“Well, it’s not something that one just closes a door on, you know. When one is responsible for someone’s life ending, whether it’s a justifiable act or not, it stays with you. You have to learn to cope with it. You have to learn to accept it for what it was and it took me many years to do that. I became terribly rebellious, which a lot of teenagers do, but mine was more a series of self-punishments, because no one ever told me…we never discussed what had happened and so, I had no idea what my own parents thought of me, much less what the world thought of me. So naturally, as most children do, they think the worst of themselves, and I did that,” Cheryl Crane.
With the whole world watching Cheryl Crane’s inquest on national TV, Lana Turner gives the performance of a lifetime in her emotional retelling of the night of Johnny Stompanato’s murder. Never, in her 20 years of show business, did Lana Turner ever perform under so much pressure or for as high of stakes as she did when fighting for the fate of her daughter’s life.
Before a tearful Cheryl can ask whether Johnny Stompanato is still alive, her panicked mother orders her to bring cold cloths and says they must try to help him. Terrified of the act she just committed and the repercussions, Cheryl calls her father Stephen Crane and pleads with him to come over. Both Lana and Cheryl call others before the police, so Stephen, Lana’s mother, two doctors and emergency workers make it to the scene before them.
When the doctor pronounces Stompanato dead, he advises Lana to call high-profile celebrity lawyer Jerry Giesler, who specializes in crimes of passion and defended the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and even LA crime boss Mickey Cohen. Giesler reaches the residence after the police.
Very little blood is found at the crime scene, despite Stompanato having a gaping wound in his upper abdomen, and police find a ten-inch butcher knife on Lana’s bathroom sink with blood on it that is still wet. However, there are no usable prints on the handle. Two officers debate to themselves whether Cheryl or Lana killed Stompanato. Lana pleads to Chief of Police Clint Anderson to let her take the blame for the murder, but he refuses.
Mickey Cohen, the LA king-pin himself, rushes to Lana’s house convinced Lana murdered his friend. Before Cohen can make a scene in front of the others, Jerry Giesler intercepts him and persuades Cohen to pay his respects at the morgue.
The police take Cheryl to the police department in handcuffs so she can give her official statement. Lana asks if the handcuffs are necessary but Giesler reminds her that she agreed to no special treatment for her daughter, concerned that Cheryl would otherwise be perceived as a “Hollywood brat.” Meanwhile, after IDing Johnny Stompanato’s body for the deputy coroner, Cohen hints to the crowd of journalists gathering by the door that he thinks Lana is responsible for the murder. The next day, the papers run headlines like “Lana Fears Cohen Gang Vengeance.”
Cheryl spends the weekend in jail, and on Monday morning, LA Country DA William B. McKesson holds a press conference and promises that Cheryl Crane will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
At Cheryl’s pre-detention hearing, Giesler tells the probate judge that he can prove it was a justifiable homicide and asks that Cheryl be released into her grandmother’s custody. McKesson advises that she remain in jail to keep her safe from pressures from the mafia and her mother. The judge agrees and orders that Cheryl be detained until the next course of action can be determined.
Against the police and DA’s wishes, the judge orders a coroner’s inquest to determine whether or not a crime had even been committed. Cheryl is taken from Beverly Hills jail to the county’s Juvenile Hall, but there is no talk of criminal charges. Rather than being held as a suspect, Cheryl is detained as a material witness and adjudicated juvenile.
An unmarked package is sent to Giesler’s office, full of nude photos of Lana, likely taken by Stompanato while she was sleeping. Giesler calls Lana to his office to notify her about the Cohen’s plan to blackmail her and they burn the negatives, flushing the ashes down the toilet. Cohen, wanting to break into the film industry, assigned Stompanato to take these photos, in hopes of blackmailing Lana into making Stompanato a producer.
After the nudes are burned, Cohen has one of his men break into Stompanato’s home to steal love letters between him and Lana. Cohen leaks them to the press. Two days befoe the inquest, they are printed in full. Cohen admits to leaking the letters, claiming that Lana lied about Stompanato being “unwanted company.” Amicable letters between Cheryl and Stompanato are also leaked, but rather than having the effect Cohen intended, the public sympathizes with Lana in the face of evidence of Stompanato’s increasing abusiveness.
Citing trauma, Giesler gets Cheryl excused from testifying at the inquest. Mickey Cohen is the first called to the stand, but he refuses to acknowledge that he identified any remains as Johnny Stompanato. It’s possible that he abandoned his courtroom crusade against Lana Turner before it even began in fear that Stompanato’s murder would be pinned on him.
After Lana’s emotional retelling of the night of the murder, and a crazy Cohen crony makes a scene, the jury deliberates for less than half an hour and rules that Cheryl committed a justifiable homicide. She is released of all charges, but certain that she is suffering under her mother’s care, Cherly’s custody is granted to her grandmother.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show host Wenndy Mackenzie convinces a doubtful Carter Roy that the official story is the true one – Cheryl Crane killed Johnny Stompanato when he threatened her mother. After being sexually abused by her stepfather, Lex Barker, it makes sense that Cheryl Crane would want to fight back against an abuser and do whatever it took to save her mother’s life. Furthermore, the guilt of killing Stompanato deeply impacted her decades after the murder, which she’s since written and talked about publicly. If she truly had been forced to take the fall for her mother, she could have said as much in the years following her mother’s 1995 death.
Despite the air of mystery and uncertainty still surrounding this case, we are left thinking that sometimes history really does get it right.