Menendez Brothers' Trials: 1993-94 & 1995-96
Menendez Brothers' Trials: 1993-94
Defendants: Lyle and Erik Menendez
Crimes Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Leslie Abramson, Jill Lansing; second trial: Leslie Abramson, Jill Lansing, Barry Levin
Chief Prosecutor: First trial: Pamela Bozanich; second trial: David Conn
Judge: Both trials: Stanely M. Weisberg
Place: Both Trials: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trials: First trial: July 20, 1993-January 28, 1994; second trial: August 23, 1995-March 20, 1996
Verdict: First trial: Mistrial; second trial: guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances
Sentence: 2 consecutive life sentences for both Lyle and Erik Memendez
SIGNIFICANCE: The Menendez brothers' trials, claiming self-defense for brutally murdering their parents after enduring years of sexual and emotional abuse, revealed another, more sinister, motive for their crime: a vast inheritance upon their parents' death.
On the evening of August 20, 1989, with bowls of strawberries and ice cream in their laps, entertainment magnate Jose Menendez and his wife, Kitty, were watching television in the den of their Beverly Hills mansion. Unexpectedly, their sons Lyle and Eric allegedly burst through the door with 12-gauge shotguns, killing their parents. Bizarre as it may sound, this bloody "fact" would be the least disputed feature of one of the most controversial court battles of the decade.
Organized Crime Hit?
Detectives weighing the ferocity of the homicides thought the killings had the look of an organized crime hit. Jose Menendez, a 45-year-old Cuban immigrant and self-made millionaire, had dealings throughout the film and music distribution industry, including a production interest in Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" movies. It seemed unlikely that anyone would pump 15 shotgun rounds into the Menendez couple unless that person were trying to make a statement.
As time passed, however, the police took a closer look at the Menendez sons, who were heirs to their parents' $14-million fortune. Lyle, 22, and Erik, 19, spent over a half million dollars on new cars, watches, and a restaurant business soon after their parents' funerals. Suspicious evidence began to accumulate.
In March 1990, police, using search warrants, confiscated the records of Dr. L. Jerome Oziel, the psychotherapist who had been treating the brothers. Lyle Menendez was arrested a few days later. Erik, who had spent part of his inheritance on a personal tennis coach, surrendered to Los Angeles police upon his return from a tournament in Israel. Prosecutors charged that the pampered sons had murdered their parents because of an impatient desire to collect their inheritance.
The most incriminating evidence was said to exist in a tape of one of Dr. Oziel's therapy sessions. A legal battle quickly erupted over whether or not the tape could be admitted as evidence. Under California law, such recordings are confidential under the protection of the patient-therapist relationship. Judge James Albracht, however, ruled that the Menendez brothers had threatened Dr. Oziel's life, thus voiding any claim to confidentiality. After two years of grappling over the issue, the state Supreme Court ruled that only a tape of Dr. Oziel dictating his notes from the session would be admissible as evidence.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Erik and Lyle would face death in California's gas chamber. In an unusual arrangement, the brothers were to be tried simultaneously by the same judge but before two separate juries.
Testimonials of Sexual Abuse
Throughout the three years before the Menendez brothers were brought to trial, they repeatedly denied shooting their parents. A week before the trial began on July 20, 1993, however, the brothers admitted to the killings. Nevertheless, they pleaded not guilty, claiming that they had acted in self-defense after years of suffering sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of their parents.
"We are not disputing where it happened, how it happened, who did it," Jill Lansing, Lyle's lawyer, said in her opening statement. "What we will prove to you is that it was done out of fear."
Lansing and Leslie Abramson, Erik's attorney, called over 30 relatives, neighbors, teachers and sports coaches to the stand. They all described Jose Menendez as a success-obsessed tyrant who completely dominated his sons' lives, publicly humiliating them whenever he felt their conduct was unsatisfactory. Kitty Menendez was described as depressed, prone to hysterical fits and suicidal over her husband's extramarital affairs. While the Menendez brothers were legally adults when they killed their parents, the defense attorneys consistently referred to them as "children."
