Defender of the Indefensible : Paul Mones Sees Terrified Kids Where Others See Parent Killers

Times Staff Writer

I can't say it's the most fun thing in the world but I think I have more freedom here than I did at home.

--Dale Whipple, 22, currently serving 20 to 40 years in an Indiana prison.

Paul Mones' clients usually go to prison. Many pull hard time--"Star Trek time," he calls it, meaning that their earliest parole dates are decades into the next century.

Mones' clients are young killers.

They broke a taboo of the heart and the law.

They murdered one or both parents.

The Los Angeles attorney may be the only lawyer in the country specializing in the defense of parent killers. These lethal offspring, he says, almost always are abused teen-agers, some as young as 14, who snap and slay in a spasm of fear, revenge and self-defense.

"I basically just take a case where it's clear that the kid killed the person and it's just a matter of proving why," says Mones, 37. "I'm representing people who live on the edge of humanity. . . . These are extreme cases. These are first people who are physically and emotionally and sexually abused at levels that approach torture. . . . My heart just goes out to those people who are most vulnerable, who have committed the most heinous crime."

Dale Whipple, for instance, says he endured years of physical abuse from both his parents. In a telephone interview, Whipple told of how, after conspiring with his sister, he used an ax to kill his mother and then his father.

Memory of Violence

"My dad was asleep. I struck my mother with an ax," Whipple said of the night of Jan. 1, 1985, when he carried out his plan, first luring his mother to the garage and, after killing her, striking his father repeatedly. He added that he was "scared" but "was pretty much in touch the whole time."

Mones, who got involved after Whipple's conviction and is currently seeking an appeal, says that abuse against Whipple and his sister was systematic.

"His father would go to these family gatherings with this thing he called his two-by-four," Mones says. "He took pride in cutting it and sanding it and making a nice handle on the lathe and he would beat these kids every night."

The attorney says that Whipple repeatedly went to his school guidance counselor about his treatment by his parents but received no help. "Thirty months later he took his parents' lives," Mones says.

Whipple's case, according to Mones, is fairly typical of the approximately 100 cases in 30 states he has been involved in.

"There are kids who are totally psychotic and kill because they think their parents are agents from another planet," he says. "Mostly kids kill because they've been battered and abused for a number of years and help has not come to them and they know that everybody knows that they're being abused. . . . The good abused kids don't tell anybody. The bad abused kids either run away from home or they kill their parents."

The Price of Abuse

Despite the sadness and ugliness--and the emotional toll on himself--Mones maintains that these brutal tangles of love, hate and violence are valuable lessons on the anarchic price--to the living and the dead--of child abuse. Because parricides often occur in small towns, he says, they bring into open court examples of physical, sexual and mental abuse that might otherwise go unnoticed or unreported.

A parricide trial "is an ice-cold bath that the community takes when it happens because it's a crime that always engenders tremendous, tremendous emotion," he says. "But the problem is that until very recently these cases never saw the light of day. Kids pleaded guilty to long prison terms or went into mental hospitals."

Lenore Walker, a Denver-based clinical and forensic psychologist who has worked with Mones on half a dozen cases, agrees that "there is the real excitement of being an educator in a sense. Juries really do resonate to the information (about abuse) once you get it into the courtroom."

Walker, best known for her work with battered women and as the author of the book "The Battered Woman," said abused children who kill have many similarities to women who turn on their abusers. While abuse is now often considered in the defense of battered women who kill their lovers and husbands, that defense is heard less frequently in parricide cases, she says. When it is, it is often thanks to Mones, adds Walker, whose next book, "Terrifying Love: Why Battered Women Kill and How Society Responds," will be published in October.

Has Been a Pioneer

"Paul has really been a pioneer in this area," she says. ". . . The abuse has never been a core issue (in parricide). Paul understood that and locked onto it."

One measure of Mones' expertise is that he is writing what may prove to be the book on the subject, tentatively titled "When the Innocents Strike Back," due to be published next year.

Mones says he didn't set out to become the kind of lawyer he is, although he went to law school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with activism in mind. What helps make Mones unique is the relative rarity of the crime. There are only an estimated 300 to 400 cases of parricide a year in the United States, out of a total of roughly 20,000 homicides. So the odds are slim that a lawyer will ever encounter a case of matricide or patricide.

For better or worse, Mones did.

"I got involved in this case of a kid who killed his whole family, four people," he recalls. ". . . I found out that the kid had no record. The football coach was asked, 'Do you think so and so could have committed this crime?' He said it could have been anybody else on the team except Dave. . . . The deputy sheriff who was watching him wanted to adopt him but he did a very terrible crime. He killed his parents with a baseball bat. . . . And I said to myself, 'This is pretty amazing.' "

The boy, who had been severely abused, was sentenced to several concurrent life terms, Mones says.

Now Working in Venice

That was in West Virginia, when Mones was employed in a federally funded juvenile rights program and where he developed a compelling interest in children's rights. Today, Mones works out of a cramped, cluttered second-floor office in the Venice area. The walls are papered with newspaper clippings, notes and posters.

It is there, too, that Mones works on his second career, developing ideas for television movies and series. An idea he developed about the child welfare system is being shot with actress Valerie Bertinelli. He also had the original idea for "UnSub," the recently canceled NBC series about a crime unit tracking killers.

