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

December 03, 1986|ROXANE ARNOLD | Times Staff Writer

"No one has said . . . he had a right to do what he did," Adelson said. "That's why he was convicted of a crime. All we were trying to do (was) classify under the peculiar set of circumstances that existed here, what crime did occur."

'Heat of Passion'

Adelson's defense was based on the notion that Sweeney, caught in the "heat of passion," was unaware of what he was doing. He killed without premeditation and without malice, Adelson argued, and in doing so, met the legal definition of manslaughter, not murder.

Acknowledging that "I did not do all that much time considering the crime," Sweeney does not like to talk about his time in prison.

"I think the time served is irrelevant in comparison to the fact that I'm doing life without (possibility of parole) in my heart," he said. "There's no parole for that.

"It will be there every day. . . . In comparison to starting over and putting my life back, I'd say prison was the easy part of this nightmare."

Once paroled, it took Sweeney three months to find work. Several job offers were made, then quickly withdrawn "once they found out who I was," Sweeney said.

'Someone I Loved'

"It's not that I was hiding it. . . . I try to be as direct as possible, say I'm responsible for the death of someone I loved very much."

Owners of The Chronicle hired Sweeney as their head chef only a few weeks ago after much wrangling over the pros and cons.

"A guy comes to us and says, 'Hey, I served my time,' " said Lud Renick, one of the restaurant's owners. "If he's capable of doing a good job for us and he is clear with his debt to society, my only concern is his doing the best job he can. . . . As far as I can tell, this guy has made every effort to rehabilitate himself."

But, Renick cautioned, the restaurant cannot afford a "jaundiced image" and that, too, has been a consideration. "We're as innocent as (Sweeney's) family is," Renick declared.

But Dunne's family, in a sense still fixated on the night of Oct. 30, 1982, sees Sweeney's re-emergence as the ultimate blow. Mother, father, brothers and friends say that wounds that never really healed are being painfully pricked open.

'Just Gets My Goat'

"If he were working at McDonald's, I wouldn't mind a bit," said Ellen Dunne. "I'd think, 'Oh, good for him.' . . . But the idea of him stepping out of prison and back into an equivalent job just gets my goat."

Griffin Dunne goes further--"The fact that anybody could forgive that enrages me."

Until now, each family member has coped with Dominique's loss in a personal way.

Ellen Dunne launched her own victims' rights group, the California Center for Family Survivors of Homicide, about a year after the killing. The group publishes a newsletter, lobbies for changes in homicide laws and holds monthly support sessions for survivors.

At one point, at least one member toyed with the idea of picketing The Chronicle, but that was dropped. Ellen Dunne said the signs would have read: "The hands that prepared your dinner strangled someone four years ago."

"My wife is an extraordinary woman," Dominick Dunne said. "It hurts her every moment of her life and yet she works so hard for the families of violent crimes and the rights of victims. This has been her way of coping with it."

Also involved in victims groups, Dominick Dunne said he has survived by working "harder then I have ever worked in my whole life. I have a drive and that keeps me going."

"It's a constant, the loss. But the important thing is you can't let it stop your life," he said. Alex Dunne, in many ways still immobilized by his sister's death, is unable to talk about the tragedy.

"Alex is not doing as well as Griffin," their mother said. "He and Dominique were cut from the same cloth, joined at the top from the day she was born."

"My parents have sort of found an outlet," Griffin Dunne said. "Alex and I haven't. . . . I just like to bury myself in work. I never let anything detract me from that. To do so would be a victory for the killer."

Must Stay in County

Under conditions of his parole, Sweeney is prohibited from contacting Dunne's family, from visiting Dominique's grave and from leaving Los Angeles County.

He is in psychiatric therapy, meets with his parole officer regularly, and carries a pocket Bible, searching for some measure of forgiveness that otherwise seems to elude him.

"Every day I think about it . . . praying for her, praying for the pain of her family. That's the best I can do," he said.

Most of the people who once befriended him, including his professional mentors, have abandoned him, Sweeney said, and "I can't blame them."

"I love L.A. but L.A. doesn't love me too much anymore. . . . If I had anything to do with it, I would prefer to start at ground zero somewhere else, Philadelphia or somewhere . . . just so I would not be more pain to those people. The fact of the matter is, I have to be here."

The 'Real John Sweeney'

Now 30, he insists that the "real John Sweeney, not the one who was responsible for that," is firmly back in control.

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