Trial of Mr Hollywood is jeopardised by movie

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The Independent US

There is nothing unusual about Hollywood turning a sensational murder trial into a movie. Considerably more unusual, though, is a murder trial that turns to a Hollywood movie production to determine whether a defendant should be convicted or acquitted.

Just such a peculiar blend of fact and fiction is now at the heart of a high-profile case in Santa Barbara, the same jurisdiction responsible for trying and acquitting Michael Jackson on child molestation charges earlier this year.

The district attorney's office wants to go full speed ahead with the prosecution of a young man with the eccentric but entirely genuine name of Jesse James Hollywood, who is accused of orchestrating the abduction and murder of a teenager from the Los Angeles suburbs in a petty drug-dealing dispute that went horribly wrong. Mr Hollywood was a fugitive from justice for almost five years until he was tracked down and arrested at a Brazilian beach resort in April. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

There is, however, a problem. While Mr Hollywood was hiding in Brazil, the other Hollywood -- the movie-making industry - set about making a film about the case. The main consultant on the movie was a local lawyer who not only knew the prosecutor personally but gained access to most, if not all, of his personal files.

The lawyer, Michael Mehas, also conducted his own interviews with witnesses, building up a body of knowledge greater than that of anybody else connected with the case. The movie, called Alpha Dog and starring Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Justin Timberlake, was duly written and made - with names and locations changed but the essential story, about the ugly underbelly of an affluent white suburb, left intact.

As long as Mr Hollywood was missing, none of that mattered too much. In fact the prosecutor, Ron Zonen, hoped a big Hollywood production might help unearth his quarry. Now, however, the defence lawyers who have taken on Mr Hollywood's case are crying foul and arguing that Mr Zonen's behaviour represents, at the very least, a gross conflict of interest that warrants his removal from the case. They are continuing to argue the point in the California appeals courts.

It is a headache for Hollywood too: the film remains unreleased, and the distributors may be forced to leave it on the shelf until the legal proceedings have been exhausted, a process that could last anywhere from a few months to several years.

Now, though, comes the strangest part. Earlier this month, Mr Mehas told a court hearing that, in his witness interviews, he found numerous discrepancies with the prosecution's theory of the case. The defence immediately insisted he hand over his notes and tape recordings, something Mr Mehas did not want to do because he wants to use them for a book he is writing on the case. "That's my work product ... and I've no intention of turning over work product," he told the court.

Not unlike the journalists hounded by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for their notes and the names of their anonymous sources in the CIA leak case currently rocking the White House, Mr Mehas felt there was a constitutional principle at stake here - the right of writers and journalists to keep confidential information to themselves.

Legally, however, Mr Mehas found his room for manoeuvre almost non-existent. The court decided that a defendant's right to a fair trial trumped the commercial ambitions of an author, and Mr Mehas reluctantly handed over his materials on Monday.

It remains to be seen how exactly the new material impacts the case. Mr Hollywood's involvement in the drug gang that abducted and killed 15-year-old Nick Markowitz seems hard to disprove. But since he was not the one who did the killing - someone else is on California's death row for that crime - and was not apparently present at the scene, his lawyers may still have a lot of new information to work with.