Mones' TV work serves multiple purposes, he says.

"It's a great release because I think it would drive me crazy doing the other thing all the time." It also has paid him enough that he can take some cases without a fee, he says, and it allows him to pursue his interests in social and children's issues through the mass media.

Mones' conversion to children's rights activist, like his eventual turn to his grim specialty, appears to have been happenstance, the cumulative impact of exposure to a hundred horror stories during his time in West Virginia.

Dark Jail Basement

"I went to jails in West Virginia where the sheriff gave me a flashlight to go into the basement to find this kid in a cell because there's no lights in the basement. And I go down to this basement that's carved into this hill," he says. "It would have been a great place to store produce but it was no place to put a human being."

Darrell McGraw, a former West Virginia Supreme Court justice who heard some of the cases brought by Mones and who is himself a legal activist for juvenile rights, says the young attorney contributed substantially to "modernizing West Virginia law." He adds, "His unflagging and constant efforts had a profound effect on the law in West Virginia."

Michael Sparks, chief investigator for the Whatcom County Public Defenders Office in Bellingham, Wash., says that Mones was a key player in a defense that got an 18-year-old sentenced to a rehabilitation center rather than prison.

Mones was able to bring out elements of the case, which involved severe sexual abuse, that "no one else was able to see unless you work with these kids on a regular basis," Sparks says. "He was able to put this (the sexual abuse) in such a light that the outcome (rehabilitation) looked amenable to everybody. Even the prosecutor backed off."

Jury Selection Crucial

A key element in Mones' strategy is jury selection. He has developed a series of 65 questions designed to elicit prospective jurors' attitudes on abuse: What is your definition of child abuse? What is your definition of physical and emotional abuse? What is your definition of incest? Do you believe child abuse is a problem? Do you believe it's under-reported or over-reported? Do you think a parent is ever justified in physically punishing a child? If yes, when and why? Are there any means that a parent shouldn't use--a closed fist, a paddle, a club?

Such questions are designed to prove a point--that all forms of violence done to--and seen by--children and adolescents are a key element in most parricide cases, Mones asserts.

"Kids who kill have extremely violent childhoods," he says. "What we're finding is that it's not only the violence done to them, it's the violence they witness being done to people around them. It desensitizes them to violence. What we're supposed to learn as children, that violence is bad, becomes so routine in your life and it becomes the primary problem solver, it's not that hard to resort to."

Ironically, parent killers are not usually insane, at least by legal standards, Mones says.

Why Not Plead Insanity?

"It's logical to think the person should plead not guilty by reason of insanity because you've got to be out of your mind to kill your parents. The problem is, all of these kids are sane at the time they committed the crime. They don't have a record. They tend to function normal to above normal in school. They've never committed a delinquent act in their lives and if they have it's primarily an attention-getting offense like vandalism."

In his experience, it's difficult to determine what may spark a parent murder. While physical and sexual abuse usually are to blame, mental abuse alone may be the trigger, he says, referring to a Georgia case in which a son killed his mother. He adds that the case is a study in ambiguity.

"His mother didn't want him to watch TV and he was so intimidated that he would take ice cubes and rub them on the television set to cool the TV down and the mother knew he was doing that so she would fix the dial in a certain place so she would know," Mones says. "People hear that and say, oh he shot his mother in the head with a deer rifle--twice--and there was no recent physical abuse . . . it's extremely difficult and shows why many of these kids are in prison for a very long time."

And putting some of these killers behind bars may be the only solution, Mones says.

Most Need Long-Term Care

"There's no doubt in my mind that some of these kids have been so seriously brutalized they are threats. But I would say the majority of these kids are not threats to society and they need long-term residential care."

The overwhelming impression projected by Mones is profound ambivalence. During an extended discussion of his feelings about inter-family violence, he makes it clear that he sees no moral absolutes.

"My feeling is that in all of these cases each of the parents is a tortured soul. Each of them pretty much without exception has been abused themselves in very terrible ways," he says. ". . . It's not like they're evil incarnate because someone will come along and say, hey, so and so was a great guy down at the plant. That happens all the time. Or the mother was a paragon of virtue, she did X, Y and Z for the community. They have good kernels to their soul but something very sick happens to them."

After further reflection, he adds: "I think I've started feeling more sympathy in the last year or so for the parents. I didn't feel it that much early on. I just had this feeling: These kids are being screwed, they're being put on trial for first-degree murder, nobody cares and I'm going to at least defend them by bringing some of these things out. And I really hated the parents. Now, as I learn more and more about these cases, I feel this profound, profound sorrow for the parents."

Sadness in Victory

Even a courtroom victory provides little satisfaction, he says.

"You don't even save that many lives," he explains. "No victory is a victory, it's a Pyrrhic victory. . . . When you go to trial, it's a very cathartic experience for everybody. It's uncle testifying against aunt and it's aunt testifying against mother and mother testifying against son. It's terrible."

Yet Mones has one chunk of certainty among all this human debris, especially now that he has a child of his own, a son a little more than a year old.

"All my work has shown me that any hitting is really wrong," he says. ". . . Now that I have a kid of my own, I just can't conceive for the life of me--I guess it just makes it more of an enigma to me about what happens.

"I think I know everything, then I think about my kid and I say, 'I can't believe how parents do this to their children.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°