The Menendez Brothers
The First Trial
The Menendez brothers spent three years in the Los Angeles County Men's Jail waiting for their trials to begin. The brothers were segregated from other prisoners and housed in separate cells in the jail's 7000 section. This section housed high-profile inmates such as Richard Ramirez, known as the Nightstalker, and O.J. Simpson. They ate their meals in their cells and had an exercise period for one hour three times a week. During the first months of his confinement, Erik was suicidal and received the tranquilizer, Xanax. A priest visited Erik during this time and Erik began to reveal for the first time some of the supposed traumas he suffered during his childhood. It was from these conversations that the foundation was laid for the brothers' controversial defense. In June 1990, Erik began weekly therapy sessions with Dr. William Vicary, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist.
Lyle, during the early part of his confinement, spent a great deal of time on the telephone. He spoke to the manager of Mr. Buffalo's often and this caused other prisoners to complain about the number and length of his telephone calls. Shortly after the sheriff's deputies found Lyle's ankle chains almost cut through, they conducted an inspection of both Lyle and Erik's cells. They found a seventeen-page letter from Lyle to Erik along with some notes in Erik's cell. The notes described plans to travel to South America and then to the Middle East. The deputies also found a drawing of a building with stairwells and doors. Deputies tried to match it to the courthouses that Lyle had been in, but could not find a building that the drawing resembled.
In Lyle's letter he tells Erik that he would never testify against him. Lyle also gives Erik advice that Lyle believes Jose would have given him. Lyle wrote, "I am not an ordinary person. I do not see things in terms of manslaughter and life terms. I see only win, loss, honor and dishonor. Dad is watching and I will not disappoint him a second time or Mom by giving up and having their deaths be in vain."
According to Pam Bozanich, one day Erik was caught in a sexual embrace with another prisoner. It happened when Erik was being escorted to the shower room with another inmate. The deputy sheriff guarding them propped the door to the shower room open and then went into another room instead of watching Erik and the other inmate. When the guard returned a few minutes later, the door was almost closed and Erik was sitting in a chair with his back to the door. The other inmate was on his knees in front of Erik. When the guard asked what was going on both Erik and the inmate stood up and looked embarrassed.
In the beginning of his confinement, Erik was also visited by his former girlfriend, Janice. To Janice, Erik was growing up fast and becoming a model prisoner. The first time that she had visited Erik, he handed the telephone to Lyle because inmates and visitors were separated by a glass barricade and had to talk to each other using a telephone. Lyle did not talk to her; instead he stood and stared at her breasts as if he had never seen a woman before. Janice felt violated and told Erik never to do that again. According to Janice, Lyle was considered a problem inmate. He monopolized the telephone on his cellblock and on one occasion was accused of stealing food from another inmate on a special diet.
On December 8, 1992, the Menendez brothers were indicted by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury on charges that they murdered their parents. There were two special circumstances that were attached to the brothers' case which made them eligible for the death penalty: a multiple murder had occurred as the brothers were "lying in wait." A third special circumstance, that the brothers had committed the murders for financial gain, had been thrown out by the grand jury.
The Menendez brothers' trial was held at the Los Angeles County Superior Court located at the San Fernando Valley Government Center in Van Nuys. Judge Stanley Weissberg presided over the trial. Judge Weissberg was in his mid-fifties, wore glasses and had a quiet, scholarly manner about him. In 1992, he had presided over the first Rodney King trial in suburban Simi Valley. That trial had resulted in the deadly Los Angeles riots after four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted.
On May 14, 1993, Judge Weissberg ruled that the cases of Lyle and Erik Menendez would be tried together in the interests of time, cost and convenience. Weissberg saw that there would be an almost complete duplication of witnesses and arguments if separate trials were held for each brother. Weissberg ruled that each brother would have a separate jury. This meant that if evidence that pertained only to Lyle was being heard, Erik's jury would be excluded and vice versa.
The Court summoned 1,100 people for jury duty; eventually two panels of twelve jurors and six alternative jurors were empanelled. Potential jurors were required to complete a 122-item questionnaire. There were 15 questions on the topic of child sexual abuse and violence within families. Lyle's jury was selected first and consisted of seven men and five women. The average age of the jurors was forty-two. Erik's jury consisted of eight men and four women. The average age of the jurors was forty-six.
From the time of the brothers' arrests until shortly before the trial commenced, Leslie Abramson and Jill Lansing had held their cards close to their chests and did not reveal what their defense strategy would be. Bozanich wondered if Abramson and Lansing would use a defense that gambled that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to prove that Erik and Lyle had committed the murders. During a pretrial hearing on June 9, 1993, Abramson said the defense would admit that the brothers had murdered their parents.
The defense would try to prove to the jurors that it was Jose and Kitty and not Lyle and Erik who should be held accountable for why the murders were committed. Abramson and Lansing would argue that the brothers had been instilled with feelings of fear over a long period of time, going back many years. The athletic, spoiled rich sons who had each at one time in their lives considered becoming professional tennis players; were going to be portrayed as victims of child abuse.
The brothers' defense presented one obstacle: the brothers had never complained to their psychologist or anyone else about abuse, there was no medical evidence of abuse, no photographs of bruises, in other words, no history of abuse at all. If this defense were to succeed, Abramson and Lansing would have to carefully reconstruct specific incidents of abuse that involved Lyle and Erik. In order for the prosecution to prevail, they would have to prove to the jurors that the brothers were liars and that their tales of abuse were not true.
On July 17, 1993, three days before the trial started, Leslie Abramson gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times. Abramson said that a series of increasingly intense confrontations between the brothers and their parents had led to the murders. During the interview, Abramson laid out her case which would primarily consist of the defense destroying the image of the Menendez family.
