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"Grief Enough to Go Around"

By Frank Gruber

I am borrowing the title for this column from a caption that appeared in a Santa Barbara newspaper over a photograph of the parents of David Attias. In the photo they stood outside the Santa Barbara courthouse, immediately after their son's first court appearance, expressing their sorrow that David had killed four young people in Isla Vista a few nights before and their compassion for the families of the victims and the community as a whole.

"Grief enough to go around."

David Attias's trial began in Santa Barbara this week. David, who was eighteen in February 2001 when he crashed his car down a crowded Isla Vista street, is charged with murder and has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

The trial is expected to last eight weeks.

The Attiases are friends of mine. In fact, I have known them since David was two, and in my other life as an entertainment lawyer, I represent David's father, although I have nothing to do with David's defense or any other aspect of the case.

Daniel Attias, David's father, is a successful television director. After David was arrested the press tried to tie the case to "Hollywood" excess and other stereotypes. As someone who knew the Attiases, and something of the truth, I resented this.

I am not going to pretend that my emotional attachments don't color my perspective on the case.

Fortunately, the press backed off when it learned of David Attias' life-long difficulties with mental illness, and his family's attempts to deal with it.

Coincidentally, this is also the week that the 15-year-old half-sister of Katrina Sarkissian, the 17-year-old who stabbed 15-year-old Deanna Maran to death last November, is scheduled to be arraigned on a battery charge related to the attack, as well as a felony charge of making criminal threats arising from a separate incident.

I say "coincidentally," although it doesn't seem like coincidence to me. The Marans live down the street from me, and we have become friends since Deanna's death.

The fact is, my friends the Marans are the parents of the victim of a tragedy, and my friends the Attiases are the parents of the perpetrator of a tragedy. I have tried with difficulty to imagine what it would be like for my wife and me to be either couple, and what we would do and how we would handle our grief, our fear and our anger.

When I first heard of Deanna Maran and learned that she died at an unchaperoned party, I wondered how it could be that dozens of affluent teenagers from good schools and presumably good families were at a party, without adults, drinking, and fighting. Weren't these the same kids who knew never to ride in a car without buckling up?

As a parent, I wondered about the parents of Katrina Sarkissian, the girl who stabbed Deanna, and the parents of the half-sister who had called on Katrina to retaliate against Deanna after Deanna and she had had their own scuffle. I wondered about the parents of the boy who threw the party.

I wondered and wondered and I was starting to speculate, when I remembered the Attiases and how the press had treated them. And I thought about how parents don't choose their children and who was I to throw the first stone, especially since I didn't know much about what happened. So I stopped speculating.

But still, months later, almost no reliable information, such as a chronology of what happened that night, has been made public.

The Sarkissian family and the family of the half-sister have been silent, except for two statements by Matthew Bernstein, the half-sister's father. He made a statement after the release of the coroner's report on Katrina's death, that all he was concerned with at that time was his daughter's sanity, and he was recently quoted in the L.A. Times to the effect that the tragedy was Deanna's fault.

The press, uncharacteristically respectful of the privacy of the Sarkissians and the Bernsteins, has not reported on anything about their girls that might shed light on why one sister would use her cell phone to call the other to come to a party to back her up in a fight that was over, and why the sister would arrive for that purpose an hour later with a knife and ready to fight.

But my emotional attachments are showing. I agree that like the Attiases, the Sarkissians and the Bernsteins have privacy rights. They have much to grieve over themselves, and it is not helpful to make generalizations about people because of where they live, how much money they make, or where they send their children to school.

Nonetheless, at a certain point, with or without objective information, people will ask their own questions and draw their own conclusions.

Why? Because violence among the young -- incidents of madness like the Isla Vista and Westwood tragedies, as well as the persistence of gang-related madness here in Santa Monica -- in the midst of what to the rest of the world appears to be a well-ordered and prosperous society, is appalling. We grown-ups must consider what we can do to stop it.

Last week I expressed the hope that the District Attorney's office would release evidence they and the police gathered in the case to provide an authoritative account of what happened at the party. I don't know if they will, and the decision will likely rest with Juvenile Court, but in the meantime the press is taking up the slack.

The L.A. Times, on Tuesday, published an article by reporter Martha Groves that at least began to present a consistent narrative about what happened at the party and to illuminate the histories of the protagonists, without engaging in stereotypes.

Presumably more information will still come to light. A reporter from the New York Times has been interviewing the kids who were at the party for a story about the case. I worry, however, that a New York paper could only be interested in the case because of the availability of stereotypes.

I still don't know enough to venture an opinion about what happened the night Deanna Maran died, or an opinion about who is responsible, but I am in no way embarrassed to say that I want to know the facts.

In the meantime, there is grief enough.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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