In the summer of 2000, fifteen year old Nicolas Markowitz was found buried in a shallow
grave in the mountains above Santa Barbara. Jesse James Hollywood was charged along
with four other young men. The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office claimed that
Mr. Hollywood’s motive was to collect on Nicholas Markowitz’ brother’s overdue drug
debt. He and four other young men were charged with kidnapping and murder. The
shooter was convicted of murder and remains on death row. Another was convicted of
second degree murder as a juvenile, and is now free. A third is in prison having been
convicted of kidnapping and is serving a life sentence. He has not made parole. The
fourth defendant charged was convicted of simple kidnapping and received a nine year
sentence. He has subsequently been released. Shortly after the incident, Mr. Hollywood
fled to Brazil and was the youngest man on the FBI’s most wanted list until his capture in
James Blatt was retained immediately after Mr. Hollywood’s capture. Soon the Defense
discovered that Mr. Ron Zonen, the Santa Barbara Deputy District Attorney assigned to
the case, had relinquished his entire criminal file, not limited, but including, all police
reports, photos, psychological and autopsy reports, all crime scene photos, including
pictures of the body at the shallow grave, and autopsy photos. In short, everything the
District Attorney had was given to a motion picture company unsupervised in order to
develop and produce a commercial motion picture about this incident. Mr. Zonen
assisted in finding witnesses and developing the screenplay. The movie was in essence
the prosecution’s version of what had transpired.
Within a short period of time, director and writer, Mr. Nick Cassavettes, was able to
produce and distribute the movie Alpha Dog depicting the events of this crime. The
movie was heavily attended in the Santa Barbara County area, and was distributed
nationally prior to Mr. Hollywood’s trial. This was the first time in our nation’s history,
where a prosecutor assisted a motion picture company in creating a film about their case
prior to trial. Numerous challenges argued to the State and Federal Courts, both to stop
the movie from being distributed and efforts to remove the Santa Barbara District
Attorney’s office from the case, were made. However, the Defense did not prevail. The
California Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Hollywood. Eventually, before trial, Mr.
Zonen was removed from the case by his own office, and another prosecutor took his
Certain parts of the trial received tremendous publicity. The trial commenced in April,
2009 and lasted approximately two months. The prosecution was requesting the death
penalty and had obtained that penalty on one of the co-defendants. Mr. Hollywood was
convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances; however, the jury rejected
the death penalty and he received life without the possibility of parole.
This case has many significant issues, which will undoubtedly be tested in State and
Federal Courts in the immediate future.
United States Supreme Court
A New Standard for the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth
Amendment and Forfeiture
In 1994, Joe Bajakajian and his wife boarded a plane headed for Syria to settle a
legitimate debt for a failed business venture. Over the several months before they left,
Mr. Bajakajian borrowed money from family and friends and also put together savings he
earned from a gas station he owned. Mistakenly, and as a result of his fear what would
happen in Syria, he hid $357,144 in United States currency in his luggage. Mr.
Bajakajian had no idea that U.S. Customs was using, for the first time ever, a moneysniffing
dog to search the luggage on the flight. The dog found the money and when
United States Customs Agents confronted Mr. Bajakajian he lied, denying he had the
money. Mr. Bajakajian was arrested and charged in the Central District of California
with failing to declare he was traveling outside the United States with $10,000 or more, a
federal felony offense.
Mr. Bajakajian pled guilty and accepted responsibility for his lie; the Court placed him on
probation but refused to send him to jail. The Court understood that Mr. Bajakajian hid
the money because he feared when he arrived in Syria it would be stolen from him. The
Court also believed that Mr. Bajakajian could not simply wire that much money to Syria,
since the banking system there was too unsophisticated. The judge ruled Mr.
Bajakajian’s money was lawfully obtained and intended for a lawful purpose. The Court
ordered the United States Attorney’s Office to return the money. However, the
government refused, and appealed the Court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, ordered the government return
Mr. Bajakajian’s money, and went so far as to declare the forfeiture statute
unconstitutional. Again, the government refused to give Mr. Bajakajian back his money.