Abramson and Lansing had consulted with Paul Mones, a lawyer and children's rights advocate. Mones had written, When A Child Kills: Abused Children Who Kill Their Parents, a book that outlines how attorneys can successfully defend children accused of killing their parents. Mones' book is based on his research, which showed that kids who kill their parents are usually peaceful and have parents that are very private and secretive. Mones found that these children have a low self-opinion of themselves and react only after suffering abuse silently, usually after years of trying unsuccessfully to please their parents. According to Mones, when these children fight back, they strike when their abuser is vulnerable. The crimes tend to be characterized by overkill, instead of one bullet being fired at the abuser, the child will shoot the abuser over and over again. Mones believes that when a parent is murdered, it is their fault.
Abramson and Jill Lansing followed Mones' advice and dressed their clients in boyish sweaters, sport shirts and khaki pants all in an effort to show that Erik and Lyle were not men of 22 and 25, but boys of twelve and fifteen. Abramson wanted to show that Erik was a boy and that she was his indulgent aunt. Throughout the trial she picked lint off his sweater and she made sure to keep her arm on his shoulder whenever she whispered into his ear. By behaving in this way, Abramson implied that she was not defending a monster, just a misunderstood boy who needed good parenting.
The defense also relied on a diagnostic tool developed by therapist E. Sue Bloom for use with incest survivors. The tool is a thirty-four-item checklist that deals with the after effects of childhood sexual abuse. Bloom's checklist had many items that could be applied to both brothers. The checklist contains items such as fear of sleeping alone; blocking out a period of early life; carrying an awful secret; and stealing, all of which Erik admitted to. Lyle's comments fit checklist items, such as: a desire to dissociate from his family; creating a fantasy world, which Lyle did with his stuffed animals; rigid control of thought processes; and, a feeling that there was a demand to achieve in order to be loved.
Both Erik and Lyle had changed dramatically since their arraignment in 1989. At that hearing, they had appeared cocky and arrogant. The brothers had aged and matured in jail. They appeared to have lost weight and Erik, in particular, did not look healthy. His skin was chalk white and he appeared gaunt. Throughout the trial Lyle would wear his hairpiece, but that was about all that remained from his 1989 arraignment.
During the trial, their grandmother, Maria Menendez and their aunts, Marta Cano and Terry Baralt, supported the brothers. Notably absent throughout the trial were members of the Andersen family.
Bozanich came to the trial with some ambivalence, especially concerning the death penalty. Although she believes in the death penalty, Bozanich is aware that many jurors are reluctant to impose it. Lester Kuriyama was not ambivalent about the death penalty when it came to the Menendez brothers. He thought that the brothers were cold, conscienceless killers. In the weeks leading up to the trial, Bozanich had asked Leslie Abramson if she considered asking about a plea bargain, but Abramson never did. The two sides were always too far apart.
Aside from the attorneys and the judge, there was one more entity in the trial: a television camera. Judge Weissberg allowed a single television camera in the courtroom. Weissberg was aware of the intense public interest in the case and the limited number of seats available in his courtroom, so he allowed Court TV to provide a television camera and broadcast the trial.
The trial began on July 20, 1993 with Bozanich's opening statement laying out the case against Lyle. Bozanich described the brutality of the murders: the six wounds to Jose and the ten wounds to Kitty. She laid the foundation for her theory that the brothers had killed their parents "while lying in wait" as the parents dozed. She described how Lyle had hired bodyguards after the murders because he feared for his own safety. Bozanich told the jury that, "From what we now know, this hint that his own life might have been in danger because of his parents' killings was a lie." Bozanich would often remind the jurors throughout the trial that if Lyle and Erik could lie so frequently and in such detail to avoid being caught, they could also lie about child abuse to avoid death sentences. Bozanich told the jury about the brothers' spending sprees. This was another theme that she would repeat often throughout the trial. She discussed the Rolex watch purchases and Lyle's Porsche, the Marina Towers apartments, Lyle's restaurant and Erik's tennis coach.
Jill Lansing began her opening statement by telling the jurors that Lyle and Erik Menendez killed their parents. Lansing said, "We're not disputing when it happened. The only thing that you are going to have to focus on in this trial is why it happened." Lansing told the jury that, "What we will prove to you is that the murders were committed out of fear." "Fear of two parents who were so brutal, so manipulative, so sexually perverse that they drove their own sons to the most desperate act of defilement." Lansing would not reveal the details of the perversion or the brutality at this point, and went on to describe the lifestyle the brothers enjoyed growing up: Lyle's Afla Romeo, private tennis coaches, luxury vacations and the use of their parents' credit cards. Lansing tried to show that money was not the motive for the murders. Lansing was building up to the heart of the brothers' defense: that the brothers killed their parents because they feared for their lives after confronting their father over a years-long ordeal of sexual, physical and mental abuse. Lansing explained that the "catalyst" for why the murders took place was the fear that the family's old secrets would be revealed and that those secrets would destroy the reputation of "the perfect family."
Lansing told the jury that the catalyst was "Erik's revelation to his brother a few days before the killings that his father had been molesting him for twelve years." This revelation disturbed Lyle "so thoroughly because he, too, had been molested by Jose from the ages of six to eight." Lansing described how Lyle had confronted Jose and told him that, "the abuse was going to stop." Lyle told his father that he was "going to let him take his little brother and leave the house." According to Lansing, Jose told Lyle that "he would do whatever he wanted with his son, and that no one would threaten him." Lansing went on to say that Jose "made it very clear to Lyle that this secret would never leave the family, and that the people who held the secret and this power over him would not be allowed to live." According to Lansing that is when the brothers drove to San Diego and purchased shotguns using Donovan Goodreau's driver's license. Lansing explained that the murders were a result of what "these children" believed. Lansing's use of the word "children" began a pattern that she and the other defense attorneys would use throughout the trial to refer to the 22 and 25-year-old men.
