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David Conn, 56; prosecutor won convictions in Menendez case

October 26, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

David Conn, the former prosecutor whose successful retrying of the Erik and Lyle Menendez murder case in 1996 won accolades and then an abrupt demotion, has died. He was 56.

Conn died Tuesday at his Dana Point home five months after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, said his wife of 34 years, Rosemary.

A polished, impeccably dressed New York native whom Time magazine once described as a "Clark Kent type," Conn went into private practice in 1997 after spending 18 years in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

He left the office after a public falling-out with then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, whose job Conn had acknowledged he "wouldn't mind" having some day.

Conn had successfully prosecuted a number of high-profile cases, beginning with the 1985 conviction for cocaine dealing against Dan Haggerty, the TV actor known for playing "Grizzly Adams." He won convictions in 1988 of serial killer Bill Bradford and in 1990 and 1991 of several people accused in the so-called Cotton Club murder of movie impresario Roy Radin.

"David was one of the most talented prosecutors to serve in this office in recent history," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Wednesday. "He was a big-case guy ... quite capable of taking on the major cases and handling them as if they were routine."

Leslie Abramson, the well-known defense attorney who faced Conn in the Menendez retrial, said: "As a prosecutor he was incredibly dogged, totally without mercy."

The Menendez case posed the stiffest challenge of Conn's career.

On the first go-round, the case had ended in hung juries in 1994 after the defense portrayed the brothers -- who had admitted to the grisly 1989 shooting deaths of their wealthy parents, Jose and Kitty -- as long-suffering victims of sexual and other abuse by the father. The defense argued that the brothers had killed their parents out of the same rage that drove some battered women to murder abusive spouses.

The original prosecution team never seriously attacked the abuse defense. Conn took the opposite approach, focusing most of the prosecution's energy on belittling it, while emphasizing the premeditated nature of the crimes and the horrendous injuries the brothers inflicted on their parents.

The son of a factory worker and a homemaker, Conn was born and raised in New York City. At 17 he dropped out of his Catholic high school and joined the Marines, which sent him to Vietnam, where he fixed radar equipment. He told The Times years later that he was disappointed that he never experienced combat.

After completing his military service, he went to Hunter College and Columbia University law school on the GI Bill. Then he moved to Los Angeles, where he was interviewed for a job with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office by Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who later would gain international fame as chief defense attorney for O.J. Simpson. Conn would have a brief involvement with the Simpson case during its grand jury phase.

Until he joined the Menendez case, Conn was best known for his success on the Cotton Club murder case. Radin, a producer, had been shot to death in 1983, and his body was found in a remote canyon. Before he was killed, he had been in negotiations for the movie "The Cotton Club," about the famous Prohibition-era Harlem nightclub. The trial had Hollywood abuzz, with celebrity witnesses including then-Paramount Studios chief Robert Evans, and ended with several convictions.

Conn was acting head of the major crimes unit in the district attorney's office when he volunteered to lead the second prosecution of the Menendez brothers.

Many of his colleagues thought the case was unwinnable, but Conn began to plot his strategy even before he was officially assigned to the case.

"I recognized in this case they'd put the victims on trial," he told The Times in 1996. "My key strategy was to see to it that the next trial came to be the trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, and not the trial of Jose and Kitty Menendez."

He bombarded the jury with larger-than-life photographs of the murder victims that left no doubts about how brutally they had been slain.

He also ruthlessly attacked the defendants' assertions that they could not escape their father's abuse or elicit help from outside the family.

"Blame the victim. Isn't that what the defense is all about?" Conn asked the jury during his closing argument. The defense "began accusing the victims of physical abuse and sexual abuse. And it finally ended with blaming them for their own deaths.... It's an abuse excuse, a carefully contrived one, an elaborate one, one filled with details."

The jury deliberated less than four days before returning guilty verdicts against both brothers for first-degree murder as well as conspiracy to commit murder. They are now serving life sentences.

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