Murder Or Self-Defense?

Mindy Says She Was Abused

On the evening of Sept. 27, 1995, in a small town in rural Ohio, 16-year-old Mindy Berenyi broke into her father Andy's bedroom, took his shotgun, and when he came home, she shot and killed him.

Mindy's stepmother Joni came home to find the distraught teen with the gun to her head. She persuaded her stepdaughter to put down the gun, and they drove to Ohio's Paulding County Sheriff's Department, where Mindy tearfully confessed.

"I just got really mad, and I moved the gun, and I shot it, and I ran over to Dad, and I held him," she told police that night.

Was this cold-blooded murder or self defense? There are two starkly different accounts of what happened behind closed doors in the Berenyi household. Mindy claims her father abused her for years, sexually, physically and emotionally. She had just found out she was pregnant and was terrified to tell her father.

Mindy claims she stole her father's shotgun because she planned to kill herself that night. When he came home suddenly, she says that years of abuse by her father triggered an intense fear. Mindy says she thought her father was going to kill her - so she shot him in self-defense.

But other family members remember Andy Berenyi differently. Joni Berenyi, Andy's second wife, says her husband was a "great father."

"Andy was a strict parent but he was not an abusive parent," says Joni Berenyi, who married Andy Berenyi in 1992 and had helped raise Mindy since she was 8. "I loved her as my own," she says.

Bill and Ruby Berenyi, Andy's parents, lived two houses down from their son and his family. "You ask almost 99 percent of the people that knew Andy, and I bet you anything that you would not find one man that says anything against Andy," says Bill Berenyi.

When Mindy became a teen-ager, she became rebellious, say Bill, Ruby and Joni Berenyi. "You have to realize what kind of girl you're working with," says Ruby Berenyi. "She's not an ordinary teen-ager, no way."

The grandparents say she was lying, doing drugs, running away, even stealing her father's car. Andy Berenyi imposed strict rules only because he was trying to save his daughter, they say.

Bill, Ruby and Joni Berenyi all believe that Mindy murdered her father. "She shows no remorse," says Ruby Berenyi.

The killing has divided the Berenyi family. Mindy's mother Shirley has sided with her daughter. Several years before the shooting, Shirley Berenyi had divorced Andy Berenyi and left her three children with him because he abused her, she says, both physically and emotionally.

Looking back, Shirley Berenyi says, she should have understood what really was going on between her daughter and her ex-husband. She says she experienced exactly the same kind of abuse from him.

"He used intimidation, threats and violence to control you," Shirley Berenyi says of her ex-husband. "He didn't beat me. He would choke me, slam me against thwall."

In 1996 Mindy pled no contest to murder and was already halfway through her minimum 10-year prison sentence. At the time, battered child syndrome was not an accepted defense in Ohio. By 1998, it had become a possible defense; Mindy and her attorney decided to reject the offer of a new plea bargain and instead made the risky choice to pursue a total acquittal.

In September, Mindy was put on trial for a third time.

At her new trial, Mindy now faced a charge of aggravated murder and a possible life sentence. Her defense hinged on the claim that the physical and emotional abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her father left her in such terror of him that one look from him that night sent her over the edge.

"She killed her father, she shot him, but she didn't murder him," says Larry Dilabbio, Mindy's lawyer.

"(It was) self-defense, pure and simple," he says. "At that particular time in her mind there was a perception of imminent danger - of fear."

But the defense has a problem: Mindy Berenyi, now 20, told no one about the abuse until after the killing. Why not? "I was scared," she says. "I didn't trust anybody."

The prosecutor in the case, Joseph Burkhard, argued that Mindy Berenyi had planned the crime.

For her part, Mindy Berenyi claims that she had originally taken the gun to kill herself and had entered the bathroom because it would be the easiest room to clean after a bloody suicide. But because she was pregnant at the time, she says, she began to have second thoughts about suicide.

If Mindy Berenyi wanted to kill herself, Burkhard wonders, why did she go to the kitchen bathroom, rather than to the larger bathroom next to the master bedroom. He argues that the kitchen bathroom was the perfect spot for her to lie in wait.

Burkhard also contends that Mindy Berenyi's claim of self-defense makes no sense, since she shot her father in the back, from 40 feet away. "There's no confrontation, no verbal exchange, no physical exchange, prior to the shooting," Burkhard says.

Jurors could have agreed with Burkhard's allegation and still acquitted Mindy Berenyi - if they accepted the battered child defense, which contends that she feared for her life.

What does the jury decide? Find out in A Family Divided.

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