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

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.”

The eldest son in a problem-plagued Irish Catholic family, Sweeney was raised in the poor Pennsylvania coal town of Hazelton. John Sweeney Sr., an alcoholic and epileptic, frequently beat his wife when things went awry. When son John tried to intervene, he, too, was struck.

Thinking back, Sweeney says, his first memory of the discord was the image of his father’s hands squeezing his mother’s neck.

Tightly Controlled

“I loathed it, the violence,” he said, picking his words painstakingly in the first interview he has given since his arrest. Speaking slowly and with little expression, Sweeney, his gray-blue eyes opaque, seems tightly controlled. Clean-cut and muscular, he seemingly has come a long way from his chaotic upbringing. He dresses stylishly and wears his wheat-colored hair trimmed short and his beard clipped close.

He says he became a chef because “I wanted to get out of that little town and I needed a ticket.”

Apparently, Sweeney’s culinary skills were good enough to bring him to the attention of Patrick Terrail, then Ma Maison’s owner, and his head chef, Puck. The two sent Sweeney to the south of France for a year to polish his craft and when he returned to Ma Maison in 1981, he took Puck’s place. He also met tiny, dark-eyed Dominique Dunne.

“Like all . . . females, she would really get into wanting a boyfriend,” said Erica Elliot, one of Dominique’s closest friends. “She was really vulnerable when she met him.

‘She Loved Animals’

“And I guess he had a vulnerable side that he let Dominique see. . . . She loved animals. . . . She looked at him as a poor animal that needed love.

“She didn’t realize . . . that he was dangerous.”

Only months after their chance meeting at a party, the two decided to set up housekeeping in a cozy, one-bedroom house on Rangely Avenue in West Hollywood. There was a porch in front and a yard for Dominique’s menagerie of pets.

At first, the burgeoning romance seemed right. The much-loved daughter of a literary family that included uncle John Gregory Dunne, aunt Joan Didion and father Dominick, Dominique, with a featured role in the movie “Poltergeist,” already had made a good start at forging her own identity as an actress. Now, at 22, she was in love.

“She was fiercely protective of him and I think she loved him very much in the beginning,” said Ellen Dunne, Dominique’s mother.

Memories Are Sharp

A calm, frail woman, Ellen Dunne’s memories of that time are sharp, almost as vivid as the photos of her daughter that occupy the top of her ebony piano. She will never forget the first sign of trouble.

“Boy, we were all so stupid,” said Dunne, who is confined to a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. “She came over here one night and she was weeping. . . . She said, ‘Oh, Sweeney has such a terrible temper. He smashes furniture and throws dishes,’ and I said, ‘Dominique, that is frightening.’

“I’ve never forgotten her answer. She said, ‘Oh, he’d never hurt me.’ ”

About two months before her death, Dominique returned weeping again to her mother’s Beverly Hills home. An irate Sweeney, on pain pills and drinking wine, had yanked out tufts of her glossy dark hair, she told her mother.

Sweeney, contrite and with flowers in hand, convinced Dominique to return home the following day.

The couple visited therapists, but the violence did not end.

Five weeks before her death, Sweeney attacked Dominique again, this time leaving a ring of bruises around her neck. The marks were so vivid that Dominique, appearing at the time as an abused child in an episode of “Hill Street Blues,” required no makeup.

“They were fighting; he was jealous about something,” recalled Bryan Cook, a friend of Dominique’s, who was then staying with them at the Rangely Avenue house. After joining the couple for an evening of “partying,” Cook and his girlfriend had just retired for the night when they heard arguing.

Cook recalls hearing a “clunk” and then “this gasping, the most horrendous sound I ever heard in my life. . . . Dominique ran to me and she had marks all over her neck.”

Sweeney “was very scary at this point,” Cook said. “He was denying completely that he’d even touched her. . . . We were all a little fearful.”

That was the last night Dominique and Sweeney spent together.

Only weeks later, Dunne was in a deep coma. She never awoke.

Not All Is Clear

What happened the night of Oct. 30 is clear. What is not so clear is what took place in the days preceding it.

Although her family disputes this, Sweeney, his attorney Michael Adelson and others familiar with the relationship claim that Dominique had agreed days before to reconcile with her lover.

“Several days before . . . she and John had a meeting, a very emotional meeting, in which she expressed the desire to get back with Sweeney,” Adelson said. “They hugged, kissed and talked about buying gifts for one another at Christmas and so forth.

“There was a part of her that loved him intensely and a part of her that didn’t want anything to do with him for a variety of reasons.”

Everyone agrees that the Dominique who was frightened of Sweeney and frustrated by his constant attention and jealousy was speaking the night she was strangled. She told him their parting was permanent.

Rehearsing for Show

The actress was rehearsing with actor David Packer for a television pilot called “V” when a distressed Sweeney arrived at the Rangely Avenue house to try to change her mind. She agreed to speak to him on the front porch.

