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Interview With Mother of 'Helter-Skelter' Murder Defendant

Aired June 24, 2003 - 19:05   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You're about to see an exclusive interview with the mother of a girl accused of luring a young boy to his death in a case that echoes one of the most horrific crimes in American history, the Helter-Skelter murders committed by the so- called Manson family.
But first, CNN's Maria Hinojosa has the story of the boy who died and how prosecutors say he was killed.


MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jason Sweeney, only 16 years old, still had freckles on his face and dreamed about becoming a Navy SEAL. Now a tiny American flag waves above a simple stick cross, the site where he was murdered. A judge in the case called the brutality of it Medieval.

JUDE CONROY, JUDGE: They crushed the right side of the young man's face. And the injuries and the extent of the injuries and the amount of force necessary to inflict those injuries is unspeakable.

HINOJOSA: Unspeakable in part because the three young men who are accused of doing this were only teenagers themselves. Yet, police say they operated like cold-blooded killers, planning the murder for two days, listening to the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" 42 times before the assault. The boys allegedly told police: "We stayed in the bushes putting on latex gloves, waiting. Jason was trying to get up and we just kept hitting him and hitting him. And then we partied beyond redemption."

Prosecutors say they used a hatchet, a boulder, a hammer and a brick. The boy Jason called his best friend struck the first blow. "Jason started begging for his life. The hammer went in his head. Then he stopped moving." But prosecutors say Jason's murder could only happen because this young woman, 15-year-old Justina Morley, allegedly lured him to an empty lot for sex and the group wanted to steal his $500 pay.

The attack started when Jason had pulled down his pants, vulnerable and unable to run away. In court, Justina Morley arrived in tears, prompting Jason's mother to break down.

DAWN SWEENEY, MOTHER OF VICTIM: I found myself lunging forward, screaming: You have no right to cry. No right. It was horrible. It was -- you tear my life apart and you're going to cry? HINOJOSA: The teens have been charged with murder, but have pleaded not guilty. For Jason's mother now, only thoughts about the son she called her beautiful boy.

SWEENEY: He wanted to believe the best in everyone. And even when I told him that his best friend was going down the wrong road and I didn't want him near him, he turned and he said, "Mom, maybe if Eddie hangs with me, he'll change, because I don't do these things."

HINOJOSA: Jason's mother says, if they had wanted his money, they should have asked. He was the kind of boy who just would have given it to them.

Maria Hinojosa, CNN.


COOPER: Well, joining us now exclusively from Philadelphia is April Frederick, mother of Justina Morley, and Justina's lawyer, William J. Brennan.

Appreciate both of you joining us. I'm sorry it's under these circumstances.

April, do you believe your daughter is guilty?


COOPER: You say that because of the -- your knowledge of her? You...

FREDERICK: Absolutely, because I know -- I know my child. I know who she is. I know she's not capable of the things that they're saying. She's a sweet kid. She's a timid girl. She's a nice girl.

COOPER: April, I know this has got to be extraordinarily difficult for you. You were at the preliminary hearing that began.


COOPER: I know there's a lot -- I know that your daughter has talked to you about what went on. And I know you cannot talk about that. I certainly understand that. But some of the things that were coming out at this hearing. You have to sit there and listen.

One person testified, an eyewitness, Joshua Staab, said that, after the murder, your daughter was -- quote -- "happy. She had a lot of money. She said it was a rush." The judge called the crime something out of the Dark Ages. What was it like sitting there hearing all this?

FREDERICK: It was difficult. I mean, it was difficult. I'm there supporting my child, as I should be, but it's hard to hear those things. And the other -- I mean, I just -- it's just hard to hear those things. And I'm sorry, but it's just not something that I believe. COOPER: I know your daughter, of course, is still in prison, not eligible for bail. You have spoken to her. You speak to her, I think, every day. How is she doing?

FREDERICK: She's hanging in there. I mean, she's scared, as I would expect her to be. I just -- I just try to give her some hope, you know? She's afraid. And, I mean, she cries and she's sad. But she's doing OK, you know? I mean, I just try to encourage her as much as I can to try to stay strong and just be strong and that we're here for her.

COOPER: She's right now being charged, I believe, with four counts, the same as all the others involved: murder, conspiracy to commit murder, robbery, also possession of an instrument of crime, a hatchet.

She will not face the death penalty if convicted. The others possibly could face the death penalty because of their age. They're 16. Your daughter is 15. If she is found guilty, will you still stand by her?

FREDERICK: Of course I will. I mean, she's my daughter. She's my daughter. That's my child. She's my little girl, you know? I don't -- my hope is, that's not going to happen, you know? But we're just trying -- we're supportive to her, you know? We're going to be there for her. We'll always be there for her.

COOPER: William, you're Justina's attorney. You want this case moved into juvenile court. She is 15.


COOPER: Do you have a sense of what your strategy is, what your defense is going to be?

BRENNAN: Well, with respect to the decertification petition, we're in the process now of preparing it. It will be filed shortly on the day of the arraignment. We're going to be pointing out to the court that, under the legal standards in Pennsylvania, certainly, the judge must look in respect to the commonwealth with regard to keeping the community safe.

But we're going the point out to the judge that Justina is barely 15. She's never really had a chance to be in the juvenile system. The juvenile system looks at rehabilitation and treatment, as opposed to the adult system, which is deterrence and punishment. She has a history of some psychological problems. She is diagnosed as clinically depressed. We'll present all of the psychological reports.

And it's very important to keep focused on the fact that the commonwealth agrees with me that, at no point, did Justina participate in the actual commission of this crime. There's no allegation that she participated in the murder of Jason Sweeney. She's charged with conspiracy.

(CROSSTALK) COOPER: Right. What they're saying, basically, is that she lured this young man to the spot and then stood by as he was bludgeoned and beaten to death.

BRENNAN: That's their position. That's correct.

And under the charge of conspiracy, if convicted, if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound. However, at the decertification hearing, it will be very, very important to stress that she did not lay a finger on Jason Sweeney.

COOPER: April, let me -- we have to end, but I just want to end with you, April, and ask you, you have heard Dawn, Jason Sweeney's mom, talking, and obviously upset, obviously filled with anger. Do you understand that? What would your message be to her?

FREDERICK: I absolutely understand that. I absolutely understand that. I have children of my own. I mean, I have compassion for the woman, understandably. I mean, it's a hard time for her. And I understand that. And, no, I understand that she's angry. I honestly do. And I wish there was something that I could do. Unfortunately, at this point, I'm just -- I am -- I'm filled with compassion for the woman. I truly am.

COOPER: Well, April Frederick, William Brennan, appreciate you joining us.

April, I know it's really difficult for you to talk about this. But I know it was important for you to come. You wanted to talk about your daughter. And we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. Thank you very much.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

COOPER: Well, we're going to follow this case very closely over the coming weeks and months.



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