Instead, the United States Department of Justice asked the United States Supreme Court
to hear the case.
Three years later, the United States Supreme Court after hearing argument from Mr.
Blatt, ruled that not only Mr. Bajakajian’s money be returned to him, but that the Court
make a finding to protect others from what the government had done to him. For the first
time in United States legal history the Supreme Court established a standard under the
Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
After Mr. Bajakajian’s case, the United States had a new rule for the return of money and
property seized by the government. Now, a fine or forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines
Clause if it is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to
Mr. Bajakajian obtained his money back, along with interest for the years the government
wrongly kept it.
For the First Time, a Person’s Culture can be Considered by a Jury
For years, Moosa Hanoukai’s wife and he lived in a tortured relationship. She ridiculed
him at home and in public, in front of family and friends, on a continuing basis. Mr.
Hanoukai was not allowed to have his own money, and he had to beg his wife for funds
to obtain a pack of cigarettes. His bed was taken away, and he had to sleep on the floor.
In his Persian Jewish culture, there was no greater insult for a man than the treatment Mr.
Hanoukai received from his wife. Despite the shame, it was absolutely no excuse for
what he did next.
One afternoon, after an argument, he beat Mrs. Hanoukai to death, hid her body in their
garage, and left town in a cab for Las Vegas. Mr. Hanoukai called Mr. Blatt, who
convinced him to return to Los Angeles and surrender himself to police. He agreed and
he remained in jail with a one million dollar bail. The shame Moosa felt was no longer
just a motive, it would become a legal defense to the murder charge.
Mr. Hanoukai testified at trial. He admitted killing his wife and told the jury how deeply
sorry he was. He explained how his wife treated him. He described how this treatment
made him feel. The Defense called a sociologist expert to testify about the patriarchal
Iranian-Jewish culture to educate the jury. The jury needed to understand how Mr.
Hanoukai would feel about the abuse he suffered from his wife. The “cultural defense”
to a murder charge was born.
During trial, Mr. Blatt convinced the Judge to modify the “heat of passion” law and allow
special jury instructions to be read to the jury. Based on the new “cultural defense”
theory, the jury found that Mrs. Hanoukai’s actions were “adequate legal provocation”
for the killing. The jury reduced the crime from murder to manslaughter. The novel
cultural defense was covered in a story by Time Magazine and in now accepted in many
jurisdictions throughout the United States.
Vigilante Case – Defense of a Neighborhood
Joe Grant was fed up with the constant drug dealing in his Pacoima neighborhood. He
complained constantly to the City and to the police, and yet no one did anything. Finally
Mr. Grant decided to arm himself and confront one of the dealers who had been dealing
across from his house. When the dealer refused to leave, Mr. Grant fired a shot above the
drug dealer’s shoulder and struck her in the back.
Mr. Grant testified at trial that he did not want to hurt or kill anyone, he simply wanted to
protect his neighborhood. The Defense argued that he was not guilty of any crime, and
after closing argument, the jury found him not guilty. Although Mr. Grant had been
labeled a vigilante by the media, the Defense was able to persuade the Court to allow a
jury instruction that Mr. Grant was entitled to use reasonable force in order to protect his
In 1980, Ms. Etta Smith heard a radio news story about a Sylmar nurse who had
disappeared after leaving work. Ms. Smith related that she had a vision of a woman’s
body lying in a canyon in Los Angeles. Initially she went to the police convinced that
they would follow up on her psychic vision. However, they immediately dismissed her
representation as not credible.
After this, she went with her eight year old daughter, to Lopez Canyon and found the
nurse’s naked battered body. She immediately reported her discovery to a park ranger
and went home. The next day Ms. Smith was requested to come to the police station,
where she was questioned for approximately ten hours. After the questioning she was
arrested for the murder and rape of the nurse, and was detained for four days. Ms. Smith
was never charged with any crime and was freed only when the three men responsible
were arrested. Ms. Smith had no connection to these men. During her wrongful arrest
trial, Mr. Blatt first convinced the Court to find the police did not have probable cause to
arrest Ms. Smith simply because she had a vision. The Defense next focused on
convincing the jury that the arrest was unlawful and that she deserved compensation.
