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Dennis SWEENEY

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

   
 
 
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Mental Illness - Convinced that Lowenstein was plotting against him
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 14, 1980
Date of arrest: Same day (surrenders)
Date of birth: 1943
Victim profile: Allard Kenneth Lowenstein, 51
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Status: Found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to full-time psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia in February, 1981. Released from any level of custody in 2000
 
 
 
 
 
 

Dennis Sweeney (born in 1943) was an anti-Vietnam War protestor and civil rights activist in the 1960s. He worked with SNCC in their voter registration drives in Mississippi. During his time at Stanford University, he was the protegé of Allard Lowenstein, a political organizer who would later serve one term as a congressman from New York.

As described in the David Harris 1982 autobiographical book Dreams Die Hard, Sweeney succumbed to mental illness and became paranoid and delusional, believing that Lowenstein was the central figure in an elaborate plot against him. Sweeney shot and killed Lowenstein in his New York City law office on March 14, 1980, after which he turned himself in to the police.

After being declared criminally insane in February, 1981, he was convicted and served eight years in the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center, New York's maximum security psychiatric hospital. He was moved to a lower-security psychiatric hospital, and eventually started being released for furloughs for increasing amounts of time. His diagnosis was that of paranoid schizophrenia.

Sweeney was ultimately released from any level of custody in 2000 over the objections of Lowenstein's family (who had previously opposed prosecutorial plans to seek a sentence of death for Sweeney), prosecutors and New York mental health professionals. At the time of his release, he had been off medication for six years and had been regularly given access to the community outside the hospital, being required to spend only one night every two weeks in the hospital. Justice Brenda Soloff of the Supreme Court of the State of New York ruled that he was not a threat and ordered him released.

 
 

Plan to Release Notorious Killer Prompts Debate About Insanity

By John Sullivan - The New York Times

July 14, 2000

More than 20 years ago, Dennis Sweeney began to hear the voices that eventually drove him into the Manhattan law offices of former Congressman Allard Lowenstein, where he pulled a pistol from his windbreaker and shot his former friend and mentor seven times.

Mr. Sweeney, who calmly waited for the police to arrive, pleaded not responsible for the murder by reason of insanity. The state did not dispute his insanity, and he was committed to the custody of the New York State mental health system. The killing of a well-known congressman drew headlines when it happened, but except for a few periodic news stories, Mr. Sweeney has remained in relative obscurity since 1981, a year after the shooting.

But this month, Mr. Sweeney is set to be released from state custody, over the objections of both prosecutors and state mental health officials, who argued that he needed continued supervision at a psychiatric center.

After reviewing a plethora of psychiatric testimony, as well as the history of Mr. Sweeney's treatment, Justice Brenda Soloff of State Supreme Court ruled on June 30 that Mr. Sweeney, 57, no longer was in need of hospitalization. She has ordered lawyers for him and for the state to submit conditions for his release by July 27.

''In discussing whether or not Dennis Sweeney currently has a mental illness requiring inpatient care and treatment, we are in large part dealing with a question which has already been answered in the negative,'' Justice Soloff wrote in her decision, which was released late yesterday afternoon.

''Indeed, every issue raised comes up against that same initial stumbling block: for some six years, without medication, Dennis Sweeney has been building an ever more complex, satisfying and successful life in the community, permitted by mental health officials.''

To a certain extent, the judge's decision will not cause any drastic changes in Mr. Sweeney's daily life. For the last five years, he has lived under the loose custody of the Office of Mental Health, staying in a hospital one night every two weeks from midnight to 6 a.m. If he is released, it will be under conditions; Judge Soloff said in her decision that she would expect them to include continued therapy and a prohibition on contacting certain people, including members of Mr. Lowenstein's family.

But in her decision, Justice Soloff noted that prosecutors and mental health officials objected to the change in status because it would make it harder for mental health officials to return Mr. Sweeney to custody in the future.

As long as he is still considered a hospital patient, Mr. Sweeney can be re-committed for violating the conditions of his confinement. But once he is released, even under conditions, mental health officials must prove that he once again poses a danger to himself or to the community before he can be institutionalized again.

The treatment of the mentally ill by the criminal justice system has long been a difficult topic. From the case of John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, to the murder of Kendra Webdale, who was pushed under a subway train in 1999 by a man who had shuttled in and out of psychiatric treatment, public outrage often follows crimes in which mental illness drives someone to sudden violence. Periodically, notorious crimes raise questions about the balance between the rights of the mentally ill and the protection of society.