Lansing told the jury that neither brother had talked about the abuse until after they had been arrested and incarcerated for many months because their shame was so great. The brothers had told a family member about the abuse and that family member had told the defense attorneys. The prosecution was always suspicious of how the abuse was revealed. The prosecutors felt that the timing was curious and that the brothers rehearsed their stories with each other before telling members of their family. The prosecutors believed that the brothers had been visited by a number of psychologists immediately after they were arrested. The psychologists who saw the brothers later, after the stories were revealed to the family, would be the experts to testify at their trial. Lansing also told the jurors that Lyle would testify and describe tales of abuse, including the abuse he began to suffer at age six, when he claimed Jose began to molest him.
Lester Kuriyama was thirty-nine and although he may be mistaken for a contemporary of Lyle and Erik's, he was a seasoned prosecutor who held the brothers in greater contempt than Pam Bozanich. He had a deep and emotional hostility toward the brothers and was convinced that they were liars and manipulators who deserved the worst punishment the law provided. Kuriyama never seemed to miss an opportunity to imply that the brothers were a pair of phonies out to con the world.
In his opening statement to Erik's jury, Kuriyama said that the brothers had wanted to "execute their parents and not get caught." Kuriyama told the jurors that Dr. Oziel would describe the confession that Erik had made and how Erik felt that "his father was too controlling." Kuriyama added that "Jose criticized him and made him feel inadequate and prevented him from doing what he wanted." He told the jury that Oziel would testify that Erik thought that Jose had disinherited him from his will and that Erik thought that "this was another reason to get rid of Jose."
Kuriyama explained that Kitty was murdered "because she would have been a witness and would have been miserable and suicidal without Jose." Kuriyama finished his opening statement by telling the jury that the brothers tried to create a web of deception that included false alibis, lies to the police, a stolen driver's license used to purchase the murder weapons and the employment of a computer expert to delete a computer file.
In her opening statement, Leslie Abramson expanded on many of the same themes that Jill Lansing had outlined during her opening statement to Lyle's jury. Abramson told the jury that "Lyle had acted the way he had to defend his brother." Erik needed to be defended because he was the "real victim in the family." She acknowledged that Erik's revelation of abuse might look suspicious, especially after he had spent time in jail, but it didn't mean that he made it up. Abramson said that the reason that Erik didn't tell the truth earlier was because he did not trust Dr. Oziel or his best friend, Craig Cignarelli. Abramson promised that Erik would tell them "why he killed his parents." She did not say that Erik would tell the truth.
Abramson went on to describe how Erik "was groomed for his father's sexual gratification." She described various acts that Erik alleged were inflicted upon him by Jose. The defense had won the right to raise issues regarding Kitty's character to the jury. Lansing told Lyle's jury that, "her children were afraid of her, that's why she is dead." Abramson said that the brothers could not turn to Kitty for "help and solace because all they found was a disturbed woman who dished out more abuse, sexual, physical, and psychological." Weissberg would not allow the attorneys to describe in great detail Kitty's problems with alcohol and prescription drugs, but they could show that Kitty was unstable and obsessive. What the defense was allowed to do, with Weissberg's permission, was to destroy Jose and Kitty's reputations.
Abramson echoed Lansing's opening statement when she described the week leading up to the murders. Abramson described how Kitty and Lyle had gotten into a screaming fight and how Kitty had reached up and yanked Lyle's hairpiece off his head. Apparently, Lyle had lost most of his hair when he was 14 and wore a toupee because Jose had once told him that it was better for his image if it appeared that he had a full head of hair. Erik claimed he did not know that Lyle wore a toupee and the shock of this alleged discovery made Erik take Lyle into his confidence.
Erik told Lyle that Jose had been molesting him for years. This led the brothers to attempt to purchase two handguns, however they told their attorneys they could not purchase the weapons because there was a two-week waiting period. Because the brothers were so fearful and felt they had no time to waste; they drove to San Diego and purchased shotguns. Abramson told Erik's jury how much he looked forward to attending UCLA and moving away from home.
One week before the murders, Jose told Erik that he would have to sleep at home several days a week so that Jose and Kitty could keep track of his schoolwork. Abramson said that Erik thought that this meant that the sexual abuse would continue. The defense tried to weave together a seamless story about how and why the murders occurred, but there were some problems. If Kitty and Jose had intended to kill Lyle and Erik on August 20, why had they invited their friends from Calabasas, Peter and Karen Wiere over to play bridge?
After Abramson had finished her opening statement, Bozanich and Kuriyama reminded the jurors that Erik confessed to Dr. Oziel. Erik had told Oziel about killing Jose because of Jose's harsh treatment of him but had never mentioned sexual abuse. The same was true of Erik's confession to Craig Cignarelli. The brothers had never spoken about abuse until they needed a legal defense, almost seven months after they murdered their parents.
During the first phase of the trial, the prosecution called twenty-six witnesses, most were minor participants in the drama of the case. The witnesses ranged from Lyle's bodyguards to the Big 5 store clerk who sold Erik the shotguns and the two computer experts who checked Kitty's computer for an updated will. The prosecution used these witnesses to show that the brothers were accomplished liars, who planned and carried out the murder of their parents.
The prosecution began its case by playing Lyle's 911 call to the Beverly Hills Police Department for the jurors, who now knew that the whole thing was staged. Bozanich wanted the jury to hear for themselves what a good actor Lyle was. Officer Michael Butkus testified that he witnessed the Lyle and Erik run around and yell after the murders, but not cry over the deaths of their parents.
