Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 17, 2002
Author seeks justice by writing
Daughter's horrific murder charted Dunne's career
By MSGR. JIM LISANTE
In 1982, author Dominick Dunne, the father of two sons and a daughter, received the phone call every parent dreads. The call informed him that his daughter, Dominique, had been strangled by her jealous boyfriend.
She was on life support and in a coma from which she would never recover. Dominick left New York immediately for her bedside in Los Angeles.
Dominique was only 22, an up-and-coming actress enjoying success after the release of the popular film Poltergeist. The Dunne family stayed with her until the end. Then, family members turned their attention to the trial of her killer, John Sweeney. A possessive boyfriend, he had been unable to deal with the breakup of their relationship. If he couldn't have Dominique, no one would.
The trial should have been a simple affair, but it wasn't. Sweeney's defence lawyer decided the best way to win was to destroy the reputation of the victim. When Sweeney was given a relatively light sentence for his vile crime, Dominick Dunne determined that he would shine a light on how often people literally "get away with murder."
Dunne had already had a long and successful career in Hollywood, and had also written a number of best-selling novels. All that changed after the trial. Dunne decided that from this point on he would write non-fiction, and his focus would be criminal justice.
In 1984, he was invited by Vanity Fair magazine to write of his experience at the trial of his daughter's murderer. The resulting piece, Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of his Daughter's Killer, was a stunning eye-opener for many readers.
The loss of a child is always an awful reality for parents. Death by murder is a particularly burdensome cross, and many parents turn inward to protect themselves from the pain. But Dunne determined that he would use his skill and the inspiration of the justice denied his daughter to challenge America to create a more just, balanced and fair-minded society.
Dunne became a constant presence at some of the most noted trials in recent times. He followed the case of Claus von Bulow, accused of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny. He chronicled the tragic circumstances of the Menendez brothers' killing of their parents.
He brought some sense of insight into the circus of O.J. Simpson's trial. Recently he has looked at the case of Michael Skakel, the Kennedy relative accused of murdering a young neighbour in the 1970's.
As a guest on a recent edition of the television program Christopher Closeup, Dunne talked about his book Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments and its attempt to both explain and challenge our criminal justice system.
I asked him why he is so insistent on devoting himself to the exhausting and frustrating world of these trials. His answer gave great insight into the man. "My daughter never received justice. Her death was, in itself, completely senseless. A sense of fairly accomplished justice would not bring her back. But it would give us a sense that all had been done to see that the crime was not accomplished without consequence. But when justice is not done, the hurt becomes even more lacerating."
And so he writes and speaks and tries to see that, in the end, justice will prevail.
At The Christophers, we say every life can make a difference for the good. Dominick Dunne, a wounded but hopeful soul, believes that. He has turned his personal tragedy into a chance for us to help create a more just society, at the same time making from Dominique's senseless death a legacy of hope. We all leave a legacy of our lives. We need to make it one in which we can take pride.
(For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, Being a Good Neighbour, write: The Christophers, 12 East 48 St., New York, NY, 10017; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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