Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Christian Brando — A Hollywood Family Tragedy

Plea Deal

The prosecutors' first-degree murder case fell apart over the course of the next six months. Repeated efforts to have Cheyenne Brando returned to the United States failed. Further, a tape with Christian's confession was ruled inadmissible when the judge learned authorities did not advise Christian that he could have an attorney provided free of charge if he could not afford one. He was warned that he could have an attorney present during questioning and Detective Osti admitted that, in light of Brando's wealth, he assumed Christian did not need a public defender.

Judge Larry Fidler (AP)
Judge Larry Fidler (AP)

That was a mistake, Shapiro told Municipal Court Judge Larry Fidler. The judge agreed, and told prosecutors they could not use the tape in the trial.

"It's a clear error," Fidler said. "I will not allow the statement to come in."

Prosecutors were disappointed, but vowed to press on with the first-degree murder charges. They said there was plenty of other evidence to show that Christian's claims that the gun went off during a struggle were false.

Then they were dealt a second blow when Fidler ruled that Cheyenne's statements could not be used in the trial unless she was brought back to the States during a trial to allow cross-examination. Cheyenne remained hospitalized in Tahiti, where she was receiving psychological counseling. All attempts to have her brought back to the United States met with failure.

In December 1990, Superior Court Judge Joel Rudof issued a five-page ruling permanently stopping prosecutors from pursuing Cheyenne. He cited psychiatric reports he received from her doctors in Tahiti and said the district attorney's office failed to provide convincing justification for extraditing her, something he said would significantly damage her already vulnerable psyche. After the California Court of Appeals, the state Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court agreed, the ruling was finalized and prosecutors ended their pursuit.

Tahitian officials, however, did not, and arrested her on accessory to murder charges, which were later dismissed.

Christian Brando pleads guilty with attorney Robert Shapiro
Christian Brando pleads guilty with
attorney Robert Shapiro

Rudof's decision gave Shapiro the edge he needed to push for plea negotiations and in January 1991 Christian Brando and the Los Angeles district attorney reached an agreement for a guilty plea on a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Christian's guilty plea on January 5, 1991, was made with no sentencing guarantees, which only extended the spectacle longer.

"Without [Cheyenne] we cannot legally prove malice and without being able to prove malice, this case is a provable manslaughter," prosecutor Steven Barshop said. "With her, this is a murder — at least a tryable murder."

Jacques Drollet expressed disappointment at Christian's plea.

"Marlon Brando is rich, and well known, and his lawyers are very clever," he said. "They will find a way to get Christian out."

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