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Strangled Actress : Did Slayer's Penalty Fit His Crime?

December 03, 1986|ROXANE ARNOLD | Times Staff Writer

Sitting in his attorney's office, a downcast John Thomas Sweeney fidgeted with his watch and talked tonelessly of the night when a "swirl of confusion and rage" swept over him, the night he strangled his one-time sweetheart, actress Dominique Dunne.

Out of prison now after serving slightly less than three years and eight months, the sweet-faced 6-footer said he cannot remember much about that night--not the moment he first put his hands around her neck, not the four minutes or more it took to choke the life out of the woman he loved so obsessively.

Four months after being released from custody, Sweeney's prison pallor has vanished. A one-time underling to famed chef Wolfgang Puck at the chic Ma Maison restaurant, he is back at work, this time as head chef at the trendy The Chronicle restaurant in Santa Monica.

Nagging Doubts

But the tragedy spawned by his fury on Oct. 30, 1982, had an impact on more than just his life and that of his victim. It left their two families shattered, unalterably fixed in time. It raised questions about whether justice was well served in the murder trial that followed and left nagging doubts about whether the anger that pushed Sweeney to kill has been assuaged.

Dominique Dunne's family and friends are incensed that the man they call "the killer" is picking up the pieces of his life so soon after the tragedy, and insistent that his crime and their "beautiful, bright, special girl" not be forgotten.

"This guy gets to be reinstated as the head chef in a restaurant as if nothing ever happened. . . . I don't want people to think, 'Hey, he killed someone but I'll have this steak anyway,' " actor Griffin Dunne, one of Dominique's two brothers, said angrily.

"If she had lived, she'd be an actress everyone in the world would know. . . . He's a murderer; he's murdered and I think he will do it again."

Judge Laments System

The Superior Court judge who presided over Sweeney's murder trial laments a justice system that he says failed so tragically. And the prosecutor who fought for a murder conviction fears that the failure has allowed a "time bomb" back on the streets.

The story of John Sweeney and Dominique Dunne that culminated in their fatal clash has all the elements of high drama--love and jealousy, fear and frustration, fame and poverty.

It chronicles a young man, talented and driven enough to overcome his bleak background, and his tumultuous romance with a girl-woman, the daughter of wealth, culture and literary prominence. It culminates with her ultimate rejection of him.

It is a story that really has no end, a story that leaves no one really satisfied.

Convicted of voluntary manslaughter after a highly publicized trial in 1983, John Sweeney spent 3 years, 7 months and 27 days in custody, most of it as a clerk at the medium-security state prison in Susanville, Calif.

Prosecutors had asked for a murder conviction that could have meant 15 years to life in prison but, swayed by a defense attorney who argued masterfully on behalf of his morose, sometimes weeping client, a jury in Santa Monica rejected that.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Barshop and the Dunne family, still outraged by the verdict, also fault Judge Burton S. Katz for his various rulings during the course of the trial, rulings that prohibited any consideration of a first-degree murder verdict and kept from the jurors evidence that would have shown that Sweeney had repeatedly beaten a former girlfriend.

"I guess there never is any real satisfaction that the legal system can give, but this--the outcome--was such a blow, such a slap in the face to our family and to Dominique's memory," Griffin Dunne said. "They literally got away with murder. . . . The bitterness of that will never leave."

Dominique's father, author Dominick Dunne, still bristles when he thinks back to those weeks in court.

"We lost our child, he got a tap on the wrist," Dunne said sharply. "For the rest of my life, every chance I get, I'm going to bring out this killer's name--John Sweeney.

"Maybe the law will let him go. I'm not going to let him go."

Judge Changes Jobs

Personally affected by the uproar following the Dunne trial and drained by that and other murder cases, Judge Katz moved to the Juvenile Court in Sylmar shortly afterward. Admitting that some of his controversial rulings in the case "pained me," the trim, curly-haired jurist insisted that he had no choice.

"Nothing is more difficult than rendering a decision based upon a law with which you disagree," Katz said. "Unfortunately, following the letter of the law sometimes doesn't permit one to pursue the ultimate goal of justice. . . . Three and a half years for a life is certainly not justice.

"If I could have given him 25 (years), I would have given him 25. If I could have given him life, I would have given him life. . . . I agree with everyone that based on his past record of violence . . . he is dangerous to any woman."

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