“If I had been thinking, I wouldn’t have gone over there,” Sweeney said. “I would not have reacted the way I did. None of this would have happened. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was reacting.”

Attorney Adelson contends Dominique “made some mention of not loving him and never having loved him and he responded, ‘You mean you’ve been lying to me all this time?’ And she screamed, ‘Yes!’ It was at that point he lunged for her.”

Inside the house, Packer heard loud voices, screaming, some thuds. He telephoned a friend and said that if he was found dead, the killer was John Sweeney.

In all, medical examiners later estimated, it took Sweeney four to six minutes to strangle Dominique. When police arrived, they found the actress unconscious in the driveway, Sweeney standing near her. She was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; he was arrested.

‘She Looked So Beautiful’

“We went to see her every day,” Ellen Dunne said. “She looked so beautiful. She had this bandage on her head but her face looked wonderful. We just sat there and held her hand.”

On Nov. 4, doctors removed Dominique from the life-support system and her family asked that her organs be donated. Her funeral was two days later.

Less than a year later, Sweeney was on trial for murder. Recriminations from the volatile trial continue today.

In opening the state’s case against Sweeney, prosecutor Barshop placed great emphasis on the time it took to strangle her, believing it to be the cornerstone of an eventual murder conviction.

He began by pushing a stopwatch and waiting as the seconds ticked off for the four agonizing minutes it took for Dominique to die. The crowded courtroom sat in silence.

Case Went Downhill

“It was a wonderful opening statement,” the blunt-talking Barshop recalled. “It was downhill from there.”

In the prosecutor’s view, Katz’s adverse rulings and the judge’s kindly demeanor toward Sweeney all but destroyed his case.

“With different rulings, you get a different result,” Barshop said. “Evidence that is admissible decides cases. . . . The first and biggest mistake I made was not asking . . . to try it somewhere else.”

Katz refused to allow Sweeney’s former live-in girlfriend to testify about the 10 times she had been beaten during their stormy two-year liaison. Outside of the presence of the jury, the woman testified how Sweeney broke her nose, punctured her eardrum, collapsed her lung.

“The law says . . . you judge a person for his acts . . . and not for the kind of person he has been in the past,” Katz said of his critical decision. “You don’t convict a person because they’re bad people. You don’t convict a person because they’ve done something bad in the past.”

Shaken by that ruling, Barshop said, he was dealt another blow after resting his case. It was then that Katz granted a defense motion to bar the jury from considering first-degree murder. The judge agreed that the killing was not premeditated.

Clearly defensive about his rulings and the flak he took from the Dunne family and a host of victims’ rights organizations, Katz blames the outcome on a prosecutor “who was totally ill-equipped to try the case.”

Katz charges Barshop with failing to place enough emphasis on trial testimony concerning Sweeney’s earlier attacks on Dominique. The jury was allowed to hear about the earlier beatings but Barshop failed to spotlight them enough to convince the jury that Sweeney was well aware of his capacity to hurt and even to kill, Katz said.

“What should have been hammered home was the fact that (Sweeney) had previously imposed brutal force upon the victim, that he knew what his hands could do, that he knew that he lacked control over his own behavior . . . that he knew that once he had access to her he could not control his own violence . . . and that when one willfully places themselves in the position (where they knowingly may cause serious injury) . . . they are guilty of a killing with malice”--second-degree murder.

Family Sees Ill Will

The Dunne family and others contend that there was obvious ill will between judge and prosecutor.

“The judge just hated Steve,” Ellen Dunne complained. “Steve is a brilliant lawyer. The judge is the one who made all the difference in the trial.”

“The bottom-line analysis is the justice system did not work,” Barshop said. “This guy is out. . . . This guy is a time bomb. I absolutely believe that. Wife beaters are wife beaters.”

Perhaps the only one pleased by the outcome was defense attorney Adelson.

“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.

“It was a pretty intense relationship,” Sweeney admitted. “My love was obsessive. . . . I was not truly in control of my life the way I should have been. . . .

“If I was the person I am today, I think it could have worked (with Dominique). I’m more in touch with myself, the violence that’s always been a part of my life.”

Sweeney lives these days with his mother and brother, who moved from Pennsylvania to be with him during the trial. He routinely works 10 to 12 hours at a stretch and spends most of his free time alone. He hopes to marry someday.

“I’m in no hurry, but I think, being the real me again, I think I have a lot of love to offer,” he said. “I’m a very sharing, very generous person. I think eventually that may come to pass.”

A Mother’s Mementos

Meanwhile, Ellen Dunne, her health delicate, lives surrounded by mementos from her only daughter’s life--the gallery of piano-top photographs, a collection of her daughter’s roles on videotape, a watercolor painted by Dominique at 4, a framed Mother’s Day poem she wrote at 10.

About a week ago, on Nov. 23, her mother said, Dominique Dunne would have been 27 years old.