Crime exhibit dispute shows families' scars linger

Murder victims' families are offended by LAPD's decision to put homicide evidence on display

Published March 4, 2010 10:59PM (EST)

A dispute over an exhibition of gruesome evidence from famous crimes escalated Thursday, showing that time does not heal the scars to murder victims' families even after four decades.

The son of assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy wrote he was horrified that his father's clothing from the night he was assassinated in 1968 was being displayed in Las Vegas. He called it "a macabre publicity stunt."

After a complaint from the Kennedy family, Los Angeles police removed the items from a display at a homicide investigators' conference. The exhibit titled, "Behind the Scenes: the LAPD Homicide Experience," was opened to the public Wednesday and Thursday after those attending the conference viewed it privately.

As spectators lined up by the thousands to view the famous evidence, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and District Attorney Steve Cooley issued a joint open letter Thursday saying they never meant to compound the grief of murder victims' families. Beck and Cooley said they sought to depict the horror of homicide in hopes of deterring violence.

"Homicide is by nature horrific," they said, "but the entertainment media often portrays it as sterile and benign. When people see the reality of murder, it becomes an unthinkable act."

They said the displays were teaching tools for investigators and were "very carefully designed so visitors would gain a better appreciation for the tragedy of murder and the difficult jobs law enforcement detectives have in solving often very complicate cases."

They added it's now clear that some crime victims' families were offended.

"It was never our intent to cause grief to victims of crime or their families," they said. "Our organizations strive to bring justice to homicide victims not to cause sorrow for their families."

Cooley recently announced he's running for California attorney general. Beck was named police chief in November to replace William Bratton, who resigned.

Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, who was 4 years old when his father was slain at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel, wrote an op-ed piece for Thursday's Los Angeles Times. He said he spoke personally with Beck and, "The chief maintained to me that hanging my dad's bloody shirt from a mannequin in a casino was part of an effort to train detectives. Perhaps he believes that, but to me it seems like a cheap bid for attention.

"It is almost like a traffic cop inviting motorists to slow down and take a good look as they go past a tragedy," Kennedy wrote.

He added, "It is almost incomprehensible to imagine what circumstances would have led to a decision to transport these items across state lines to be gawked at by gamblers and tourists."

Kennedy previously opposed an effort to preserve the site of Kennedy's assassination at the Ambassador Hotel as a memorial.

Relatives of Manson family murder victims Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring also expressed dismay at the exhibit, which included such artifacts as a rope that was tied around Tate's neck and murder weapons used in the killings of seven people. Sharon's sister, Debra Tate, said the families should have been notified in advance about the exhibit so they could prepare themselves emotionally.

Sebring's nephew Anthony DeMaria viewed the exhibit Wednesday at the Palms hotel and casino. He said he spoke to an LAPD detective there and asked to have a picture of his uncle removed from the display, but he said he did not plan to press the issue with the department. DeMaria said he thinks famous crimes become glamorized and he was dismayed at the sight of the crowd lined up to see the exhibit.

Other cases highlighted included Marilyn Monroe's death, the Black Dahlia murder, the O.J. Simpson case, the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout and the 1974 Symbionese Liberation Army shootout.

By Linda Deutsch

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