Last week the Second District Court of Appeal made one thing clear to prosecutors: Don’t get your open case mixed up in the entertainment biz. Unless, of course, you want to get kicked off of it.
First the appeal court took Santa Barbara County Deputy DA Joyce Dudley off a rape prosecution, saying the crime novel she’d written and was promoting bore too much resemblance to her real-life case. Then, in another published opinion the same day, the court kicked Ronald Zonen, a prosecutor in the same county, off a capital murder case for cooperating too much with filmmakers.
Zonen didn’t stand to benefit financially, and said he hoped a film about the murder would generate publicity and drum up tips to locate Jesse James Hollywood, at the time the only fugitive of the five co-defendants charged in the execution-style murder of an alleged drug dealer’s relative.
The Second District did take Zonen’s explanation at face value, and contrasted his situation with Dudley’s, saying that, “Unlike the situation in Haraguchi, where the prosecutor was motivated by a desire for literary fame and fortune, here Zonen gets high marks for his zeal in attempting to bring petitioner to justice.”
Still, the court said Zonen took his zeal too far when he gave “virtually” the entire case file to filmmakers — including audio and videotapes, his trial notebook, un-redacted police reports, probation reports, psychiatric reports and maybe even rap sheets. “We are aware of no authority allowing a public prosecutor to give away, even temporarily, public property,” Justice Kenneth Yegan wrote, “especially when that property contains highly sensitive confidential information in a pending case.”
“I do not dispute or question the prosecutor’s integrity, ability or commitment,” Justice Arthur Gilbert added in a concurring opinion. But, “his actions allowed ‘show business’ to cast an unseemly shadow over this case. The prosecution of criminal cases and entertainment enterprises are best kept separate.”
Hollywood was arrested in Brazil last year, but it doesn’t appear the film helped bring him in. After he handed case materials over, Zonen was informed that the filmmakers would be changing names and locations in the movie due to liability and insurance concerns. So, rather than closing the film with Hollywood’s picture and a hotline number as Zonen had hoped, “Alpha Dog” called the fugitive “Johnny Truelove” and ended with an epilogue saying he had already been captured in Paraguay. The opinion quotes the screenwriter/director saying he could have made the movie without Zonen’s cooperation, but that to do so “either I would have had to go around him and do a lot more diligent work or I would have had to make it up.”
— Pam Smith