The next witness was the captain of the boat who took the Menendez family shark fishing on August 19, 1989. He described what an odd family they were and how the brothers had spent almost the entire seven-hour trip huddled together at the front of the boat. At the end of the day's testimony, Abramson told reporters that the reason that the brothers had stayed to themselves on the boat was because they feared that "the boat trip was a setup to kill them." To a rational person this sounded rather farfetched considering that there were witnesses on the boat, but Abramson said that Lyle and Erik believed this. Abramson was trying to establish that the brothers had a growing sense of doom leading up to the night of the murders and that they saw the most ordinary actions as potentially life-threatening events.
Les Zoeller described how the brothers returned to the Menendez mansion and the crime scene at 5:30 a.m. on August 21, 1989 and asked for their tennis rackets. Bozanich wanted the juries to see how brazen the brothers were to come back to the crime scene. The brothers were not allowed inside the house because the coroner was examining the bodies of Jose and Kitty. Leslie Abramson asked Zoeller if he had seen any animal droppings in the house. Zoeller said that he could not remember. Abramson was laying the groundwork for her contention that Kitty was a poor mother and bad housekeeper. The animal droppings would become a running theme during the trial, yet witnesses who had been in the house frequently said that they had never seen any animal droppings.
Sergeant Edmonds testified that he became suspicious of the brothers after Erik told him that when he entered the family room on the night of August 20, he saw and smelled smoke. Edmonds testified that, "I felt that if he smelled smoke, it would have to be pretty rapidly after the shots were fired." Edmonds testified that several of the windows in the family room had been shot out and this would cause the smoke to dissipate quickly.
The prosecution's next witness was a sheriff's weapons expert who demonstrated the operation of a twelve-gauge Mossberg shotgun. The prosecution wanted to show that the murders were premeditated. To fire a Mossberg shotgun, an individual must pull the trigger and go through a two step pumping process before re-firing the weapon. Abramson objected to the demonstration, but was overruled.
Lyle and Erik's friends had turned on them. Perry Berman, Craig Cignarelli, Donovan Goodreau and Glen Stevens testified for the prosecution. The prosecution used Berman's testimony to show that the brothers had tried to set up an alibi using a witness who never saw anything pertinent to the events on the night of August 20, 1989.
On July 26 Craig Cignarelli testified about his visit to the Menendez mansion twelve days after the murders where Erik described to Craig how "it" happened. This was the first time that the jurors heard Erik's version of the events that occurred in the family room and how it differed from the tale of two terrified young men killing for fear that they were about to be killed. Cignarelli also told the jury that Erik had never told him about any physical, psychological or sexual abuse. At the end of the day, Judge Weissberg ruled that Erik and Craig's screenplay, Friends, could not be used as evidence. Weissberg ruled that the screenplay had been written too long before the murders to be relevant.
Donovan Goodreau testified that his wallet with his ID was left behind in Lyle's dorm room at Princeton when he had been forced to leave after being accused of stealing. Donovan also testified that he had once confided to Lyle that he had been molested when he was a little boy. Donovan recalled that Lyle did not respond with any similar stories or remarks about himself and never mentioned being sexually abused during the entire time they were roommates.
Donovan's credibility was challenged when the defense brought up an interview that Donovan had given in March, 1992 to Robert Rand, a freelance writer from Miami, who said he was writing a book about the Menendez case. In that interview, Donovan had mentioned that he heard that Jose had abused Lyle. Rand gave a copy of the taped interview to a Los Angeles TV reporter who played the tape on the evening news. Bozanich was angry that Rand would inject himself into the trial's proceedings and that Rand appeared on television and accused Donovan of lying. Bozanich believed that Donovan had been "fed" information about Jose and Lyle and he was repeating a story he had heard.
Glen Stevens followed Donovan and testified that he had heard stories of abuse from Robert Rand and then had repeated those stories to Donovan Goodreau. Stevens's credibility was called into question when Jill Lansing produced his resume and exposed a number of "embellishments" on it: Stevens wrote on his resume that he kept the accounting records for Mr. Buffalo's and claimed the snack shop had sales of one million dollars a year. Stevens admitted that Lyle gave him one of his Rolex watched which he later sold and pocketed the money.
Later in the day, Bozanich questioned Rand. Bozanich pointed out that on the taped interview Donovan never mentioned anything about Lyle and sexual abuse. Bozanich made it appeared that Rand was the source of Donovan's information.
Dr. Irwin Golden, the Los Angeles County assistant coroner, testified about the ten wounds that were inflicted on Kitty and the six inflicted on Jose. He said that all the wounds occurred in "quick succession."
The prosecution's star witness was Dr. Oziel. Before he took the witness stand, Leslie Abramson promised to "attack his credibility in every way known to man and God." The defense believed that Oziel created the tapes for his own purposes and that Lyle and Erik told Oziel what he wanted to hear. Oziel's credibility was attacked even before he faced Leslie Abramson. On July 23, the California State Board of Psychology filed a complaint that sought to revoke Oziel's license because he had allegedly engaged in "a sexual, social or business relationship with two patients."
On August 4, Dr. Oziel began the first of six days of testimony for the prosecution. Oziel testified before both Lyle and Erik's juries that the brothers wanted to kill Jose because he was dominating their lives and made them feel inferior. Kitty was murdered because the brothers did not want to leave her behind as a witness. The defense won one battle when Weissberg ruled that Oziel could not use the word sociopath. Weissberg considered the word sociopath to be a "buzz word" that would be prejudicial to the brothers.
