazil. During this time, Hollywood impregnated his girlfriend. The prosecution claimed he did this to avoid being extradited from the country.
Blatt said that Hollywood misses his family. “She has been unable to get a visa to come to this country,” Blatt said, referring to the mother of Hollywood’s child.
Hollywood’s parents avoided the crowd of reporters gathered in front of the courthouse. Jack Hollywood talked to a few reporters individually, but hid inside Blatt’s office when a larger crowd approached.
Amy Silverstein is an Independent intern.