Dominique Dunne was twenty-one years old in 1981 when she met John Sweeney at a party. Sweeney was seven years her senior and the attraction was instant. Sadly, rather than leading to love and marriage, it led to love and death.
The petite Dominique, daughter of writer and movie producer Dominick Dunne, sister to actor Griffin Dunne and niece to authors Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, seemed destined to make it in the celebrity soaked world of Los Angeles. By comparison, the athletic Sweeney grew up in a Pennsylvania coal town, son of an alcoholic who frequently watched his father beat his mother.
Both were creative types; Dominique was an actress with a handful of roles under her belt while John was chief assistant to Wolfgang Puck at the trendy and glamorous Ma Maison restaurant. On the surface, they made a good match. Both loved Europe, animals (Dominique was very much an animal rescuer) and cooking. Her diminutive size contrasted nicely to his just over six foot frame. Both were ambitious. Sweeney however desperately wanted to fit into the elegant world of L.A. and Hollywood he saw nightly at Ma Maison. Dominique gave him entry into that world.
|Dominique's last home and where she was strangled|
On August 27, 1982, after a particularly bitter argument, Sweeney grabbed her long, dark hair and yanked her so viciously that handfuls of it came out in clumps. A frightened Dominique ran to her mother's house, where Sweeney followed. He banged on the doors and windows, demanding to be let in. Lenny threatened to call the police. Sweeney returned to their West Hollywood home to wait out Dominique; she returned a few days later.
Barely a month later, on September 26, 1982, another argument ensued and Sweeney grabbed Dominique by the throat, threw her on the floor and began strangling her. A friend who was staying with the couple at the time heard the assault and ran into the room where the actress was being attacked. Dominique told her friend Sweeney had tried to kill her; like any classic abuser, he denied it and suggested that she come back to bed. She pretended to comply but instead snuck out the bathroom window. When he heard her car engine start up, he threw himself on the hood of her car and only jumped off when Dominique briefly stopped. She escaped again to her mother's and also to friends' homes, where she would call Sweeney and end their relationship. He moved out; she moved back in and changed the locks.
|Dominique on Hill Street Blues, no makeup necessary|
By the time she finally broke off the relationship with Sweeney, Dominique had gotten a role in the upcoming miniseries V, about an alien invasion. On the evening of October 30, 1982, she was rehearsing scenes for V with actor David Packer when Sweeney showed up uninvited and unexpectedly. He demanded that she speak with him and after hesitating, she stepped outside to the front yard with Sweeney, leaving Packer inside. Packer offered to leave but she requested that he stay. Dominique and Sweeney almost immediately began to argue; Packer later said he heard slapping sounds, two screams and then a thud. Frightened, he called the police only to be told that Dominique's home was out of their jurisdiction. He then called a friend and told him if he was found dead, John Sweeney had done it. Packer then left the home through a back door and found Sweeney near the driveway, kneeling over Dominique. Spotting Packer, Sweeney told him to call the police. When the police arrived, Sweeney put his hands in the air and informed them that he had killed his girlfriend and had attempted to kill himself with pills.
While Sweeney was hustled off to jail, Dominique was rushed to Cedars Sinai and placed on life support after her heart stopped. Her father Dominick would later recall seeing his daughter in the hospital after doctors had screwed a bolt into her skull to relieve pressure on her brain caused by the strangulation. Her long beautiful hair - - the same hair that Sweeney had grabbed in his fist to pull out - - had been shaved off for the procedure; her eyes were open and grotesquely enlarged from the assault; tubes were everywhere but the marks of John Sweeney's hands were still visible on her purpled and bruised neck.
Dominique would remain in a coma for the next five days, never regaining consciousness. Once the family realized there was no hope, they had the life support machines that were keeping her heart beating turned off. It was November 4, 1982 - - nineteen days before her twenty-third birthday. Even in death, Dominique would be kind and giving; her kidneys were given to two patients at Cedars Sinai awaiting transplant and her heart was sent to a hospital in San Francisco.
John Sweeney now graduated from an attempted murder charge to first degree murder. He plead not guilty (no surprise) and was also charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm resulting from the September 26 incident. He denied assaulting Dominique, claiming that he had been trying to prevent her from leaving their home. (Because we all strangle someone in order to keep them from leaving . . . at least in John Sweeney's household.)