For Bozanich and Kuriyama, Oziel provided the only detailed recreation of the murders, in the brothers' own words. Oziel undermined the defense strategy, which sought to portray the killings as an act of self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse. Oziel testified that Erik told him that the plan to kill Jose and Kitty was rooted "in a situation where Erik was watching a BBC television show or movie." Oziel said that Erik told him that Jose "had just been completely dominating and controlling and was impossible to please." Oziel also testified that the brothers decided to kill their mother because "the brothers did not believe Kitty could have survived emotionally without Jose." Erik also told Oziel that "Jose's near disinheritance of him was an example of why he and Lyle had to kill their father." Oziel described the killings and said that Erik told him that "Jose and Kitty were 'surprised' when the brothers burst into the family room." Oziel described the threats he had received from Lyle after the October 31 session in which Erik confessed to the murders.
Leslie Abramson and Michael Burt cross-examined Oziel. They brought up his affair with Judalon Smyth and the fact that he had recently settled a lawsuit that she brought against him for $400,000. They also brought up the State Board of Psychology complaint that Oziel improperly prescribed drugs for Smyth and had an improper dual relationship with another patient. In that relationship, Oziel had exchanged therapy sessions for construction work completed around his home.
Before the prosecution rested on August 13, Lester Kuriyama tried to have the "Billionaire Boys Club" miniseries placed into evidence and shown to the juries, but Weissberg ruled against it. To Kuriyama, the miniseries provided the Menendez brothers with a blueprint of how to commit the "perfect murder."
Jose's former mistress, Louise, followed the trial on Court TV. Louise called Pam Bozanich to say that the man she had known was nothing like the person being destroyed by the defense. She also told Bozanich that Kitty had confronted her about the affair, but rather than behaving like a raving lunatic, as the defense portrayed her, Louise said that Kitty was as pleasant as she could be under the circumstances and just wanted to make sure that the affair was over. Bozanich and Kuriyama debated whether to call Louise to the stand to rebut the portrait that the defense was painting of Jose, but decided against it because they did not want to subject Louise to an enormous amount of media scrutiny.
The defense intended to call ninety witnesses, but Judge Weissberg ruled that many of the stories that the defense wanted to present were too remote to have "relevance and probative value" which forced the defense to trim its list to 50 witnesses. The defense case lasted three months. The defense had the difficult task of trying to prove to the juries that the brothers were in imminent danger before they killed their parents. Under California law, the "imminent danger" defense was the only way the brothers could be completely acquitted of the murders or had a chance of being convicted of manslaughter.
In order to obtain either of these verdicts, the defense needed to prove two things: that Lyle and Erik had been in fear of their lives and that the conduct of their parents would have produced that same state of mind in a reasonable person. There were two California cases that applied to the Menendez trial and dealt with the battered-wife and the battered child syndromes. People v. Aris, was a case where the defendant shot and killed her sleeping husband after being beaten and told by her husband that he would not permit her to live. Aris had been found guilty and the appellate court affirmed the conviction in 1989. The impact of this case was that it placed pressure on judges to permit a wider range of testimony in battered-person cases. Weissberg allowed the defense to present testimony from teachers, coaches, friends, family members and child-abuse experts much to the annoyance of the prosecution, who believed that Weissberg allowed too much of the suspect testimony into the trial. The other case that was relevant to the brothers' defense was People v. Flannel, a case where the defendant was convicted of second degree murder in the shooting death of a man with whom the defendant had a history of hostility. This case established the doctrine that an accused person's honest but unreasonable belief, that it is necessary to defend oneself from imminent danger, negates malice aforethought, the mental element that is necessary to convict a person of murder.
Lyle testified over a nine-day period and his testimony was filled with stories about the alleged molestation he suffered from the ages of six to eight and the story that he sexually molested his brother when Erik was five years old. Both Lyle and Erik cried frequently during Lyle's testimony. Lyle testified that at 13, he came to believe that his father was molesting his brother. Lyle testified that his father was so controlling and his mother so emotionally unstable that he sought comfort in his own family of stuffed animals.
Lyle testified that Kitty sexually abused him when he was 11 and 12. He claimed that he would touch Kitty "everywhere" even when his father was sharing the same bed with them. Lyle's testimony was powerful and rich in detail. Lyle's testimony built up to his description of events leading up to the night of the murders and he described shooting his father and then his mother for the jury.
Jill Lansing asked Lyle why the brothers did not run away from home and Lyle replied that there was no use in doing so because his father was powerful and would have found them. Lyle added that he and Erik believed that the police would not have believed their stories of abuse. Before the defense allowed Lyle to be cross-examined, Lyle admitted offering his girlfriend, Jamie Pisarcik, money if she testified that Jose had made unwanted sexual advances toward her. Jaime refused and told the police about Lyle's offer of a bribe. In another attempt to thwart questions that might damage Lyle's credibility, Lansing brought up the fact that Lyle had never told Oziel about the sexual abuse. Lyle denied that he had bragged to Oziel about committing "a perfect murder."
Pam Bozanich cross-examined Lyle over a four-day period. She belittled Lyle's account of the killings and challenged him about the alleged abuse, but he did not break down. Bozanich was more successful in identifying inconsistencies in Lyle's version of events. Bozanich was able to have Lyle admit that his parents did not have guns, had made no direct threats to either brother and that parts of his story sounded "awful," and that "a lot of decisions don't make sense."
On September 27, Erik began to testify. Erik's demeanor was ragged and edgy throughout his days on the witness stand. He would stare out from narrow eyes, appearing dangerous and deranged, and a moment later, appear wide-eyed and innocent. Most of the time, he looked more mentally disturbed than sad or remorseful.
