Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Alpha Dog" and Prosecutorial License

If you were around back in November '06, you may remember the screening of the movie "Alpha Dog" at the Tate Center and the Q&A with Director Nick Cassavetes which I moderated for the crowd that evening.

One of the thing Mr. Cassavetes and I discussed was the legal dilemma surrounding the movie. An issue of contention was the role Santa Barbara Deputy DA Ronald Zonen, who provided Cassavetes with information regarding the crime portrayed in the script and movie, and the legal ethics behind that disclosure. Several of those issues were settled yesterday in California courts, according to this NYT piece this morning.

The case asserting a cinematic conflict of interest involved Jesse James Hollywood, who faces the death penalty for his role in the 2000 kidnapping and murder of a 15-year-old boy. While Mr. Hollywood was a fugitive in Brazil in 2003, Ronald Zonen, a deputy district attorney in Santa Barbara, gave information and documents about him to Nick Cassavetes, a director and screenwriter.

Mr. Zonen, who was not paid for his consulting work, said he had hoped the film would lead to Mr. Hollywood’s apprehension. Mr. Hollywood was captured in 2005, before the film appeared. His lawyers filed a motion to disqualify Mr. Zonen from the case, saying he had acted unethically and had hurt Mr. Hollywood’s chances of receiving a fair trial.

An appeals court agreed. “Prosecutors should try their cases in courtrooms,” Justice Kenneth R. Yegan of the California Court of Appeals wrote in 2006, “not in the newspapers, television or the movies.”

In Monday’s decision, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for a unanimous court, said Mr. Zonen’s actions were “highly inappropriate and disturbing” but did not amount to a conflict of interest likely to result in an unfair trial. The court left open the possibility of disciplinary sanctions.
Not that I do movie reviews, but the story did seem to suffer some inconsistencies due to its tag of being "inspired by true events" as opposed to being based on the facts of the case, which were unfolding at the time Cassavetes was writing and filming the script. It certainly put him in an unenviable position, to say the least.

I'm not sure the movie was as bad as the Times described it ("much the same entertainment value you get from watching monkeys fling scat at one another in a zoo,”) but the surrounding litigation seemed to affect what they could and couldn't say about the story, which may have made it a more cohesive piece.

In any event, the trial of Mr. Hollywood should be an interesting one to follow, but I'm guessing there won't be a sequel.

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