Brando’s Son Pleads Guilty to Voluntary Manslaughter : Courts: D.A.’s deal spares Christian Brando a murder trial. He could get a maximum of 16 years in prison.
With their star witness in Tahiti and their murder case in shambles, Los Angeles County prosecutors on Friday struck a plea bargain with actor Marlon Brando’s eldest son, who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the killing of his half-sister’s lover.
In a proceeding that took only 10 minutes, Christian Brando entered his guilty plea to the charge--including a special allegation that he committed the crime with a handgun--before a packed courtroom in Santa Monica.
Brando, dressed in a charcoal gray suit, white shirt and burgundy tie, was somber throughout. His only comments came in one-word responses--”Yes” and “Guilty”-- when asked if he waived his rights and how he pleaded.
Later, as his lawyer addressed a throng of reporters gathered outside the courthouse under drizzling gray skies, the 32-year-old free-lance welder slipped quietly away in a chauffeur-driven black Mercedes-Benz.
His father, who has been at his side through most of the court proceedings in the case, did not attend. “He was in no emotional position to come out today,” defense lawyer Robert Shapiro said of the actor. “His thoughts, his love and his feelings are with Christian.”
The younger Brando now faces a maximum of 16 years in state prison in the May 16 death of Dag Drollet, 26, the lover of Cheyenne Brando. Superior Court Judge Robert W. Thomas scheduled sentencing for Feb. 26. In the meantime, Brando remains free on bail.
Cheyenne Brando, who had dinner with her half-brother on the night of the fatal shooting, was a crucial witness in the case because she was the only person who could testify about Christian’s state of mind before the shooting.
But in June, shortly after telling authorities she believed the killing was a murder, Cheyenne left for Tahiti. She has since tried to commit suicide twice, and has been declared mentally incompetent by French authorities. Her lawyer said Friday that she recently received permission to go to France for psychiatric treatment.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles spent six months trying unsuccessfully to compel her to return to testify. But judge after judge--in Superior Court, the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court and U.S. District Court--turned them down.
After a last-ditch meeting Thursday in which they tried to persuade Cheyenne’s lawyers to have her come back voluntarily, the prosecutors gave up. They then called Brando’s lawyer, Shapiro, who said months ago that he felt a guilty plea to manslaughter would be appropriate for his client.
The chief prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Barshop, said he was “personally disappointed” at the outcome. But, he acknowledged, without Cheyenne Brando he did not have a murder case.
“Without her, we cannot legally prove malice and without being able to prove malice, this case is a provable manslaughter,” Barshop said. “With her, this case is a murder--at least, a tryable murder.”
Barshop said he will request the maximum 16-year prison term for Christian Brando. “He is not walking away from this case,” the prosecutor declared.
Shapiro, however, maintains the killing was accidental. He called the plea bargain “fair, just and equitable,” adding: “This is a case, when all the facts are known, that will cry out for leniency.”
The defense lawyer also said he believed Cheyenne Brando would not have made a credible witness--a point prosecutor Barshop disputed.
Friday’s plea bargain marks yet another dramatic twist in the soap opera-like case, which has riveted public attention in Los Angeles for the last eight months. It has also been heart-wrenching for both families involved. “This case,” Marlon Brando once declared, “is tearing everyone apart.”
But the guilty plea, which came 10 days before trial was to begin, may be more of a beginning than an end to the Christian Brando drama. The younger Brando must now face a sentencing hearing, which lawyers estimate could last as long as three days.
The hearing, a mini-trial of sorts, will include a parade of witnesses. Moreover, prosecutors say they expect to introduce evidence that would likely have been inadmissible at trial, including statements by Cheyenne, a statement by Christian Brando that was taken in violation of his Miranda rights and evidence that Christian Brando had been violent with his former wife.
Marlon Brando, who was home when the fatal shooting occurred at his hilltop Mulholland Drive estate, is among those expected to testify during the sentencing hearing, as is Drollet’s father, Jacques.
In an interview Friday, Jacques Drollet said he is “suffering much because it is unfair, very unfair. . . . I was still preparing myself to take the stand in a trial in front of a jury.
Drollet also said he feared Christian Brando would serve little time in prison.
“Marlon Brando is rich, and well known, and his lawyers are very clever,” he said. “They will find a way to get Christian out.”
Had the case gone to trial, the prosecution would have tried to show that Christian Brando set out to kill Drollet because Cheyenne--who was pregnant at the time with Drollet’s child--had complained that Drollet was beating her.
Barshop said the Brando siblings discussed the beatings at length over dinner at Musso & Frank Grill, a famous Hollywood Boulevard restaurant.
“Our analysis,” prosecutor Barshop said, “was that Christian, after discussing Cheyenne and Dag Drollet’s relationship, threatened Dag Drollet, saying he was going to, quote, ‘Bust on him.’ The conversation was threatening and for a long period of time.”
Shapiro, however, said that while his client did intend to dissuade Dag Drollet from beating his half-sister, he did not intend to kill anyone.
“Christian approached Dag with a gun to emphasize the point that he did not want Dag, who is 6-foot-7 and weighs over 200 pounds, beating on his pregnant sister,” Shapiro said. He said Drollet then reached for the gun, a .45-caliber pistol, which discharged accidentally.
Police found Drollet in the den of the 12-room Brando home with a gunshot wound to the head. He was sprawled on a sofa with a television remote control in one hand and a lighter, rolling papers and tobacco pouch in the other.
Marlon Brando, who was in another room of the house when the shooting occurred, said he tried to revive Drollet with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and called the emergency 911 number to summon police minutes after the shooting.
When police arrived, they recovered the weapon used in the shooting as well as a shotgun, a .44-caliber carbine and two unregistered, automatic firearms--an Uzi submachine gun and an M-14 rifle.
Christian Brando also faced charges in connection with possession of those guns but they are expected to be dropped at the time of sentencing.
As to his client’s decision to plead guilty, Shapiro said Brando wanted to put the matter behind him and avoid the public spectacle of a trial.
“He wants to take responsibility for what he did,” Shapiro said. “He did have a gun. He did confront Dag with a gun and as a result of him bringing a gun into the situation, he is responsible for what occurred, even though it was an accident. That is what he is pleading guilty to and those are the facts.”
Times staff writer Patt Morrison contributed to this story.
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