Loud, alert, and self-assured, witness Ben Markowitz fielded attacks on his character during the Jesse James Hollywood trial on Wednesday. In August 2000, the witness’ 15-year old half brother Nicholas Markowitz was allegedly kidnapped by a group of people who Ben dealt drugs with. The victim partied with his captors, giving witnesses the impression that he was free to leave. However, he was murdered three days later in the foothills of Santa Barbara. The prosecution alleges that Hollywood is the mastermind of the crime, even though he was not present for the actual murder. If found guilty, Hollywood faces the death penalty.
Ben Markowitz is a key witness for the prosecution, as he provides a motive for Hollywood to order the kidnapping and murder of Nicholas. In his direct examination Tuesday, Ben Markowitz had told prosecuting attorney Joshua Lynn that he became friends with Hollywood in 1999 after buying marijuana from him. Months later, Markowitz owed Hollywood $1,200 for ecstasy pills that didn’t work. After refusing to pay his debt, the friendship deteriorated. Months later, after leaving each other a series of angry voicemails, Markowitz spotted Hollywood waiting outside his home. Markowitz had never given the defendant his address, and he took his presence as a threat. He responded by purchasing a gun, moving out, and leaving Hollywood another voicemail, in which he claims to have said, “Yeah, you know where I live, but I know where you live too, motherfucker.”
This is the voicemail the defense has been referencing multiple times throughout the trial, using it to claim that Markowitz threatened the whole Hollywood family. Markowitz’s account of the voicemail is not nearly as threatening as the defense previously suggested, because, according to the witness, no specific members of the Hollywood family were mentioned. In his cross-examination on Wednesday, defense attorney James Blatt did not press Markowitz about the voicemail. Instead, he attacked Markowitz’s character. As a result, many of his questions were deemed irrelevant by Judge Brian Hill.
Markowitz, who said he blames himself for the murder, wore a suit to the trial and called himself different person, but was also completely shameless in revealing his criminal record to the jury, not shying away from correcting Blatt on his criminal history and gang trivia. Blatt began his cross-examination by asking the witness about a robbery he committed in December 2000. “Which time? There were two,” Markowitz responded. “If you read [the police report] clearly, there’s two instances.” At one of them, Markowitz, who said he blames himself for his stepbrother’s murder, and a friend robbed a man and a woman of their drugs at gun point. He then had the victims remove their clothes “to embarrass them,” Markowitz said.
Blatt also asked Markowitz about his gang lifestyle, and if he associated with a gang called the Peckerwoods. Markowitz said that he did associate with gangs, but that the Peckerwoods are not a gang. “Can I explain what a Peckerwood is, so you know what it is?” asked the witness.
“You don’t ask the questions,” said Judge Hill.
Blatt even attacked the witnesses’ fighting style, implying that he was a coward. “Breaking windows, isn’t that a little juvenile?” he asked. Blatt was referring to a time when Markowitz said he smashed the windows at Hollywood’s home, before his brother was kidnapped. “That’s your idea of toughness… You didn’t want to confront anybody there?” said Blatt.
“No, that’s not the answer. I didn’t want to go to jail,” Markowitz said.
At one point, Blatt asked Markowitz about his love life. “Did you treat your girlfriend as a gentleman?” The question was immediately deemed irrelevant by Judge Hill, but Blatt continued to press the issue after Markowitz responded, “Yes.”
“You sure about that?” said Blatt.
Blatt began to ask about an incident from earlier in the week, when the witness appeared at his office. Hill and Lynn immediate stepped in to stop the question. Blatt argued that he should be allowed to talk about it, because Markowitz’s presence constituted intimidation.
“No it doesn’t. There’s no intimidation. Mr. Blatt, that’s inappropriate,” said Hill.
Blatt’s only success with Markowitz had to do with memory. At this trial, Markowitz said that he never remembered seeing Hollywood’s Tec-9 gun at Ryan Hoyt’s house. Hoyt is currently on death row for shooting Nicholas Markowitz nine times with the weapon. But in a police report from August 14, 2000, Ben Markowitz had said that he did see the gun at Hoyt’s house. The witness said that he was not lying at the trial, but that his memory simply failed him. His memory may be affected by drug use. Markowitz admitted that, during that time, he was taking around 12 to 15 Valium pills per day. Nonetheless, Blatt tried to force the witness to pinpoint the exact month that his feud with Hollywood began. Blatt’s goal was to catch Markowitz lying about the date his father wrote a check to Hollywood. “The dates are very unclear to me, I can’t express that enough. The facts are true,” Markowitz said.
On Friday at 9 a.m., Lynn will continue his direct examination of Casey Sheehan. Hollywood had borrowed Sheehan’s car during the time of the kidnapping.
Amy Silverstein is an Independent intern.