Leslie Abramson did not help matters. She stood next to a lectern behind the counsel table and led Erik through his testimony like a drill sergeant. Whenever Erik veered off course or tried to embellish an answer, Abramson interrupted and barked out another question. At times she treated Erik like a hostile witness, rather than her own client. Abramson's behavior may have been a reaction to the warnings Judge Weissberg had given her during the court session before Erik was to testify. At a sidebar conference, Lester Kuriyama had complained that Abramson had been "caressing and holding Erik in front of the jury." Kuriyama worried that this behavior made Erik appear childlike and innocent. Weissberg warned Abramson "the conduct of counsel in touching and physically reacting to the defendants is an area of concern." He told Abramson, "counsel are to be acting as professionals, not nursemaids or surrogate mothers."
Erik testified that he believed that his parents would kill him. He also said that Kitty seemed to have magical powers, she knew where he went, who his friends were, everything he did. Erik's statements seemed difficult to believe, especially from a 22-year-old man. This was part of the defense's attempt to show that Lyle and Erik had been infantilized by their father's control and that neither brother was the age they appeared to be. Erik testified about killing his parents and the sexual abuse he allegedly suffered at Jose's hands. At one point in his testimony, Erik volunteered that he began to put cinnamon in his father's tea and coffee because he had heard from classmates that it made semen taste better. It seems difficult to believe that this actually occurred because cinnamon has a distinctive taste that Jose would have noticed.
Lester Kuriyama repeatedly tried to bring up the issue of Erik's sexuality, but Judge Weissberg refused to allow it. Kuriyama felt that it was relevant because the defense was trying to make it appear that Jose was a sexual predator. One witness had testified to seeing gay porn magazines in the house, the implication being that they belonged to Jose, which could substantiate the claim that Jose had enjoyed sex with men. However, if the magazines belonged to Erik, this would cast the issue in an entirely different light.
Under cross-examination, Erik seemed to have difficulty remembering details. Lester Kuriyama asked Erik questions about the killing of his parents and Erik answered many of Kuriyama's questions with an "I don't remember." Kuriyama caught Erik in the biggest lie of the trial when he had Erik describe in meticulous detail the attempted purchase of two handguns on Friday, August 18, 1989. Erik testified that he and Lyle had driven to a Big 5 store in Santa Monica and had looked at an assortment of handguns. Erik described how the handguns were displayed in a glass case, how he selected two handguns and how he could not complete the purchase because California had a fifteen-day "cooling off" period. Because the brothers believed that their lives were in imminent danger, they could not wait and did not purchase the weapons.
Kuriyama asked Erik, "now, you're telling the truth about everything in this case, aren't you?" Erik answered, "I'm telling you the truth to the best that I can." Kuriyama asked Erik, "Did you truly go to the Santa Monica Big 5 store on the morning of August 18 to buy these handguns?" Erik answered, "Definitely. Without a doubt I did." Then Kuriyama dropped a bombshell. "Mr. Menendez, did you know that Big 5 stopped carrying handguns in March of 1986?" This was a lie of huge proportion. Erik fumbled for a response. "No, I don't know that. Mr. Kuriyama, there were guns there and we did look at them, and he did say we could not carry them anymore."
This was not the only inconsistency that Kuriyama caught Erik in. When Kuriyama questioned Erik about the television miniseries, the "Billionaire Boys Club," Erik denied that he had seen it. Erik also admitted that he did not think his parents would have disinherited him. Up to this point in the cross-examination, Erik had testified that he thought his parents were. After Kuriyama finished his cross-examination, Leslie Abramson tried to pick up the pieces. Erik told the court that he couldn't remember which Big 5 store he and Lyle had visited.
On October 14, the defense began a new phase of its case by attempting to explain for jurors why Lyle and Erik Menendez could have believed that their lives were in immediate danger, even though their parents were not armed. Ann Tyler, a Salt Lake City psychologist, was the first in a string of experts to testify. Tyler testified that the Menendez brothers suffered from a condition called "learned helplessness" that occurs as a result of intense, repeated abuse. Tyler testified that she had no doubt that Jose and Kitty Menendez had psychologically abused their young sons in virtually every way possible. Bozanich cross examined Tyler and noted that many of the worst anecdotes about the family were totally uncorroborated. Tyler noted the naivete of the brothers, which came across frequently when they testified and in completely accidental ways that, unlike crying, they would have difficulty faking. There was a softness, a "hothouse plant delicacy" to them, even when they were caught off guard by a question and responded in a flash of anger that they quickly covered up. There was also the bizarre respect and love for their father, even though they had killed him, and that too, seemed genuine.
During this time, Kitty's family began to speak to the news media about the defense and how she was being portrayed. Kitty's brother, Milton Andersen, told his hometown paper, The Daily Southtown, that the brothers' defense was "bull." He believed that Lyle and Erik killed because of greed. He said that the defense visited him and tried to convince him that his sister and brother-in-law were bad people. Andersen told the paper: "my sister didn't abuse her children." Andersen felt that Jose and Kitty had not disciplined their sons enough.
Ann Burgess was the second defense expert to testify. Burgess is a professor of psychiatric mental health nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in crime scene analysis. She examined the crime scene pictures of the Menendez family room and testified that it was a "disorganized" crime scene and could not have been the product of a premeditated murder. She also testified that the random nature of the wounds led her to believe that there was an overkill element of the crime and this showed a lack of planning.
On October 21, Jill Lansing's first expert witness testified. Stuart Hart, an Indiana University professor, testified about his belief that Lyle had been severely mistreated psychologically.
Jon Conte was Lansing's next expert. He testified that he interviewed Lyle in jail for 60 hours during 1993 and believed he was telling the truth about the abuse because of the "affect" that Lyle had. The "affect" was shame and a reluctance to talk about the abuse because it was embarrassing.
Bozanich felt confident that the jurors did not believe the defense's expert witnesses or the brothers' stories of abuse. She was so confident that she decided not to call her psychological expert, who had sat through much of the early portion of the trial. This may have been her biggest mistake during the trial.
