Jesse James Hollywood’s ex-girlfriend created multiple problems for prosecution attorney Hans Almgren during Hollywood’s trial on Monday, most notably when she accused him of blackmailing her into lying on the witness stand. Hollywood, who is charged with masterminding the kidnapping and murder of Nick Markowitz over a drug debt owed by Markowitz’s half brother Ben, stared stone-faced and calm while witness Michelle Lasher, his girlfriend at the time of the murder, burst into tears and yelled at the prosecution throughout her emotional testimony.
Lasher said on Monday that she is still in love with the defendant, after almost a decade since she returned home alone from a trip and saw a detective sitting on her couch. “They said there had been a murder: [that] it was all [Hollywood’s] fault, and they were just going to shoot him when they saw him,” Lasher cried. She alleged that she never met Markowitz, and wasn’t even aware that Ben Markowitz, with whom Hollywood was apparently feuding, had a younger brother. After Nick Markowitz was shot in the foothills of Santa Barbara on August 9, 2000, Lasher traveled with Hollywood to Colorado, allegedly knowing he was in trouble but not knowing why. The trip would be the last time the couple spoke until five years later, when Hollywood was found in Brazil and finally arrested.
When being questioned by the Almgren, Lasher claimed not to remember conversations and events that happened just days ago, and she refused to read transcripts that might refresh her recollection. She referred to her previous interviews with Almgren as “interrogations” and ended the trial by raising her voice and saying, “I’m very afraid right now.” Judge Brian Hill ordered her to remain silent while no question was pending, but she interrupted him. “You are attacking me,” she said, causing Hill to end the trial early for the day.
She was much more cooperative with defense attorney James Blatt, whose line of questioning seemed intended to humanize Hollywood.
Blatt began his cross-examination with a question sure to draw an emotional response from an already angry Lasher: “Are you aware that your boyfriend or ex-boyfriend, the man that you love, is facing the death penalty?”
Lasher then placed both of her hands over her face and began sobbing. Still, she refused to take a break to calm down, instead continuing on to discuss Hollywood’s personality with Blatt. “He was just more mature than the other boys in high school,” she said. She claimed he was meticulously organized, that he rarely got into fights and that he celebrated Christian holidays with his own family and Jewish holidays with Lasher’s family. Though he dealt marijuana and owned a gun, Lasher alleged that he only had the weapon for protection because he lived in a bad neighborhood.
Blatt tried to press further about Hollywood’s family life and the ordeal that Lasher has suffered through, but the questions were deemed irrelevant by Hill. The more pressing concerns raised in Blatt’s questions had to do with Hollywood’s relationship with Ben Markowitz and Ryan Hoyt. Hoyt was sentenced to death for shooting Markowitz nine times. Hollywood was not present for the actual murder, and his authority over Hoyt is therefore vital to the prosecution. But, in her testimony, Lasher characterized Hoyt as someone that couldn’t be trusted to carry out a murder. “He was a liar, he would sleep on everyone’s couches, he was always messing everything up,” Lasher said about Hoyt. “If Jesse gave him a car, he would leave it on the side of the road.”
As for Ben Markowitz, Lasher explained that he did owe Hollywood $1,200, but that Hollywood didn’t care about the debt. Instead, Lasher alleged that Hollywood was afraid of Markowitz, because he had left the defendant threatening voicemails and had broken his windows. Even when Markowitz and Hollywood got along, Lasher was afraid of him. According to Lasher, Markowitz was so hated that he “was always running to Jesse saying someone was trying to kill him.”
Lasher also testified on Monday that she overheard Hoyt and Hollywood arguing at a party after the murder took place, but she could not hear what the argument was about. All she heard was Hollywood yell at Hoyt, asking if he was crazy. After the fight, Hollywood was allegedly so distraught that a blood vessel in his eye had popped. He told Lasher that he wasn’t taking her home, and she eventually decided to flee with him to Colorado, not knowing what she was running from. Lasher described Hollywood as panicked after his interaction with Hoyt.
At the end of Lasher’s cross-examination, she began accusing the prosecution team of manipulating her into testifying a certain way. She accused Almgren, a DA investigator and former Hollywood prosecutor Ron Zonen of “threatening to charge me with murder for someone I’ve never met: either perjure yourself or we’re going to charge you with murder,” Lasher said.
Unfortunately for Lasher, Almgren began his re-direct by establishing that she had never actually met Zonen. “I wasn’t directly threatened from Ron Zonen face to face:I was threatened through lawyers by Zonen,” Lasher said.
Almgren also said that his interviews with her were tape-recorded, and that he began his most recent interview with her by signing her immunity papers, which would prevent her from being charged for anything. “I was confused,” Lasher admitted. She then became worried that she would be found guilty for perjury and accused Almgren of attacking her.
The relationship between the prosecution and defense counsel has been equally hostile. After an objection against Blatt’s testimony was sustained, Blatt asked “Could the direct counsel not order the judge to tell me what to do, your honor?”
When it was Almgren’s turn to ask the questions, Blatt unintentionally drew laughs from the audience with his objection, “There’s no reason to point at the witness,” Blatt said.
“That’s not a legal objection,” responded Hill.
Lasher continued testifying Tuesday at 8:45 a.m.
Amy Silverstein is an Independent intern.