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Convictions Tossed for Imprisoned Hollywood PI

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano may get out of prison early after the Ninth Circuit vacated some of his convictions for wiretapping celebrities.

The criminal case began like a scene from "The Godfather" when Anita Busch, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, found a dead fish on her car windshield, grasping a rose in its mouth, with a cryptic message, "Stop."

Though Busch at the time believed the incident stemmed from her investigation into actor Steven Seagal's supposed mob ties, she later suspected that former Disney president Michael Ovitz directed investigator Anthony Pellicano to leave her the threat.

Pellicano and others were later charged in a conspiracy that allegedly connected several Hollywood players and clients, including Ovitz and Paramount Pictures boss Brad Grey, comedian Chris Rock and rocker Courtney Love.

Prosecutors said the private eye dug up dirt on, among others, Sylvester Stallone, Garry Shandling and Keith Carradine. He also allegedly helped Tom Cruise after a magazine claimed to have received videotaped evidence that the actor was gay.

In 2008, Pellicano was sentenced on dozens of racketeering, wiretapping conspiracy counts

The Ninth Circuit held a hearing nearly two years ago on appeals by the investigator and five others connected to what it called a "widespread criminal enterprise."

A three-judge panel with the federal appeals court vacated some of the defendants' convictions Tuesday, finding that the jury instructions on the computer fraud and access charges during Pellicano's trial specifically were prejudicial.

The jury was instructed to return a guilty verdict if it found that a phone company employee - Teresa Wright - was unauthorized in accessing the company's databases, which she then used to supply information to Pellicano.

"Although the government now contends that Wright's use of the code 'ERR' upon logging out in an attempt to cover her tracks constituted evidence of unauthorized access, we are not persuaded," Judge Richard Clifton wrote for the Pasadena-based panel. "That use of the 'ERR' code may have violated company policy, but Wright may nonetheless have been authorized to access the database."

Pellicano was originally scheduled to serve time at a federal prison in Texas until 2019. Though the appeals court vacated his convictions for aiding and abetting computer fraud and aiding and abetting unauthorized computer access, it upheld Pellicano's RICO conviction.

His attorney, Steven Gruel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The same ruling also overturned a conviction against Rayford Turner - a phone company technician - for aiding and abetting computer fraud, under the same erroneous jury instruction. Pellicano paid Turner for technical information needed for the wiretaps.

Former Los Angeles police officer Mark Arneson's conviction for unauthorized computer access was also vacated in the Ninth Circuit decision.

State and federal laws restricting access to certain types of information "arguably prohibited Arneson's conduct based on the way the information was used, as distinguished from the way it was accessed, but that does not expand the reach" of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Clifton wrote. Pellicano had bribed Arneson to provide access to law-enforcement databases.

Arneson and Turner's RICO convictions for operating Pellicano Investigative Agency remain intact as well.

The aiding-and-abetting wiretapping conviction against Abner Nicherie, who was accused of hiring Pellicano to wiretap the husband of a woman whose business he wanted to takeover, was also vacated. The jury instructions allowed a conviction based on the theory that translating a recording of a previously intercepted wire communication constituted a crime.

"The crime of wiretapping was complete when the recording was made, and replaying the recording did not constitute a new interception," Clifton found.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California says it is pleased that the Ninth Circuit upheld the most serious convictions in the case.

"With those convictions still standing, the government is very likely to argue that Judge Fisher should impose the same substantial prison terms that she originally imposed against these defendants," prosecutors said in a statement.

The court rejected all of attorney Terry Christensen's challenges on his convictions based on hiring Pellicano to illegally wiretap the ex-wife of his client, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. He was sentenced to three years in 2008 and remains barred from practicing law in California.

The court also upheld the conviction of Kevin Kachikian for developing software to record the conversations.

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