Sweeney's murder trial began in August of 1983, presided over by Judge Burton S. Katz, a man perhaps best known for being the Los Angeles' Deputy District Attorney that successfully prosecuted Charles Manson, Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan in 1971 for the 1969 murders of musician Gary Hinman and ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea. Katz's involvement in this trial would add grievous insult to injury for the Dunne family.
Sweeney's attorney Michael Adelson went after Pierce as if she were the guilty party. He accused her of being a drunk and an addict, even suggesting that she had brought such violence upon herself and deserved what she got. It was shameful and it was a tact he followed when he attempted to besmirch Dominique's character.
Pierce testified out of the presence of the jury while Katz deliberated over whether to allow her as a witness; while she spoke, Sweeney became enraged, jumping to his feet and toward the door leading to the judge's chambers. He was restrained by two bailiffs and four armed guards and cried when returned to his chair, where he was handcuffed. He apologized to Katz and Katz not only accepted his apology but did so with "We know what strain you are under, Mr. Sweeney." Katz, who appeared to have little sympathy for the victim and her family, who ever continuously mispronounced Dominique's name, apparently was empathetic with the man who had killed her.
A reporter from a local paper was in attendance and wrote about the incident. At Adelson's bequest, Katz would admonish this reporter for exaggerating the incident and issue a gag order to all parties. This would be the first incident of Katz bending over backwards for the defense. He would continuously prove to be far more solicitous of a murderer than the victim and her family.
Katz wasn't alone. Adelson had a particular bone to pick with the Dunne family. Lenny, suffering with multiple sclerosis, was in a wheelchair. Adelson felt that her presence in the courtroom with her wheelchair would illicit sympathy from the jury and wanted her banned. Katz, surprisingly, did not agree. Adelson did request, and was granted by Katz, an order that any emotional outburst by the Dunne family, including crying, eye rolling and/or making any type of exclamation, would result in their being ejected from the courtroom. He tried to have Dominique's brother removed one day for having tears in his eyes. When the brothers changed seats while Sweeney was testifying in order to be in his line of sight, Adelson pissily tried to get the brothers tossed from the courtroom. He was denied but not for long.
Adelson, requested that Katz rule Pierce's testimony inadmissible as it was "prejudicial" and Katz granted the request. Katz' action, which was in error in my opinion, meant the jury would not hear of John Sweeney's violent history and outbursts until after the trial. Katz also refused to allow Dominique's mother Lenny and Dominique's friends to testify about the abuse Dominique suffered at Sweeney's hands and the fear she was in, ruling that their statements were "hearsay." Worse was to come.
On August 29, Adelson requested that Katz rule that there was insufficient evidence to try Sweeney on the charge of first degree murder as there was no evidence of predetermination or deliberation. Katz, ever obliging of Sweeney and the defense, granted the motion, taking the first degree murder charge off the table and allowing the jury to deliberate only on manslaughter or second-degree. This decision, along with not allowing Lillian Pierce, Lenny Dunne or Dominique's friends to testify, effectively dismantled the prosecution's case.
|The killer in court|
Dominique's family and friends were rightfully outraged. They disputed that the couple had reconciled and said that Sweeney had gone to her home on October 30 in an attempt to get her to change her mind because she had firmly told him their break up was permanent.
The police also disputed Sweeney's version of events as there was no evidence he had consumed any pills and they found him to be calm and collected. The first officer at the scene recalled Sweeney telling him "Man, I blew it. I killed her. I didn't think I choked her that hard but I don't know, I just kept on choking her. I just lost my temper and blew it again."
To further dispute John Sweeney's testimony and in direct contradiction to his claim of "heat of passion," the medical examiner testified that Dominique had been strangled for between four and six minutes. More than enough time for Sweeney to regain himself and control. And also plenty of time for him to look into her eyes as he killed her.
Yet despite this, Katz had determined there was not sufficient evidence to try John Sweeney for first degree murder. My brain still boggles with this information. If this wasn't first degree murder, what is?
The jury deliberated for eight days, returning with a verdict on September 21, 1983. John Sweeney was acquitted of second-degree murder and found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a much lesser charge. He was also convicted of misdemeanor assault for the September 26, 1982 attack on Dominique. It mattered little to the Dunne family whose wounds were reopened with the verdict.
