Jesse James Hollywood ordered the murder of a 15-year-old boy after kidnapping him to force the teen's half-brother to pay a $1,200 drug debt, a prosecutor contended in an opening statement on Friday.
The case gained notoriety after it became the basis for the 2007 movie "Alpha Dog."
Deputy District Attorney Joshua Lynn told the jury he will present evidence proving Hollywood was the mastermind behind the crimes.
Hollywood killed Nicholas Markowitz "like he pulled the trigger himself," Lynn said. "The evidence will show Mr. Hollywood is a ruthless coward."
Hollywood, 29, sat between his two defense attorneys wearing a black suit and red tie. His chestnut brown hair was combed back, and he often whispered in his lawyers' ears.
Hollywood has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and murder charges. If convicted, he could be sentenced to death.
Susan Markowitz, the mother of the victim, also was in the packed courtroom.
The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.
During his opening statement, defense attorney James Blatt said Nicholas could have walked away from his captors numerous times but chose to stay.
In addition, Hollywood didn't direct anyone to kill Nicholas and wasn't present when the teen was shot and buried near Santa Barbara, Blatt said.
"This case never involved a shred of evidence of extortion or ransom," he told jurors.
Opening statements concluded Friday, with testimony expected to begin Monday. The trial could last as long as six weeks.
Prosecutors contend that Hollywood decided to get rid of Nicholas after learning from an attorney that he could face life in prison for kidnapping.
Lynn likened Hollywood's role to a football offensive coordinator who sits far from the field and calls the plays.
Hollywood ate dinner with his girlfriend at a steakhouse in the Los Angeles area while Nicholas was murdered and buried, Lynn said.
Four co-defendants have been convicted, including gunman Ryan Hoyt, who was sentenced to death.
Hollywood fled after the killing and was finally captured more than four years later on a beach in Brazil.
The case stalled for years after it was learned that Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen had turned over probation reports, police files and other documents to Nick Cassavetes, who directed "Alpha Dog," starring Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Justin Timberlake.
Zonen said in court documents that he gave the files to Cassavetes to help publicize the hunt for Hollywood.
An appeals court removed Zonen, but the state's highest court and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that he and the district attorney's office could stay on the case. However, Lynn was assigned to take it over.