After a month of hearing testimony of witnesses who remembered Jose and Kitty as less than model parents, Judge Stanley M. Weisberg had heard enough. "We're not talking about a child custody case," he snapped. Lansing and Abramson were ordered to put their clients on the stand.
Jose Menendez had been accused of browbeating his sons to attain excellent grades and high tennis scores. However, when Lyle took the witness stand, he painted a profoundly darker picture of his father's demanding nature. He testified that his father had begun showing the boys pornographic videos and telling them about homosexual bonding rituals between soldiers in ancient Greece when he was six and Eric was three years old. The defense produced nude childhood snapshots of Lyle taken by his father. Lyle recalled his father massaging him after sports practices when he was a child. The rubdowns turned into forced oral sex. When he was seven, Lyle said, his father sodomized him.
"I told my mom to tell Dad to leave me alone, that he keeps touching me," Lyle said. "She told me to stop it, that I was exaggerating, and my dad had to punish me when I did things wrong."
With tears in his eyes, Lyle said the abuse stopped when he was eight, but that his father threatened to kill him if he ever revealed the truth.
In August 1989 Erik confided to his older brother that Jose had been sexually molesting him for years. Five days before the killings, Lyle confronted his father.
"What I do with my son is none of your business," Lyle recalled his father retorting. "I warn you, don't throw your life away."
Lyle persisted, telling his father that he would expose the abuse if it continued.
According to Lyle, Jose replied, "We all make choices in life, son. Erik made his. You've made yours." From that moment on, Lyle felt his and his brother's lives were in danger. "I felt he had no choice but that he would kill us, that he would get rid of us in some way because he thought I was going to ruin him."
Kitty became hysterical after the confrontation. She told Erik that if Lyle "had just kept his mouth shut, things might have worked out in this family." The brothers took this as proof that their parents were planning to kill them soon. According to the brothers, things remained tense in the Menendez household for the next few days. When their parents disappeared into the den, the brothers suspected an attack, got their guns, and burst through the door, firing.
Deputy District Attorney Pamela Bozanich declared that the tales of abuse were nonsense. She made Lyle admit that he had lied to detectives and had discreetly removed shotgun shell casings from his car while police combed the gory crime scene.
The brothers claimed they had bought shotguns for protection. Yet Bozanich established that they had deliberately bought the guns out of town with false identification, paying in cash so that the purchase could not be traced. Bozanich scoffed at Lyle's claim that he placed the muzzle of his shotgun against his fatally wounded mother's cheek and fired because he was "afraid" of her.
On November 3, after Lyle's emotional testimony and Bozanich's fierce cross-examination, the drama halted with a fresh dispute over Dr. Oziel's therapy session tape. Playing of the actual tape had been barred by the pretrial ruling. During the trial, however, defense attorneys had made the defendants' psychological health a crucial issue. Therefore, Judge Weisberg decided, the tape should be heard.
Battle over Incriminating Tape
In an effort to portray their case to its best advantage before the juries, both sides immediately began battling over which one would be able to introduce the tape in court. The judge ordered that the tape be turned over to the prosecution, but allowed the defense to introduce it as evidence.
On the tape, Lyle and Erik said nothing to their therapist about sexual or physical abuse at the hands of either of their parents. They said nothing about killing for their inheritance. They confessed to the shootings, but identifying the killers was no longer the central mystery it had been when police seized the tape over three years earlier. Both sides agreed that the fate of the Menendez brothers now hinged on their motive for killing their parents. The tape gave no answers.
The case took an odd turn as soon as the tape ran out. Ms. Judalon Smyth, Dr. Oziel's former lover, had helped to launch the prosecution's case. In 1990, she had given police a sworn affidavit claiming that she had overheard the Menendez brothers talk about committing "the perfect killing" and threatening Dr. Oziel because he knew too much.
