California's highest court ruled that a prosecutor who helped in the making of "Alpha Dog" may remain on the death penalty case on which the film is based.
In a similar ruling Monday, the court also reinstated a prosecutor who was taken off a rape case after she published a crime novel about a similar case.
In the "Alpha Dog" case, an appeals court had removed Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen after he turned over probation reports, police files and other sensitive materials to director Nick Cassavetes. "Alpha Dog," a fictionalized account of the killing of a Southern California teen starring Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Justin Timberlake, was released last year.
Prosecutors accuse Jesse James Hollywood of masterminding a plot to kidnap and murder 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in 2000 because the teenager's older half brother owed Hollywood a $1,200 drug debt. Four people have already been convicted in the case, including triggerman Ryan Hoyt, who was sentenced to death.
Zonen said in court documents he aided Cassavetes with "Alpha Dog" to help publicize the hunt for Hollywood, who was captured in 2005 in Brazil after spending nearly five years on the lam.
Hollywood's lawyer, James Blatt, claimed Zonen _ who was not paid by the filmmakers _ acted unethically in giving confidential documents to Cassavetes and that "Alpha Dog" unfairly demonized his client in the eyes of potential jurors.
The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that a trial judge in Santa Barbara correctly concluded that Zonen's behavior didn't warrant removal.
"This is not to say that Zonen can or should escape censure," Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote. "We find his acknowledged actions in turning over his case files without so much as an attempt to screen them for confidential information highly inappropriate and disturbing."
Still, Werdegar said kicking Zonen off the case was too harsh of a punishment because he appeared to be motivated solely by a desire to capture Hollywood.
"While Hollywood disputes that conclusion, it is supported by substantial evidence," Werdegar wrote.
Blatt said he was disappointed in the ruling and was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This sends a negative message. I don't think he can be fair," he said.
Blatt said no trial date was scheduled pending the outcome of the appeal. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Hollywood, who is charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping.
Zonen couldn't be reached for comment Monday, and District Attorney Christie Stanley didn't immediately return a phone call.
Also Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Joyce Dudley may continue to prosecute a rape suspect after writing a novel that included some features of the case. Dudley published "Intoxicating Agent" in January 2006, four months before the rape trial of Massey Harushi Haraguchi was to begin.
Haraguchi's lawyers argued that Dudley told them she wouldn't discuss any plea bargains, alleging that the prosecutor wanted to promote the book in conjunction with the trial.
The court rejected that notion, ruling there was little connection between the fictional account in the novel and the facts of the rape case.
"Because there was no meaningful factual connection between the two, publication of the book created little incentive for Dudley to handle the Haraguchi prosecution any differently than she otherwise would have," Werdegar wrote.
Werdegar noted in both rulings that potential jurors who may be swayed by the movie or book could be weeded out by defense lawyers before their trials begin.