Adelson, ever the professional, was gleeful at the verdict. In an act of supreme grossness, he even began calling for Sweeney to get probation. Thankfully, Katz did not grant it but the damage had been done - - to his own character, to Dominique's loved ones and to justice.
Outrage extended beyond the Dunnes and the courtroom. A victims' rights group called Victims for Victims, established by actress Theresa Saldano, protested the verdict by staging a march outside the courthouse. Media outlets debated the outcome of the trial, directing harsh criticism toward Katz.
On November 7, 1983 John Sweeney was sentenced to the maximum - - a whopping six years in prison for murdering Dominique Dunne, plus an additional six months for the misdemeanor assault charge. Unbelievably, during the sentencing Katz, in a mind altering act of back pedaling, criticized the jury for handing down a sentencing he basically gift wrapped for them, stating that Dominique's death was "a case, pure and simple, of murder. Murder with malice." (Such a statement does make you wonder if that was the case, how he could have tossed first degree murder out in good conscience.) The jury foreman would say that Katz' comment was a cheap shot and that if the jury had heard all the evidence (i.e., the evidence that Katz himself would not permit to be heard), they would have convicted Sweeney of murder. Not manslaughter, murder. The foreman would also later say that the judge's instructions to the jury were incomprehensible. Four times while deliberating the jury asked for clarification on the instructions and the judge would only say the answers to their questions were in the instructions. At the time the jury was deadlocked.
Five minutes before handing down his sentence to Sweeney, Katz sentenced a man who had committed a nonviolent robbery at a flower shop to five years.
John Sweeney was sent to a medium security prison in California to serve out his joke of a sentence. In September of 1986, after serving three years of his six year sentence, Sweeney was paroled. Three months later he was hired as head chef at the upscale The Chronicle in Santa Monica. Upon finding out where he was working, Dominique's brother Griffin and her mother Lenny handed out flyers to the restaurant's patrons that said simply "The food you will eat tonight was cooked by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne." The flyers had the desired effect; Sweeney tired of the pressure and protests and quit, moving away from L.A.
In the mid-1990s, Dominick Dunne was contacted by a Florida doctor who, after reading Dunne's article on his daughter's murder in Vanity Fair, worried that his own daughter was engaged to Dominique's killer. His name also was John Sweeney, he was also a chef and he was the same man who murdered Dominick's daughter. Griffin Dunne would contact the woman to try and convince her to call off her engagement and get away from Sweeney; Sweeney accused the Dunnes of harassment and changed his name to John Maura. It was rumored he relocated for a time to the Pacific Northwest before returning to California. Most recently there are reports online that a John Patrick Maura lives in California and works for a retirement association.
Dominick Dunne hired private investigator Anthony Pellicano to have Sweeney/Maura followed for a time. After he learned that the man had relocated to the Pacific Northwest he decided that he did not want to devote his life and energies to the man who killed his daughter.
You do not love me. You are obsessed with me.
Dominique's letter to John Sweeney, 1982
And so life went on for the principal players, all except for Dominique.
After the virulent opinions on how he handled the Sweeney case and being voted the fourth worst judge to sit on the bench in Los Angeles, Burton S. Katz transferred to Juvenile Court in Sylmar. He would write a book on the problems with the justice system as well as become a commentator and writer for MSNBC and Time Warner. As of this date, he is retired from the bench but provides private arbitration and mediation services.
The two prosecutors and two defense attorneys continued on with their legal careers after the Dunne/Sweeney trial.
Detective Harold Johnston, the man who had had driven to Lenny's house to notify her that Dominique was at Cedars Sinai and near death and who had tracked down Sweeney's former girlfriend Lillian Pierce, a veteran law enforcement officer of over twenty-five years, told Dominick Dunne that he had fervently believed in the justice system his entire career . . . until Dominique's case. That had caused him to lose faith in the system.
Dominique's older brother Griffin would carve out a successful career for himself in Hollywood, acting in television and film, before branching out into producing and directing. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for his short film Duke of Groove. His daughter Hannah, like her father and her aunt, is an actress.
Ellen "Lenny" Dunne founded Justice for Homicide Victims, a victims' rights organization. Her work on behalf of victims' rights was honored by President George Bush at the White House in 1989. She would fight a long battle with multiple sclerosis and would succumb to the disease on January 9, 1997 at her home in Arizona. Justice for Homicide Victims remains active today.
