Jesse James Hollywood is on trial in Santa Barbara for the murder of Nicholas Markowitz in 2000. Part One of our coverage was published here on May 27.
SANTA BARBARA-The last time I saw Nick Markowitz was at a West Hills house party in the summer of 2000. We were both about to be high school juniors. By that time most of us had gained credentials to be granted access to this sort of party-lost our virginities, gained our driver’s licenses. The parents of whomever were away, and bongs were dutifully on display to advertise the nature of the get together. In spite of the video games, shitty beer and backwards caps, it all felt very adult.
I was not speaking to Nick at the time. We had spent years together on stage reciting Shakespeare and stale Neil Simon plays to our indifferent junior high classmates. Nick was lanky, awkward, and emotional. I remember giving him several tight hugs during our friendship while he would sob because he was distraught. Nick was handsome and funny but he never fit in, though he was eager to.
As we got older, Nick became increasingly out of sorts with the dorky drama crowd. He became more shy, more conscious of the high school pecking order. His older step-brother Ben, a thug in the neighborhood, was letting Nick kick around with his group of friends more frequently. Ben’s friends were a cluster of older, small-time drug dealers. I imagine it was difficult for Nick to alternate between drinking with tattooed twenty-year-olds to staying after school so he could practice mime with a bunch of 13-year-old thespians.
So by the end of freshmen year, Nick had dropped out of drama. I felt betrayed that he chose a group of dope-slanging outsiders over us. I snubbed him when he greeted me with a huge smile at the party.
As the night drifted on, the crowd at this house party got older and surlier. I spotted Nick sitting across the table of from a pudgy kid who was called “Crack.” They were negotiating over something. The deliberations weren’t going in Nick’s favor. Crack punched Nick right in the face. Nick stood completely frozen. His eyes began to well up. He squinted at Crack, who looked ready to strike again. Nick surveyed the crowd and ran out of the house, in tears. Ben’s friends killed Nick two months later.
The adage goes: never get a tattoo where a judge can see it. Casey Sheehan, witness for the prosecution, has a large four-leafed clover tattooed on his neck, thick black plugs in both ears, and cropped thatch of hair below his lip. His testimony was subdued, terse and ultimately became problematic for prosecutors last Friday.
Sheehan let his friend Jesse James Hollywood-whose trial this is-stay at his house the week of Nick Markowitz’s murder. On the night before the murder, Hollywood told him that “the Markowitz situation” had been “taken care of.”
Sheehan, also a friend of gunman Ryan Hoyt, who is now awaiting the death penalty, recounted the shopping spree on which he accompanied Hoyt immediately following the murder. On that trip, Hoyt told Sheehan that the influx of cash had come from a debt he had settled with Hollywood. Later that day, Hoyt told Sheehan that he had killed and buried Markowitz.
Sheehan’s initial testimony served District Attorney Joshua Lynn’s main contention: that Hollywood commissioned Hoyt to carry out Nick’s execution style-murder. But this theory was derailed during cross examination.
“Are you being truthful?” asked defense attorney Alex Kessel.
“Yes I am,” Sheehan said.
“Are you telling God’s truth?” Kessel asked.
Nearly the entire court, including some jury members, groaned. Judge Brian Hill admonished Kessel, who rephrased and drew a surprising response. Kessel asked Sheehan to say whether he felt the “truth” was what he actually remembered-or what a team lawyers had advised him. (Sheehan has been granted immunity for his testimony.) Sheehan said it was the latter.
After a gridlock of objections from the prosecution, Kessel angrily asked, “Why can’t I cross examine him?”
“Because this witness is clearly adverse to the prosecution,” said Judge Hill, and suspended further testimony from Sheehan until the next week.
This followed a previous testimony fiasco.
Michelle Lasher’s testimony had forced Judge Hill to end her testimony early the week prior. Lasher, who was Hollywood’s girlfriend at time of the murder, refused to read from her original transcripts, wept, and in a panic accused deputy D.A. Hans Almgren of blackmailing her into lying under oath with threats of with criminal charges.
Blubbering, she said that she always loved Hollywood, was still in love with him.
Defense attorney James Blatt prompted Lasher to carry on about Hollywood’s “mature” and kind personality. She went into detail about Hollywood’s willingness to celebrate Jewish holidays with Lasher’s family, even though he was a Christian. Judge Hill eventually cut her off, after she announced that the prosecution was manipulating her to testify against him.
What is so marvelous and puzzling about a jury trial is that it holds two contradictory notions of human nature. The acceptance of witness testimony fundamentally rests on the principle that people will tell the truth when asked to. Testimony is submitted as fact. The idea that people are decent and willing to be objective in their recounting of memories and anecdotes for the sake of justice is awe-striking.
At the same time, there is chilling inconsistency to this lofty ideal that surfaces during cross-examination of any person’s testimony. And it is very obvious: witnesses are asked countless times if they’re being truthful. They are asked if their testimony is borne out of revenge, a desire for attention, some self-interest. The implication being that everyone is also a willful liar.
This is why the most potent testimony of the week came from an expert who had no stake in the game. David Barber is a senior criminologist and a firearm expert at the Department of Justice. Barber is a man in his fifties with a tidy white mustache and a jutting belly. His testimony centered on a single subject: the mechanics of the TEC-DC9 handgun, of Columbine shooting fame.
The TEC-DC9 featured in the photographs submitted to the jury was the weapon used to kill Nick. The gun was in the shallow grave with Nick’s body. It belonged to Hollywood but was fired by Hoyt. A TEC-DC9 is monstrous and formidable. It has a closed bolt design, meaning one pull of the trigger fires one bullet, and the weapon ejects the bullet cartridge and loads another. This particular weapon had been modified into a fully-automatic hand gun. The bolt had been “grinded down” so that it could fire multiple bullets at one time. This gun was capable of firing off 800 to 1,000 bullets a minute.
During the 1980s, the gun became extremely popular for non-hunting reasons because it was so easily to modify into a fully-automatic. The gun was banned in 1994 in the U.S., but similar variants were produced until 2001.
“Is it difficult to control?” Barber was asked on the stand.
“It’s like slamming a hammer against concrete,” Barber said.
And what was the rusty brown residue on the muzzle of the gun? That is “body decomposition fluids,” Barber said.
More than anything else, the description of the gun and its cruel mechanics gave the most direct sense of horror in the trial. The obvious and intentional brutality of the weapon undermines so much testimony. The gun, the fact that you can hold the damn thing in your hand, is more substantial and therefore more affecting than the subjective, agonized testimony of Nick’s father and brother. If you want any indication of what sort of person Jesse James Hollywood is, he’s the type of person who owns a TEC-9.
The prosecution rested; the defense begins on Monday.