Friday, June 6, 2003
Appellate Panel Gives ‘Billionaire Boys Club’ Leader Joe Hunt New Chance at Overturning Conviction
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A habeas corpus petition by “Billionaire Boys Club” leader Joseph Hunt, trying to overturn a sentence of life in state prison without possibility of parole, was reinstated yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hunt should receive another chance for habeas corpus consideration because U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Nakazoto and U.S. District Judge William Keller of the Central District of California failed to inform Hunt of his legal options, Senior District Judge William Schwarzer, sitting by designation, wrote for the Ninth Circuit.
Hunt, who represented himself in a separate murder trial—which he won—and in the early stages of his federal litigation, is now represented by Mill Valley attorney Eric Multhaup.
“This decision unblocks the road for him to get a hearing on the merits of whether his conviction was valid or not,” Multhaup said yesterday.
Hunt, who attended the exclusive Harvard School in the San Fernando Valley, recruited several of his former classmates to join the BBC, ostensibly a combination social club and business enterprise. In fact, prosecutors were later to claim, it evolved into a criminal conspiracy which engaged in fraud, kidnapping and murder.
The group’s initials, Hunt said, stood for Bombay Bicycle Club, the name of a bar and nightclub he frequented while a Chicago-based commodities trader. The Billionaire Boys Club moniker was applied by members of the news media, and became the title of a television movie in which Judd Nelson portrayed Hunt.
Several of the men, including Hunt, were accused in the 1984 kidnapping of the father of one “club” member with plans to torture him into signing over a fortune.
The man, Hedayat Eslaminia, inadvertently was smothered and died in a car trunk during the botched plot. Two men, including the victim’s son, Reza Eslaminia, were convicted of murder in 1988, but those convictions were overturned on technical grounds 10 years later.
Hunt was tried separately in the Eslaminia case, winning a dismissal after jurors deadlocked 8 to 4 in favor of acquittal in 1992. Hunt blamed that killing on the CIA.
He said he decided to plead his own case because his lawyers had done a poor job five years earlier, when a Los Angeles Superior Court jury in Santa Monica convicted him of the killing of Ron Levin.
Hunt denies killing Levin, whose body was not found, and claims that witnesses have seen the purported victim since the date he was supposed to have been killed.
He also claims that lead trial attorney Arthur Barens failed to discover evidence supporting Hunt’s claim that Levin disappeared in order to avoid a pending trial on fraud charges and that Barens had a conflict of interest because the now-deceased trial judge, Laurence Rittenband, could have vetoed his application for membership in Hillcrest Country Club, which was pending during the trial.
He also contends that prosecutors—led by Frederick Wapner, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge—were guilty of misconduct in failing to disclose that they had interceded with the Commodities Futures Trading Board in a disciplinary action involving BBC member-turned-prosecution witness Dean Karny.
Hunt has also argued his defense was unduly hampered after Rittenband banned a defense law clerk from the courtroom for suggesting to a witness that the judge was biased in favor of the prosecution because he was a friend of the lead prosecutor’s father, former Superior Court Presiding Judge Joseph Wapner.
In the District Court proceeding, Nakazato ruled that Hunt had filed an improper “mixed” petition—one combining claims that had been exhausted in state court with others that had not been—and granted Hunt time to amend his petition. He warned that failure to timely file a petition containing only exhausted claims would be construed as Hunt’s consent to dismiss the petition or disobedience of the court order, thus warranting dismissal.
Hunt objected to Nakazato’s ruling in subsequent filings and in 2000 reasserted his objections to U.S. District Judge William Keller. Hunt also filed another habeas corpus petition with the state Supreme Court in 2000.
Keller denied Hunt’s request to vacate Nakazato’s ruling.
The federal appeals court found that Keller had improperly dismissed Hunt’s first petition and that the magistrate judge too had erred.
“Neither the magistrate judge nor the district judge considered the alternative of staying the petition after dismissal of unexhausted claims to permit Hunt to exhaust those claims, nor did they inform Hunt of this option,” Schwarzer—joined by Judge Thomas G. Nelson and Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson—wrote.
The panel remanded Hunt’s case back to the District Court for a review of the magistrate judge’s order.
Despite nearly 20 years behind bars, Hunt remains convinced he can prove his conviction was unjust.
“His interest has never flagged. This was a procedural detour that the Ninth Circuit got back on track,” Multhaup said.
The case is Hunt vs. Pliler, 01-56963.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company