The Pursuit of Justice
When addiction ended Dominick Dunne’s marriage and career as a prominent Hollywood producer, he thought he had hit rock bottom. But as Dunne struggled to rebuild his life, his only daughter, Dominique, was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend. Dunne channeled his outrage over the killer’s lenient sentence into a new career as an investigative journalist. With each high-profile murder trial he covered for Vanity Fair, Dunne made sure the victim was never forgotten.
“They’re hee-eere.…” With those chilling words, Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) informs her family that their home in a new subdivision has some uninvited visitors: poltergeists, who soon whisk Carol Anne through a portal to another dimension. What happened in real life is just as scary. Many have called the Poltergeist film franchise cursed, because the actors who played the two Freeling sisters both died young. During the making of Poltergeist III (1988) O’Rourke died at age 12 of cardiac arrest, due to a misdiagnosis of her intestinal stenosis. And Dominique Dunne, who played Dana Freeling, was murdered by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, John Sweeney, when she was 22, shortly after the release of the first Poltergeist.
Sweeney had a history of violence: Two former girlfriends spoke out about his abusive behavior, but their testimony wasn’t given in front of the jury, so the judge struck it from the record. At one point, Sweeney attempted to flee the courtroom and had to be restrained, but this too happened while the jury was out of the room. Ultimately Sweeney was convicted of manslaughter, a lesser charge than first-degree murder, and sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
After playing small parts on TV shows such as Fame, Lou Grant and Hart to Hart, Dominique Dunne seemed poised for a big break with Poltergeist. (She famously screams, “What’s happening?” as evil spirits destroy her home.) To some, Dominique’s fame appeared predestined. Her father was television and movie producer Dominick Dunne; her brother was actor Griffin Dunne; her aunt and uncle were writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. But what might have been another success for the Dunne family ended when Dominique got involved with John Sweeney, a chef at an exclusive West Hollywood restaurant. After Sweeney attacked her on multiple occasions, Dominique threw him out of their apartment and had the locks changed. On October 30, 1982, the police arrived to find Sweeney crouching in the bushes. “I killed my girlfriend,” he told them. Though strangled, she was still alive. When Dominick Dunne’s ex-wife called to tell him about the strangulation, she offered only a one-word explanation, “Sweeney.” Five days after the attack, Dominique’s family took her off life support and donated her organs to the hospital. During his last moments with his daughter, Dominick kissed his daughter on the head and whispered, “Give me your talent.”
Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown encouraged Dominick Dunne to keep a journal while he attended the 1983 trial of John Sweeney, who was charged with the strangulation death of Dunne’s daughter, Dominique. Dunne soon came to the painful realization that the defense had to paint the victim as “responsible for the crime.” As he wrote in “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer,” his first essay for Vanity Fair, “It is always the murder victim who is placed on trial.” Sweeney’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter and his resulting light sentence enraged Dunne and transformed him into a victims’ rights advocate.
After joining Vanity Fair in 1984 as a contributing editor, Dunne covered the notorious murder trials of the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector. As a novelist, Dunne later garnered sympathy for young women whose clash with celebrity became fatal. Such is the case with A Season in Purgatory, a fictionalized account of the Martha Moxley murder. In her 1993 review of the novel, columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Dominick Dunne takes all the most chilling character flaws of three generations of Kennedys and compresses them into one creepy plot line.”
In 1991 William Kennedy Smith, nephew of John F. Kennedy, was on trial for the Good Friday rape of Patricia Bowman, a 29-year-old single mother. While covering the case for Vanity Fair magazine, Dominick Dunne picked up a piece of gossip: Smith had been inside the Greenwich, Connecticut, home of his cousins, the Skakels, in 1975, on the night a neighborhood teenager named Martha Moxley was murdered. Smith’s connection to that crime turned out to be an unfounded rumor, but Dunne was intrigued. In 1993 Dunne published his novel A Season in Purgatory, a thinly veiled version of the Moxley case. “I changed the murder weapon to a baseball bat” and “gave some Kennedy touches to the Skakels, whom I called the Bradleys,” Dunne conceded. “All of this was for libel reasons.” Reviewing the novel, Entertainment Weekly wrote with irony, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that A Season in Purgatory, Dominick Dunne’s highly entertaining if rather salacious novel…is meant to represent any family you ever heard of.” The best-selling novel and its made-for-TV movie version brought the unsolved murder of 15-year-old Moxley back into the public eye.
In 1974 the Moxley family, including teenage daughter Martha, moved from California to the wealthy NYC suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. The following year on Mischief Night, October 30, Martha and a group of friends went out for some pranks and later stopped by the house of her neighbors, Michael and Tommy Skakel. She never came home that night. The next morning her body was discovered under a pine tree in her own yard: She had been beaten and stabbed to death with a golf club that was later matched to a set owned by the ultra-wealthy Skakel family.