One of the last defense witnesses called was Dr. Kerry English, the medical director of the child abuse team at Martin Luther King Hospital in south central Los Angeles. He testified that he found no evidence that Erik had been sodomized, although physical evidence of molestation is rare. Dr. English had reviewed Erik's medical records from the time he was a child and found a curious reference to a 1977 injury. The notion in Erik's medical file read, "hurt posterior pharynx, uvula and soft palate healing well." Dr. English was asked if such an injury to the back of the throat could be caused by child abuse and he answered, "Yes, oral copulation." There are also other things that can cause such an injury, a Popsicle stick, for instance, during a fall. This injury was suspicious and the first physical evidence on the issue of abuse. All of the other abuse testimony had come from the brothers or from friends or family members who said they were given the information from the brothers. On cross-examination, Bozanich was able to have Dr. English admit that there were other things that could cause injuries to the back of the throat.
Ed Fenno had been a houseguest of the Menendez family. He testified that Jose had been disappointed when Erik had turned down the opportunity to attend UC Berkeley in favor of UCLA. Jose thought that Berkeley was a better school academically than UCLA and was disappointed by Erik's decision. Erik preferred UCLA because it had a better tennis team. Fenno's testimony showed that Erik had made the decision to attend UCLA on his own. Bozanich asked Fenno if he ever saw Erik lie to his parents and Fenno answered that "it was somewhat common for both brothers to lie."
The defense played the December 11 confession tape for the jurors after Judge Weissberg ruled that the defense had waived the patient-therapist privilege because they had made the mental state of the brothers an issue during the trial when they claimed that the brothers killed out of fear. On the tape, Lyle can be heard discussing the reasons that his parents were killed. Lyle had bragged on the tape that he and Erik had "shown great courage by killing their mother." Lyle had also said, "he missed having these people around. I miss not having my dog around. If I can make such a gross analogy." There was a chilling, monotone quality to Lyle's voice; it was empty and hollow. On the tape there was no reference to sexual abuse. Jose had to be killed because he was controlling the brothers' lives and was a bad husband. Erik does not say much on the tape, but can be heard crying in the background.
Judalon Smyth was called by the defense to discredit Oziel's testimony and testified for two days. Smyth's testimony revolved around two themes: Oziel had manipulated and bullied her into a relationship and many of her earlier statements about what she knew about Lyle and Erik were mistaken. Smyth's own credibility was questionable. She had given a long affidavit to the police and had testified behind closed doors before Judge Albrecht on the admissibility of the tapes. She had also appeared on television.
Bozanich was angry that Smyth was recanting her earlier statements. Bozanich believed that Smyth was angry at the district attorney's office for not filing rape charges against Oziel. Bozanich had referred Smyth to the D.A.'s sex-crimes division, which had rejected the case because of insufficient evidence.
Bozanich cross-examined Smyth about the different versions of the story she had told and Smyth answered that she was not responsible for her earlier answers because Oziel had brainwashed her. By the time her testimony ended, it appeared that jurors had a difficult time believing Smyth. Smyth was the last of fifty-six witnesses called by the defense.
The aim of the prosecution's rebuttal witnesses was to contradict the stories told by the brothers about the days leading up to the murders and to rehabilitate the reputations of Jose and Kitty. One rebuttal witness who testified was Grant Walker, a man who cleaned pools for a living. He testified that he was at the Menendez mansion, fixing the switch on the automatic spa control on Saturday, August 19, the day before the murders. Walker said that he saw Lyle playing tennis with another man, while Erik stood next to Jose and Kitty who were seated at a patio table pulled up to the tennis court. Walker testified that he witnessed Kitty speaking to Lyle about his tennis game. Lyle responded "in anger," and used a vulgarity. Walker said that Erik also seemed angry with his parents. This exchange occurred around 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon. This was powerful evidence. According to the stories that the Menendez brothers had told, they had purposely stayed away from the house because they feared their parents.
Flor Suria was the Menendez family housekeeper and had slept in the mansion Monday through Friday during the time she was employed by the family. She testified that she never saw Kitty or Jose yelling at the brothers. Suria also testified that she did not hear Lyle cry as his toupee was allegedly pulled off on Tuesday and that she did not hear any other noise from the fight that Jose was suppose to have had with Erik on Thursday before the murders occurred.
Jamie Pisarcik testified that she had been Lyle's girlfriend off and on for about three years. The relationship continued after Lyle was arrested until one day in December 1990 when Jaime, having grown suspicious of Lyle, asked him to tell her the truth. Jaime testified that Lyle told her that he had lied to her and that the truth was that he had killed his parents. The reason for the murders was that Jose had been molesting Erik and that Kitty had molested Lyle. Jaime told Lyle that she did not believe him and shortly after this exchange took place they had broken up. Jaime also testified that in 1987 she had gone with Lyle to purchase a toupee in Birmingham, Alabama and that she and Erik had a conversation about the toupee in 1988. This was another hole in the defense case. Erik had testified that seeing Lyle without his toupee shocked him into confessing the molestation and this had led to the killings. Jill Lansing attacked Pisarcik's credibility and portrayed her as a gold digger that dreamed about marrying into a wealth family, only to have those dreams destroyed when her fiancÚ admitted that he was a killer.
Kitty's brother, Brian Andersen, testified that Erik was not timid and appeared to him to have "a puffed up ego." Both brothers were not reluctant to use vulgar language when talking to their parents or to spend their parents' money. Jose had told Andersen that Lyle had to learn to support himself, that he and Kitty were not going to pay his way forever. The defense countered Andersen's testimony by showing that he had an interest in Kitty's estate and had filed a document in probate court claiming his family would stand to inherit if it were proven that Kitty died after Jose.