Experts generally agree that the insanity defense rarely succeeds, and even when it does, mentally ill defendants usually spend as much as or more time in state custody than they would have if convicted of the crime. New York State maintains varying degrees of custody over roughly 900 people confined for psychiatric care after committing criminal offenses. Richard P. Miraglia, director of the Office of Mental Health's Bureau of Forensic Services, said that the average patient spent about six years in a maximum security facility. Mr. Miraglia said that in a comparison of sentences between inmates and psychiatric patients ''for the more serious offenses, it is comparable.''

The issue of releasing defendants who were once insane is an uncommon one. In a recent study for the Manhattan district attorney's office, Dr. Stuart M. Kirschner of John Jay College found that only a tiny proportion of criminal defendants ever used a psychiatric defense. Of 96,000 indicted felons between 1988 and 1997 in Manhattan, only 96 did so. Of those, only 41 succeeded.

At the time of the killing, Mr. Sweeney's illness was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. He met Mr. Lowenstein in 1961 as a freshman at Stanford, where Mr. Lowenstein was a dean. Mr. Lowenstein, who served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1968 to 1970, fueled his enthusiasm for social causes, and Mr. Sweeney traveled to the South to take part in civil rights campaigns.

But because of his illness, in later years he began to believe that Mr. Lowenstein was part of a Jewish cabal that had tormented him by sending messages through his dental work. Mr. Sweeney sought psychiatric treatment, but his illness worsened, leading him to remove his bridgework with a hacksaw, and eventually to shoot Mr. Lowenstein.

After the shooting, he was committed to the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center, the state's maximum security psychiatric hospital. He remained there for eight years.

As psychiatrists gradually relaxed the conditions of his confinement, Mr. Sweeney was transferred to the Middletown Psychiatric Center, which is not a high-security hospital. He was able to work in the community and was released on furloughs for increasing amounts of time.

Since 1992, he has held a series of jobs in the area. He has been a cabinetmaker and a woodworker, managed a woodworking store and now works as what the judge described as an employment specialist. According to Justice Soloff's decision, Mr. Sweeney does not take psychiatric medication, but does undergo regular therapy.

For the last five years, Mr. Sweeney has lived under the most relaxed confinement possible. Although he is still considered a full-time patient, he reports to the hospital for only one night every two weeks.

In her ruling, Justice Soloff reviewed the conditions of Mr. Sweeney's confinement and found that he ''is an inpatient in name only.'' The judge said that she based her decision on the testimony of psychiatric experts for the state and for Mr. Sweeney, and that the evidence supported his release.

''My own observation of Mr. Sweeney showed me a very different person from the nearly affectless person of 14 years ago,'' Judge Soloff wrote. ''This Mr. Sweeney was engaged, responsive and, especially given the circumstances of having to listen to days of testimony about himself and to testify and be cross-examined, remarkably poised.''

Yesterday evening, members of Mr. Lowenstein's family declined an interview, but released a statement though their lawyer, Thomas Engel.

''We are obviously disappointed with the court's decision in light of the strong case presented by the district attorney and the state commissioner of mental health,'' the family said. ''Whatever the eventual outcome of these proceedings, nothing can or will change what happened 20 years ago."

 
 

Allard Kenneth Lowenstein, (January 16, 1929 – March 14, 1980), was a liberal Democratic politician, a one-term congressman representing the 5th District in Nassau County, New York from 1969 until 1971. His work on civil rights and the antiwar movement has been cited as an inspiration by public figures including Congressmen, John Kerry, Donald W. Riegle, Jr., Barney Frank, California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., actor Warren Beatty, White House Counsel under President Obama Gregory Craig and songwriter Harry Chapin.

Early life and start of career

Lowenstein was a graduate of Horace Mann School in New York City and of the University of North Carolina. As an undergraduate, he was president of the National Student Association. Lowenstein received a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1954.

After completing his law degree Lowenstein became a college professor and administrator, holding posts at Stanford University, North Carolina State University, and City College of New York.

Political activism

In 1949 Lowenstein worked as a special assistant on the staff of Senator Frank Porter Graham and he was a foreign policy assistant on Senator Hubert H. Humphrey's staff in 1959.

In 1959, Lowenstein made a clandestine tour of South-West Africa, now Namibia. While he was there, he collected testimony against the South African controlled government (South-West Africa was a United Nations Trust Territory). After his return, he spent a year promoting his findings to various student organizations, then wrote a book, A Brutal Mandate, with an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom he had worked in 1957 at the American Association for the United Nations.

