2000-12-14 / Front Page
Appeals underway in local murder case
Acorn Staff Writer
Lawyers and anguished parents waited patiently to hear the court’s decision about the future of the four boys involved in the stabbing death of Agoura Hills teenager Jimmy Farris.
But the scene wasn’t the 1996 Malibu courtroom where Brandon Hein, Tony Miliotti and Jason Holland were convicted of Farris’ murder and sentenced to life without parole.
These arguments got underway Nov. 30 at the state Court of Appeals in Los Angeles when lawyers pushed for a new trial in the celebrated case, or perhaps a ruling that might lead to a reduction in sentences for the defendants.
The appeals’ hearing followed the release of a new feature length documentary by Oscar-nominated director William Gazecki that argues the defendants received an unfair trial and overly harsh sentences in the Agoura Hills brawl that left Farris dead and his friend Mike McCloren wounded.
The fight broke out when the teens tried to obtain marijuana from McCloren, a known drug dealer, and Farris, his 16-year-old friend.
Only Jason Holland, who was 18 at the time, admitted to stabbing Farris with a pocketknife. Hein, 18, took part in the fight, but Miliotti, 17, reportedly stood at the door to McCloren’s backyard fort while the stabbing took place.
Also involved in the incident was Holland’s brother Micah, a 15-year-old with a history of juvenile delinquency who received 25 years to life.
Chris Velardo, who drove his friends to the scene but stayed in his truck while the crime took place, pled guilty to manslaughter and was released this year from the California Youth Authority.
The appeals’ lawyers charged prosecutors with misconduct and presenting inadmissible evidence during the 1996 trial, including allegations that the boys belonged to a San Fernando Valley gang.
Gazecki, who’s film "Reckless Indifference" appeared recently at two emotionally charged screenings in Los Angeles, contends Jim Farris, the father of the victim, used his influence as an LAPD police officer to gain favors for the prosecution.
Farris says in the film he never was present while prosecutors interviewed witnesses in the case, but Deputy District Attorney Jeff Semow said that Farris "may have been present."
Pat Kraetsch, Brandon Hein’s mother, implied that Farris had "free reign" during the case.
"The record will show the prosecutor’s role in this case was intended to produce an unfair trial," said Aron Laub, the attorney for Jason Holland.
Hein, who’s serving his sentence at Tehachapi State Prison, was the only defendant interviewed for the film.
A three-judge panel at the 2nd Court of Appeals has until March to render a decision.
During the trial, prosecutors argued successfully that under the law known as the felony murder rule, all the boys are liable for Farris’ murder because his death occurred during the commission of a crime–the stealing of McCloren’s marijuana.
L.A. Superior Court Judge Thomas Stoever, a special appointee to the appellate panel, outlined what legal arguments the defense lawyers needed to present to turn the case in their favor.
Stoever said to the lawyers, "We’re asking the question: Are our hands tied?"
"The question is whether they went there to get marijuana or to steal it," said Marilee Marshall, Hein’s attorney. "It’s beyond all reason that they killed anybody with the intent to steal it."
"There was no evidence that anybody planned an armed robbery," said Robert Derham, Micah Holland’s attorney, but Judge Norvell Woods responded, "I thought this was a felony murder case, according to the record."
Deputy District Attorney Victoria Bedrossian said that while only Jason Holland wielded the knife, the boys acted "in concert."
"Each appellant was a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to Jimmy Farris’ life," Bedrossian said. "The sentences in this case do not offend fundamental notions of human dignity and the penalties in this case should not be changed."
Woods hinted that different penalties might be appropriate for the different participants in the crime when he spoke about a comparison of "apples and oranges and grapes."
After the 90-minute appeal, Judge Mildred Lillie told the two sides they had until today to file final briefs.
Neither of the Farris parents attended the hearing.
In one of the harsh ironies of the case, Miliotti turned down a manslaughter deal in exchange for his guilty plea. In fact, the prosecution said it was ready to offer deals to all four of the defendants that would have brought lesser charges.
Jeff Ladin, Miliotti’s uncle, said an attorney recommended that if Tony wasn’t involved in the fight, he should take his chances with a jury.
"The testimony and the facts show Tony was standing at the doorway," Ladin said. "Nobody ever put him in that fort."
Miliotti remains incarcerated for life at Corcoran State Prison.
"I don’t think our system should be so inflexible that these boys should spend the rest of their lives in prison for a crime they didn’t really commit," Derham told the appeals’ court.
Ladin said he wants to show the Gazecki film at Agoura High School to help students understand the dangers of violence and drugs.