The jury agreed and awarded Ms. Smith the equivalent of a year’s salary for her pain and
Etta Smith’s story has been the subject of television and radio shows in the United States
and world-wide. The shows continue to air.
Iraqi Spy Case
After the second United States invasion of Iraq, the United States government found
mountains of documents. Among information the government found were files listing
what Iraqi Baath Intelligence Agents claimed to be identities of Iraqi spies working in the
United States. One of the names was William Benjamin, a United States citizen and an
Assyrian Christian. Based on one file which the government paid $2,500 for, the United
States charged Mr. Benjamin with acting as a foreign agent, a spy. According to Iraqi
documents, Mr. Benjamin gave and received bribes involving government officials.
However, the files never indicated he gave anything in return, no information or
intelligence whatsoever. In reality, Mr. Benjamin left Iraq in 1991 after the gulf war and,
like so many others, left his home, property, money, and business behind. He simply
wanted to provide a safer and better life for his children in the United States.
Using an anonymous and highly paid ex-Iraqi intelligence agent, turned United States
government informant, the Department of justice had obtained numerous convictions
against others like Mr. Benjamin. However, after an intense and volatile cross-examination,
the jury was convinced the “intelligence” agent could not be believed.
They found Mr. Benjamin was not a spy, and acquitted him. Mr. Blatt presented a
detailed defense and explained to the jury the massive level of corruption at all levels of
the Iraq government and in the Iraqi Intelligence field in particular. He also used a
cultural defense to describe the difficult life of a minority Christian in Iraq.
Mr. Benjamin and his family now live safely in the United States.
Timothy Collister- Reckless Endangerment Murder
Mr. Timothy Collister was a Vietnam War veteran who earned the rank of sergeant major
in the United States Army while serving several tours in Southeast Asia. After his
retirement from the Army he continued to work for the Military performing EOD duties.
His “team” was to make sure unexploded ordinance was identified and removed from the
scrap metal companies. An employee of the purchaser of the scrap metal took a torch to
the live ordinance, which exploded and caused his demise.
The Department of Defense conducted an extensive government investigation and
recommended that the San Bernardino District Attorney’s office charge Mr. Collister
with murder, on the theory that he was responsible for negligently allowing his employee
to handle the round, and in conscious and reckless disregard for the employee’s life.
Subsequently, the District Attorney’s office filed murder charges against Mr. Collister.
After several months, the murder charges were dismissed at the preliminary hearing, and
the remaining manslaughter charge was subsequently dismissed at further proceedings.
The District Attorney’s office decided not to re-file, and Mr. Collister continues to work
in the same field.
Aiden Ghaffari – Illegal Chat Room Activity
Mr. Blatt presented an internet defense at trial which stated that based upon the
anonymity of the internet, the vagueness of his conversations, and his subsequent
withdrawal, the defendant should be acquitted. The jury rejected this analysis. The
Court placed Mr. Ghaffari on probation and ordered him to register as a sexual offender.
The defense appealed the conviction, and the California Court of Appeal found there was
insufficient evidence Mr. Ghaffari engaged in sending harmful matter over the internet.
His conviction was over-turned and he is no longer a registered sex-crime offender.
Gabriel Murillo – Hacking
In late 2006, Los Angeles City employees decided to strike in response to what they
viewed as unfair wage problems. Fearful of the imminent strike, management of the Los
Angeles Department of Transportation locked computer programmers and engineers out
of the City computer system, for fear the employees might “hack” the system and
sabotage it. After normal business hours on the first night of the strike, Gabriel Murillo,
a computer expert who helped create the City’s computer traffic control system, accessed
the transportation computer allegedly without management’s permission and assisted
another employee to access the system as well. Both were ultimately charged with
“hacking” into the system and altering the traffic light signal systems throughout the City
of Los Angeles.
