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Murder Case Opens Eyes to Horrific Tale of Child Abuse : Slaying: Sons are charged in Oklahoma man's death. Officials ask themselves if they ignored warning signs.

September 09, 1993|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RUSH SPRINGS, Okla. — It was a daily ritual. Lonnie Dutton washed down sedatives with homemade beer and then beat and kicked his four young children with steel-toed boots in a slovenly central Oklahoma mobile home hidden behind oak and wild plum trees.

There, he once forced his two oldest boys to throw darts at their little sister and mother, bellowing: "By God, you throw 'em hard!" relatives recalled. When his wife cried out, he poured jalapeno juice in her eyes, yelling: "I'll give you something to cry about!"

Two years ago, Luther Dutton, 61, confronted his only son about the heart-breaking turmoil he could hear from his nearby house. "Lonnie slid back through the timber at night and shot me in the side with a shotgun," he said.

It was Lonnie Dutton's own advice that may have gotten the best of him, relatives said. Over and over, he slapped sons Herman, 15, and Druie, 12, hard in the face to drive home a warning: "If anyone ever messes with (sister) Sissy, shoot them behind the ear or in the heart. Kill him!"

On a steaming July 12 afternoon, Sissy, 10, walked to the family tomato patch where the boys were hoeing and muttered: "Daddy was messin' with me."

The boys returned to the mobile home and loaded a stolen rifle that Lonnie Dutton had given Herman for Christmas. Dutton, 39, was sleeping on the couch when Herman allegedly aimed the rifle at a point behind his father's right ear and Druie pulled the trigger.

Now the slight boys with close-cropped hair are charged as juveniles with first-degree murder and conspiracy in a Grady County District Court case that has stunned children's rights advocates because of the protracted intensity of the alleged abuse and the apparent failure of child-protection workers, law enforcement officers, school officials, relatives or neighbors to stop it.

Dutton terrorized neighbors and relatives throughout this town of 1,500 bedrock conservative churchgoers, who are re-examining memories in search of clues for what they could have done differently. Some relatives suggest that Dutton was acting out physical abuse he suffered as a boy, and that his own children are now paying a heavy price for it.

"Lonnie was a belligerent, obnoxious spiteful person whose only goal seemed to be how many people he could make hate and fear him," said Dutton's first cousin, LaHonda Adamson, 41. "His kids should be given Purple Hearts and sent home."

If convicted, they could be held in a state Department of Human Services' detention center until they are 18 years old, authorities said. The sentence would include extensive counseling.

As they await the start of their trial Tuesday--the first test of the "battered-child syndrome" defense in Oklahoma--serious concerns have been raised about policies used against child abuse in a state struggling to cope with a record number of investigations this year.

The case underscores a national trend of children pleading not guilty to charges of parricide on grounds that the act was a desperate attempt to survive, much as battered spouses accused of murder have been doing for years.

"If these boys had killed their father 10 years ago, there would not be the outpouring of sympathy they are getting now," said Paul Mones, a Santa Monica attorney and leading expert in child abuse. "They would have been locked up and the key thrown away.

"The problem in these cases is that the homicide almost always occurs when the adult is not aggressing against the child, unlike battered-spouse incidents, where violence immediately follows the incident." he said. "For children, the nature and quality of the violence is fundamentally different in the way it affects their consciousness. . . . The kid knows when the parent wakes up the abuse is going to continue."

In the past year, growing numbers of defendants across the nation have successfully used battered-child syndrome defenses. In Bayou George, Fla., 16-year-old J. D. Barnes Jr. was acquitted in the shooting death of his sleeping father. In Olympia, Wash., 17-year-old Andy Janes recently won the right to a new trial after being convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his stepfather. He has already served four years of a 10-year sentence.

In Maryland, Linda Sue Glazier, 36, who has spent 18 years in prison for conspiring in the shotgun deaths of her parents, is now fighting for clemency on grounds that they sexually and physically abused her. At her 1975 trial, the judge disallowed any evidence that attempted to build a defense around Glazier's allegations of incest and beatings.

In Los Angeles, Erik Menendez, 22, and his brother, Lyle, 25, are charged with the 1989 shotgun slayings of their parents in the living room of the family's $4-million Beverly Hills mansion. In that case, defense attorneys argue that both young men were repeatedly molested by their father and that they endured years of mental and physical abuse from both parents.

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