"I can't believe you did this," Smyth swore she had heard Lyle tell Erik. "I can't believe you told him. I don't really have a brother now. I could get rid of you for this. I hope you realize what we're going to have to do. We've got to kill him and anyone associated with him."
Smyth's tip helped police make the arrest. Knowledge of the threat against Oziel was what had allowed the prosecution to bypass patient therapist confidentiality in introducing the tape.
Now, however, Smyth turned defense witness. Her affair with Oziel, who was married during their relationship, was over. She was suing him for rape, assault, and forcing her to take mind-controlling prescription drugs. When she took the stand at the Menendez trial, she disclaimed her previous statements, saying that the psychotherapist had "brainwashed" her into believing what she told police three years ago. Vexed prosecutors accused Smyth of changing her story in order to take revenge on her former lover.
The defense introduced substantial testimony about the nature of psychological abuse in order to support claims of sexual victimization. Experts explained how the brothers' secrecy, along with their simultaneous attachment to and violence toward their parents, was consistent with the symptoms of "battered wife syndrome."
Six months of testimony had passed when closing arguments began on December 8. Prosecutor Bozanich depicted the brothers as "vicious, spoiled brats" who had killed their parents out of greed and then lied repeatedly to cover their tracks. When they were caught, Bozanich continued, the pattern of lies grew into elaborate tales of abuse intended to gain sympathy. Even if the unproved allegations of abuse were true, however, the brothers should not go free.
"We don't execute child molesters in California. Some of you think we should," Bozanich told the jurors. "But the state does not execute child molesters, and these defendants cannot execute them either."
The defense's demonization of Jos6 and Kitty Menendez continued into the final arguments. Some legal observers wondered why the prosecution had not pressed the brothers harder to explain why they had killed their allegedly unstable but unthreatening mother.
"It may be hard for you to believe that these parents could have killed their children," Lansing proposed. "But is it so hard to understand that these children believed their parents would kill them?"
Judge Weisberg's final instructions to the twin juries ruled out acquittals. The judge declared that the facts did not support a plea of "perfect selfdefense," in which "a reasonable and honest belief that their own lives were in imminent danger" led the brothers to kill.
The jurors had four options. If it was agreed that the brothers had maliciously plotted to kill their parents, a verdict of first-degree murder could warrant the death penalty. Varying sentences could be imposed for convictions of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. If the brothers were found guilty of "involuntarily" shooting their parents out of a genuine but unreasonable fear, they could be sentenced to a term shorter than the time served since their arrest.
After 16 days of deliberations, Erik's jury told Judge Weisberg that it could not agree on a verdict. Weisberg ordered the jurors to keep talking, but after nearly three weeks of shouting behind closed doors, the jurors gave up. Judge Weisberg declared a mistrial and released the jurors with a warning not to speak to the media. He did not want Lyle's unsequestered jury to be influenced.
However, two weeks later, on January 28, Lyle's jury reported that it was also deadlocked. As weary attorneys on both sides watched, a second mistrial was declared. Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti immediately announced that the Menendez brothers would face a second trial for first-degree murder, with no possibility of plea bargaining.
Strong disagreements over the sexual abuse claims had scuttled any chance for unanimous verdicts. With both juries stubbornly divided over the brothers' truthfulness, the final votes were scattered over the three most serious verdicts possible, each with its own implicit, differing degree of guilt. Only one of the 24 jurors had voted for the least serious charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Regardless of his intent, Lyle's testimony indicated that he had made most of the decisions regarding the shootings, with his younger brother passively agreeing to participate. Yet Erik's jury had been the most contentious, with an almost even split between men voting for first degree murder and women voting for voluntary manslaughter. The female jurors complained that sexist bullying and male jurors' homophobic suspicions about Erik's sexuality had prevented a serious resolution of the case.