The Defense argued that Mr. Murillo should not have been considered a “hacker” since
he helped write the computer program and that it was unclear whether his permission to
access the program had been taken from him. The Defense sought dismissal of the
charges at the Preliminary Hearing and filed in the Court of Appeal a Motion to Dismiss
which was denied.
After a vigorous defense, a plea agreement was reached in which the defendant would
plead to one count as a felony, and upon completion of community service, would be
sentenced as a misdemeanor with no jail time. Mr. Murillo currently has been sentenced
to a misdemeanor offense and upon completion of summary probation, all charges will be
dismissed and expunged from his record.
Murder Defense and Gang Cases
Alex Murillo – Defense of Others
Alex Murillo was with his friends at a Northridge Hookah bar one evening when two
gang members drove by. They entered the location, threatened the group, started a fight,
and stabbed one of the patrons before leaving. The two gang members shortly returned
and again attacked one of Mr. Murillo’s friends, severely beating him and threatening to
kill him. One gang member was armed with a knife, another with a gun. Believing the
gang members intended to kill his friend, Mr. Murillo went to his car and obtained a gun.
The beating of his friend continued with greater intensity until Mr. Murillo fired at the
gang members, killing both of them. The police subsequently arrested Mr. Murillo and
charged him with the murder of two gang members.
Before the case went to trial, at the preliminary hearing, Mr. Blatt presented an
affirmative defense, and argued that the killings were in lawful defense of others. The
Court agreed and ruled the homicides justifiable. The Court ordered Mr. Murillo released
and dismissed the murder charges.
Robert Moreno – Gang Killing
After drinking and smoking in an apartment, Robert Moreno’s friends drove to a remote
parking lot where gang members had already lured a rival gang member. There, the
group beat and stabbed the man to death. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office
charged Robert among the numerous killers, arguing Robert aided and abetted in the
murder, and acted as a co-conspirator in its planning. In total eighteen gang members
were charged, six gang members were convicted at trial of first degree murder, another
six pled guilty to murder prior to trial, and Mr. Moreno was part of the last six that went
After a six week trial in the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, the Defense argued to
the jury that even though Robert was present when the beating was planned, he was not at
the parking lot where the murder took place, and was not involved. The jury agreed and
found Robert not guilty of the murder, or any other crime. Robert was found to be
neither an aider and abettor or a co-conspirator.
Zeid Amarri – Gang Drive by Shooting
Zeid Amarri was driving when the passenger in his car recognized someone walking
down the street he thought was a rival gang member. Mr. Amarri slowed down his
vehicle to a stop at which time the passenger exited the vehicle, drew a gun and fired at
the pedestrian, killing him. Mr. Amarri did not have any gang ties or a criminal record.
Both Mr. Amarri and the passenger were arrested and charged with murder. At trial, the
Defense argued to the jury that they could not find Mr. Amarri guilty if he did not know
that the passenger had any intent to shoot anyone. The jury agreed and reached a not
guilty verdict for Mr. Amarri. The shooter was found guilty of murder and sentenced to
Craig’s List Advertisements – Sex for Drugs
In 2008, Los Angeles Police Department detectives used a Craig’s list advertisement to
lure men into a sex for drugs scam. Posing as young “party girls” and using suggestive
and inappropriate photographs of young women on the Craig’s List website, the
undercover officers made pretend dates with unsuspecting individuals. There was one
condition for the date: the “party girls” suggested the person bring drugs. At the time and
place set for the meeting, undercover officers were present to make their arrest and
charge the individuals with transportation and possession for sale of whatever drugs they
had. The majority of these defendants were college students.
The Defense convinced the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office that these
tactics were wrong, and that police were creating a crime which otherwise would not
have occurred. As a result, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to dismiss the drug sales
charged in each case and have the defendants plead to a simple possession that would be
dismissed upon completion of a drug diversion program.