Marlene Eisenberg, Jose's secretary for fourteen years, testified about Lyle and Erik's behavior after their parents' memorial service. Eisenberg had ridden in the limousine with the brothers after the memorial service. Lyle asked Eisenberg, "Who said I couldn't fill my father's shoes?" Eisenberg told Lyle to "make your own tracks in life and don't try to fill his shoes." Lyle then extended a tasseled loafer and said, "You don't understand. These are my father's shoes."
The defense called Dr. Vicary as a witness to counter the rebuttal witnesses and support the validity of the alleged abuse. Vicary testified that Erik was a "basket case, pathetic, wimpy, a hopeless mess" when he first met him in jail. Erik had told Vicary about the molestation in August 1990, after Erik had undergone months of therapy and was taking antidepressant medication and tranquilizers. Rather than question Vicary's opinion of Erik's mental state and the issue of abuse, Bozanich asked Vicary how much he had earned from his work on the case. Bozanich asked if the reason that Erik was so upset in jail was because he was facing murder charges and Vicary said no and that he was quite shocked to see that Erik "liked it in jail." Vicary added that Erik, "found for the first time in his life there was no pressure on him."
Mark Heffernan was the last witness who testified at the trial. He was called by the defense to lessen the testimony of the pool man, Grant Walker, who testified that he saw the Menendez brothers on the afternoon of August 19 playing tennis at the mansion. Heffernan testified that he was the brothers' tennis coach during the summer of 1989 and denied being at the Menendez mansion that day.
Before closing arguments began, Judge Weissberg gave the prosecution another victory when he declined to give the juries an instruction that could have lead to an acquittal. Weissberg said that there was "simply no evidence" that an average person would have been in fear of his life, as the brothers said they were, given the events that occurred on August 20, 1989. Weissberg would have allowed the juries to consider a manslaughter verdict.
Michael Burt began his closing argument by telling Lyle's jurors that they must consider that the murders were carried out while the brothers were in a state of "fear and panic that followed year after year of abuse by bullying parents." Burt said that Lyle was operating like an "unthinking robot" on the night of August 20, 1989 and that he shot his parents on "instinct" and not as part of a carefully thought out plan. Burt argued that the circumstances under which the murders took place did not meet the legal standards for first degree murder.
Bozanich responded by stating that "this is not a complicated case. These two people were watching TV and they got slaughtered by their sons." She challenged Burt's idea that the brothers did not plan the murders, pointing out that they drove to San Diego to purchase shotguns. Bozanich also quoted from the transcript of the Oziel session where Lyle said that there would be "no way" he would have carried out the shootings alone and had decided to let Erik "sleep" on the plan.
Jill Lansing walked the jurors through the crime and asked them to consider "the entire event, dating back to Lyle's childhood sexual molestation."
Bozanich was sarcastic and biting in her closing statement. She called Lyle and Erik "spoiled, vicious brats" who got the "best defense Daddy's money could buy." At one point, Bozanich said of the defense, "For all those children who were severely abused and who became useful members of society, this defense is an offense."
During her three day closing argument, Abramson explained away problems with the defense, accused prosecution witnesses of being liars, publicity seekers and attacked Dr. Oziel. Toward the end of her argument, Abramson finally did something that the prosecution had hoped Erik would have done three years earlier; she broke ranks with Lyle. She told the jurors that "I don't want Erik to be taking the rap for Lyle" and added, "the evidence in this case does not prove that Erik killed anybody."
Lester Kuriyama's final argument was completed in three hours. He told the jury that he would not attempt to "dazzle" them, but instead asked the jury to "base your decision in this case on common sense." He told the jury that Erik was homosexual and the reason he raised this issue was that "if the defendant were engaging in consensual sex with other men that would account for him being able to describe what he described for you, his sexual encounters with his father." Kuriyama went on the tell the jury that Jose had not forced Erik into homosexual acts, but was in fact furious that Erik was gay.
Judge Weissberg gave Lyle and Erik's juries four choices in deciding the brothers' fate. The juries could find the brothers guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances; they could find the brothers guilty of second-degree murder; they could find the brothers guilty of voluntary manslaughter; or they could find the brothers guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Lyle and Erik each faced sentencing on three counts: the murder of Jose, the murder of Kitty and the charge of conspiracy to commit murder.
On January 13, 1994, after 16 days of deliberation, Erik's jury announced that it was deadlocked and unable to reach agreement on any of the counts. On January 25, after deliberating for 24 days, Lyle's jury announced that it was deadlocked. The juries for both brothers were polarized over whether the brothers were killers or long suffering victims of abuse. Judge Weissberg declared mistrials in both cases.
The outcomes of the cases were a victory for the defense. Only three of the jurors on Lyle's jury voted for the most serious charge of first degree murder in the shooting of his father, Jose, while five did so on Erik's jury.
Gil Garcetti, the District Attorney who replaced Ira Reiner, said that the Menendez brothers would be retried and that he "would rather have a hung jury than a manslaughter verdict because this is a murder case."
The People vs. Lyle and Erik Menendez was never about guilt or innocence, the defendants admitted that they killed their parent in cold blood and showed neither mercy nor remorse. What the trial was about was the sons' refusal to accept personal responsibility for their own acts. Instead they blamed their parents for an endless catalog of abuse that transformed the victims into the killers. The state attempted to prove that the defendants killed out of hatred and greed, and were lying sociopaths who invented the sensational allegations of sexual, psychological and physical abuse against their parents.
Although the case against the Menendez brothers appeared to be a "slam dunk" murder prosecution, it was derailed by carefully rehearsed testimony, great defense attorneys, prosecutors that were caught by surprise, an indecisive judge and a group of jurors manipulated to accept an outlandish defense. The result was a mistrial that some thought was a miscarriage of justice.