Defense attorney Abramson's tough, flamboyant defense had kindled tension between her and Judge Weisberg throughout the first trial. She continued her public assault on the prosecution after the verdict. She faulted the judge for his handling of the case and declared that no jury would ever be able to agree on a verdict. To prove her point, she invited the sympathetic women jurors to her home for dinner, a telephone chat with Erik, and an interview session with reporters about the stormy deliberations in the jury room.
While her detractors accused her of being a media hound, others marveled at her unabashed willingness to exploit the media on behalf of her client. Both critics and sympathizers agreed that publicizing her post-trial dinner aimed to influence the jury pool, while illustrating to the state that plea bargaining might be preferable to the time and expense of a second trial in which jurors might be no more likely to agree on a verdict.
Prosecutors were not impressed. They declared that the defense strategy used so successfully in the first trial would be easier to counter now that it was known. Those who had questioned the sincerity of the Menendez brothers' tears on the witness stand doubted that the defendants would be clever enough to convince a second jury of their emotional fragility.
The trials cost the brothers their inheritance; the vast Menendez fortune was now depleted. Public defenders were appointed to represent Lyle. Erik pleaded with the judge for the State of California to pay his legal fees so that he could retain Abramson as his lawyer. The judge refused. After some grumbling about what a sacrifice it would be, Abramson agreed to stay on the case for a reduced fee.
If the Menendez brothers had killed their parents for money, their reward had vanished. In September 1994, the Menendez mansion was sold at auction for $1.3 million. The money was split between creditors and the county, which demanded restitution for the cost of the defendants' lengthy incarceration. Even their notorious celebrity dimmed. Although the trial of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss and the Menendez brothers' second pretrial hearings were held in the Los Angeles County Courthouse, both legal proceedings were largely ignored by the media, whose attentions had moved en masse to the O.J. Simpson murder trial being held in the same building. Coincidentally, Simpson had visited the Menendez family in the days when he was sprinting though airports in Hertz commercials. Jose Menendez, then a prominent Hertz executive, invited the former football star to dinner so that his sons could meet him. According to Vanity Fair (February 1995), Simpson and the Menendez brothers did not meet again until "they were all in the celebrity section of the Los Angeles County Jail, all three charged with double murder."
On April 3 Judge Stanley Weisberg ruled that the brothers would be retried together and in front of a single jury. Judicial discipline and shifts in the defense strategy reduced the potential for sensationalism in the second trial, which Weisberg ruled would be heard by a single jury. The judge banned television cameras from the courtroom. By restricting testimony only to events relevant to Erik and Lyle's state of mind just the week before the killings, the judge eliminated a potential parade of defense witnesses who were called in the first trial to bolster the brothers' allegations that their father was an abusive tyrant.
The most damaging blow to the defense was Judge Weisberg's ruling that the principle of "imperfect self-defense," which had previously been argued so effectively, was inapplicable. Citing a footnote in a Supreme Court decision rendered in another case after the first trial, the judge determined that the principle could not be applied to the retrial because the defense had failed to provide sufficient evidence that Kitty Menendez had treated her sons in any way that might have provoked them to kill her. This time neither Erik nor Lyle took the stand, thus eliminating any tearful testimony of abuse by their father and additionally negating the risk of being cross-examined about the truthfulness of such accusations.
On March 20, 1996, after 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Lyle and Erik guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances. The verdict left the brothers liable to either life imprisonment or death by lethal injection. The jurors, who had expressed uncertainty over the allegations of child abuse, decided against recommending the death penalty. On July 2, Judge Weisberg accepted the jury's advice. The Menendez brothers were each sentenced to serve two consecutive terms of life imprisonment, thus bringing to a close a long and sad story of familial relations gone terribly wrong.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Leavitt, Paul. "Second Menendez Jury Declares Deadlock." USA Today (January 26, 1994): 3.
Ross, Kathryn. "Do Cameras Belong in the Courtroom? No." USA Today (August 19, 1994): 9.
Stewart, Sally Ann and Gale Holland. "Some See Vindication in Verdict." USA Today (March 21, 1996): 3.