PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Anthony Pellicano and several others taken down in a racketeering case against the former Hollywood private investigator clamored in the 9th Circuit for reversals.
A federal judge had sentenced Pellicano to 15 years in prison for wiretapping the phones of Hollywood's rich and powerful. The high-profile former private eye, now 69, is serving his sentence in a Texas prison after he was convicted on dozens of racketeering, wiretapping, conspiracy counts over two separate trials.
Known for specializing in audio forensics, Pellicano came to the attention of federal investigators 11 years ago.
At that time, former Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch encountered a scene reminiscent of "The Godfather" in which she found a dead fish with a rose in its mouth on her car, accompanied by message on her windshield reading, "Stop."
Though Busch had been writing about Steven Seagal's supposed ties to mobsters, the journalist now suspects that Pellicano left the threat for her under the direction of former Disney president Michael Ovitz.
Federal agents uncovered explosives in Pellicano's safe in November 2002, and seized computers from his offices that helped build the case against him.
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.
The private eye dug up dirt on, among others, Sylvester Stallone, comedian Garry Shandling and actor Keith Carradine, prosecutors claimed. He also allegedly helped Tom Cruise after a magazine claimed to have received videotaped evidence that the actor was gay.
During a lengthy hearing Monday, Pellicano's attorney Steven Gruel urged the 9th Circuit court to overturn.
The prosecution made a mistake in alleging that Pellicano bribed police Sgt. Mark Arneson to run background checks with the help of Los Angeles Police Department computers, the San Francisco-based attorney argued.
"Mr. Pellicano has been in custody since November 2003 in this case, or this investigation, and he has served all of his time and 30 months," Gruel said. "The only thing that stands between him and freedom at this stage is the RICO conviction."
Wiretapping is not the basis for a charge under federal anti-racketeering law, Gruel added. Prosecutors also failed in their burden to show that payments to officers in some way influenced "official conduct," he said.
Judge Richard Clifton wondered why paying for access to police computers was "not an official act."
"What more is required?" Clifton asked.
"An action where you are requiring the officer to make a decision on some sort of official matter that is before him," Gruel replied.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Kevin Lally said the convictions should stand.
"This case was hard fought by every party," Lally said. "But when you get through the rhetoric ... the evidence used to convict them was admissible, properly admitted, the trial was fair, the verdicts were just, and the sentences were reasonable."
Seth Hufstedler of Los Angelees firm Morrison Foerster appeared for attorney Terri Christensen, convicted of paying Pellicano to wiretap the ex-wife of his client, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, in a 2002 battle over child support.
Hufstedler said the trial court should have found that the recordings used to indict Christensen were shielded under attorney-client privilege.
"This record will not support a finding that there was a crime-fraud exception," to that privilege, Hufstedler told the panel.
Christensen was sentenced to three years.
Arneson, the police sergeant, and several other co-conspirators also fought for reversals at the hearing. These individuals include phone company technician Ray Turner, computer consultant Kevin Kachikian and the private eye's former client, Abner Nicherie.
Judge Raymond Fisher and Montana U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen joined Judge Clifton on the panel.