Martha’s murder remained unsolved for decades. Her mother, Dorthy—who always wondered, “Why on earth did we have to move there?”—eventually relocated to Annapolis, Maryland, where she met Dominick Dunne. Dunne went on to write A Season in Purgatory, a fictionalized version of Martha’s story, which turned up the heat on the cold case. Dunne suggested to infamous O.J. Simpson case detective Mark Fuhrman that he investigate the Moxley murder, and Furhman took him up on it. Furhman’s book A Murder in Greenwich (1998) helped reopen the Moxley case and led to the arrest and conviction of Michael Skakel.
L.A. homicide detective Mark Fuhrman found the infamous bloody glove in the O.J. Simpson trial. Simpson’s attorneys argued Fuhrman was a racist who had planted the glove to frame their client for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Although Fuhrman testified under oath that he hadn’t used the N-word in 10 years, the defense produced a taped interview in which he tells some black gang members, “You do what you’re told, understand, n---er?” Fuhrman was charged with perjury and received three years’ probation. Simpson was acquitted.
Years later Fuhrman’s literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, phoned Dominick Dunne in search of a case her client could investigate. Fuhrman’s Murder in Brentwood (1997), about the Simpson trial, had been a best-seller, and the writer-detective needed a new project. Dunne suggested Martha Moxley’s unsolved murder; his 1993 novel A Season in Purgatory had stirred interest in the case but had not generated an official investigation. A month after Fuhrman published Murder in Greenwich (1998), which identified Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel as the likely killer, a Connecticut grand jury reconvened to look into the Moxley case. Skakel was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
In 1994 O.J. Simpson pleaded “absolutely, 100 percent not guilty” to killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. At the conclusion of the nine-month “trial of the century,” the jury deliberated for four hours and found Simpson not guilty. The televised reaction of Dominick Dunne, covering the trial for Vanity Fair, became an iconic representation of many Americans’ shock at the verdict: His jaw gaped open as he sat stunned. Thirteen years later Dunne again faced Simpson in a courtroom: This time the football legend was accused of breaking into a $35-a-night Las Vegas hotel room with a gang of five men to retrieve sports memorabilia Simpson claimed belonged to him. A jury convicted Simpson on charges of burglary and kidnapping, and the judge gave him 15 years in prison, remarking, as if to preempt any future criticism, “I’m not here to sentence Mr. Simpson for what happened in his life previously in the criminal justice system.” All the same, Dunne wrote, “The harshness of the sentence for a relatively unimportant crime doesn’t matter. If it is an atonement for the murders he got away with 13 years ago, I think he deserves his punishment.”
Dominick Dunne began his showbiz career in 1949, stage-managing TV’s Howdy Doody Show, but after moving to Hollywood, Dunne produced a string of hit films, including The Boys in the Band (1970), The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Play It As It Lays (1972). Dunne and his wife, Ellen (nicknamed Lenny), became known for throwing lavish parties, hosting their friends Warren Beatty, Truman Capote, Steve McQueen, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Tuesday Weld and Natalie Wood. But years of partying took their toll. Alcohol and cocaine abuse, along with Dunne’s vicious tongue (he once made a fat joke about superagent Sue Mengers), eventually wrecked his marriage and career. In 1979 Dunne retreated to Oregon and extended a one-week vacation to six months in a one-room cabin with no television or phone. He stopped drinking and taking drugs, and he began writing a work-for-hire sequel to Joyce Haber’s novel The Users (1976), clumsily titled The Winners (1982). If nothing else, the book proved he could write. Dunne sold everything he owned, moved to New York City and began work on a roman à clef about the murder of banking heir William Woodward, later published as The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.
On October 30, 1955, after spending the evening at a party honoring the Duchess of Windsor and then retiring to their separate bedrooms, Ann Woodward shot dead her financier husband, William. Both had been armed with loaded weapons, as there were reports of a prowler near their Oyster Bay, Long Island, estate. The shooting, ruled accidental by a New York grand jury, nonetheless ruined Ann’s social standing. Two decades later, word reached Ann that Esquire magazine was going to publish a story by Truman Capote disclosing the entire Woodward saga. Capote and Ann were already in a feud: She had called him a “little faggot,” and he nicknamed her Miss Bang Bang. Rather than face notoriety again, Ann committed suicide. Her mother-in-law, Elsie, commented, “Well, that’s that. She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her.”
When Dominick Dunne wrote The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, a fictionalized version of the Woodward murder, he may have had different motives from Capote’s. The crime occurred on Mischief Night, October 30. So did, in 1975, the murder of young Martha Moxley, which Dunne chronicles in A Murder in Greenwich (1998). So did, in 1982, the murder of his own daughter, Dominique.