In 1960 Lowenstein was a Delegate to the Democratic national convention.

Along with Curtis Gans in 1967, and later that fall joined by Wisconsin's Midge Miller, Lowenstein started the Dump Johnson movement and approached Robert F. Kennedy about challenging President Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries. When Kennedy declined, Lowenstein, a Delegate to the Democratic national convention, threw his support behind Eugene McCarthy, to whom he remained loyal even after Kennedy's late entry into the race (after Johnson bowed out).

Lowenstein was himself elected to Congress in 1968, but was defeated in a modified district in 1970 by New York State Senator Norman F. Lent by 9,300 votes. Long Island's generally liberal Five Towns had been removed from the district, and the far more conservative Massapequa had been added. Lowenstein captured 46% of the vote in the new district.

The 1970 election was viewed nationwide as a referendum on President Richard Nixon's conduct of the Vietnam War. In 1971, Lowenstein became head of the Americans for Democratic Action, and also spearheaded the Dump Nixon movement, earning himself a place on Nixon's Enemies List. In 1972, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Brooklyn against Congressman John J. Rooney, a conservative Democrat. Rooney narrowly won the primary, but Lowenstein continued in the race on the Liberal Party line, finishing with 28% of the vote. After an abortive 1974 U.S. Senate bid, Lowenstein unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Republican Congressman John Wydler in 1974 and 1976.

Lowenstein was one of the most vocal critics of the unwillingness of Los Angeles and Federal authorities to reopen the investigation into the June 6, 1968 assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Lowenstein's one hour appearance on the PBS television show Firing Line in 1975, where he was interviewed by conservative William F. Buckley Jr., was one of the first times the American public were shown that many elements of ballistic and forensic evidence were radically at odds with eyewitness testimony and the assumption that Sirhan Sirhan alone had shot Senator Kennedy.

President Carter appointed Lowenstein as United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and thus head the United States delegation to the thirty-third regular annual session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1977. Lowenstein served with the rank of ambassador from August 1977 to June 1978 in the capacity of alternate United States Representative for Special Political Affairs to the United Nations. In 1978 he resigned to run for Congress again, narrowly losing the Democratic primary.

Lowenstein was married to Jennifer Lowenstein (née Lyman, now Littlefield) from 1966 to 1977 and the two had three children: Frank Graham, Thomas Kennedy, and Katharine Eleanor.

Death

Lowenstein was murdered in his Manhattan office on March 14, 1980, at age 51 by a deranged gunman, Dennis Sweeney.

Lowenstein was well known for his ability to attract energetic young volunteers for his political causes. In the mid-1960s, he briefly served as dean of Stern Hall, then a men's dormitory at Stanford University, during which time he met and befriended undergraduate students David Harris and Sweeney. Over a decade later, in 1980, Lowenstein was shot in New York City by Sweeney, now mentally ill and convinced that Lowenstein was plotting against him; Sweeney subsequently turned himself in to the police. Lowenstein, Sweeney, and the shooting are discussed in Harris's autobiographical book Dreams Die Hard as well as in Richard Cummings's biography of Lowenstein, "The Pied Piper."

Sweeney was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to full-time psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia. By 1992, Sweeney was on 16-hour-a-day furloughs. Members of the Lowenstein family, who had opposed prosecutorial plans to seek a sentence of death for Sweeney, expressed grave concern about the supervision Sweeney would receive and anger that a murderer was being given such privileges.

Later, two of Lowenstein's children (Thomas and Kate) would go on to work in the death penalty abolition movement. Kate Lowenstein served as the Executive Director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.

A veteran of the United States Army, Lowenstein is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The one time Long Island congressman had a scholarship set up- the Allard K. Lowenstein Civil Rights Scholarship- in his name by Hofstra University in 2007.

Yale Law School also has several programs named in honor of Lowenstein. The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Project was founded in 1981 shortly after Lowenstein's death to honor his contributions to the field of human rights and provide law students with a vehicle to continue his work. The Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic, an outgrowth of the Project, is a clinical course in which law students participate in legal and advocacy research and writing projects for academic credit. Lowenstein's papers are held as a special collection of the Long Beach (New York) Public Library and offer much material relative to his activities and his times.

 
 


The victim


Allard Kenneth Lowenstein, was a liberal Democratic politician, a one-term congressman representing the 5th District in Nassau County, New York from 1969 until 1971.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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