Dominick Dunne would return to New York after the trial. While in L.A. and attending the trial, he drove around town in his daughter's electric blue convertible VW bug. He would later recall keeping a pair of her sunglasses in his pocket during the trial to give him strength. Once the trial was over, he continued his writing career. He wrote a heartbreaking piece for Vanity Fair, describing the emotional stranglehold his daughter's murder and resulting trial put on his family; he also wrote multiple bestselling novels, some based in part on what happened to Dominique, the 1975 Martha Moxley murder in Greenwich, Connecticut and the O.J. Simpson case in L.A. Despite his many accomplishments before 1995, he would perhaps become best known to the general public for his constant presence by the sides of the Brown and Goldman families in the courtroom during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. He would write (sometimes scathing) observances on the trial and was never reticent about voicing his opinion on the guilt of Simpson or that the Brown and Goldman families were attending the last business of their loved one's life and should be in attendance daily (something the Goldmans appear to have taken very much to heart.) He most of all knew what it felt like to watch a loved one's killer walk out of the courtroom a free man. He remained very much the investigative journalist until the end, which came on August 26, 2009 from bladder cancer. He was 83.
Almost as great a tragedy was the painful and blunt injustice to Dominique and her family. John Sweeney murdered her, he choked the life from her for at least four full minutes and he got the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist. It is worth noting that it has not appeared in any form that Sweeney apologized to her family for killing Dominique or expressed remorse for doing so. As the first officer on the scene recounted, his focus was on his screwing up again, not concern for his former girlfriend deprived of oxygen. To this day, John Sweeney should still be in prison, paying for stealing the life from this lovely young girl instead of having been free for thirty years. That's thirty years he's had that she hasn't. He's been able to work, have other relationships, have family. She hasn't. There is no limit as to how grievous this is.
John Sweeney is responsible for Dominique's death but Burton S. Katz is responsible for Sweeney getting away with it. Despite all of his criticisms aimed at the jury, he gave them the ability to find Sweeney guilty only of manslaughter. It was Katz' decision to take first degree murder off the table. It was Katz' decision to not allow Sweeney's ex-girlfriend Lillian Pierce testify. It was Katz' decision to not allow Dominique's mother and friends -- all witnesses to Sweeney's violent behavior and the injuries Dominique suffered - - to testify. Katz would been the densest person in that courtroom not to realize what effect his rulings would have. It was an error that simply could not be overcome by the prosecution, who were desperately fighting on behalf of Dominique. How Katz could have thought that Sweeney's prior history, his violent outbursts and explosions of temper against the women he claimed to love - - his M.O. of escalating control - - weren't relevant, I cannot fathom. Sweeney was allowed to present his side of the relationship with Dominique; Dominique was no longer available to present her side. But her family and friends could. They knew that Dominique had not reconciled with Sweeney, nor did she plan to. They knew his temper and they knew she had feared him in those last weeks of her life. Someone close to her needed to speak for Dominique in that courtroom and Katz gagged every attempt for someone to do so.
When I think about Dominique and this case, I am sad for her. She fell in love with the wrong person and paid for it with her life. To say that's unfair is an understatement of epic proportions. No amount of prison sentence could bring her back but the sentence John Sweeney was handed might as well have been a reward rather than a punishment. I remember that it took six adult men to restrain Sweeney in the courtroom after his outburst. Six men. What chance did the petite Dominique have on her own against the burly Sweeney?
Dominique's funeral had been held on November 6, 1982 at The Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills. A friend of hers would later say that it appeared as if a casting call had gone out, there were so many in attendance. Not the media and not gawkers; all people that Dominique had touched who mourned her loss. She was buried at Westwood Memorial Park, not far from the grave of family friend Natalie Wood, who had been placed to rest there a year earlier. Six years after Dominique was laid to rest, her Poltergeist co-star Heather O'Rourke would also find Westwood as her final home.
Dominique's grave marker, with her name, the years of her birth and death, have the notations "Beloved Daughter and Sister" and "Loved By All." An extremely fitting epitaph.
|Dominique's grave, photo taken by me during a visit to Westwood Memorial Park|