Revealing the direction of the potentially sensational trial to come, jury selection in the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez began Tuesday in earnest with a focus on issues of sexual abuse, family violence and self-defense.
In a 34-page questionnaire, jurors were asked to spell out their views on 122 questions, including No. 110, the issue at the center of the brothers' defense: "Do you think physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse of children happens in the homes of wealthy families?"
Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 22, are charged with first-degree murder and could face the death penalty in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents. They will contend that the killings were an act of self-defense after they endured years of abuse, their lawyers have disclosed.
The questionnaire asked: "In what ways do you think people can be harmed or damaged by their childhood experiences?" It also inquired: "Do you have any strongly held beliefs that a child does not have the right to kill a parent in self-defense?"
Also among the questions were five on self-defense and 15 on sexual abuse and family violence.
The remainder measured attitudes on such issues as the death penalty or asked for family and work histories.
Prosecutors contend that greed led the brothers to kill their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, and Kitty Menendez, 47. The parents were shot while watching TV in the family's $4-million Beverly Hills mansion. Opening statements in the case are set for July 19.
Jury selection began June 14. In an unusual twist, Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg has ruled that the brothers will have one trial with two juries because some evidence will relate only to one brother.
Jury selection has been further complicated by the expected length of the case--five months--and by the intense publicity the case has generated.
The questionnaire made it clear that the case will not be for the faint. One question asked whether "it would be difficult" for jurors to see evidence of "shotgun wounds, autopsy photographs and crime scene photographs."
The questionnaire also made clear the extent to which the case will revolve around the defense claim of child abuse.
The first of the 15 questions under the heading of "sexual abuse and family violence" asked: "Have you, or anyone you know, including a child, ever been the victim of any form of sexual molestation?"
Jurors were given the option of keeping sensitive answers out of the public record. Some of the 122 questions were put on by prosecutors, some by defense attorneys; it is not known which side submitted a particular question.
Jurors were also asked, "Do you think boys and men would be reluctant to report or even discuss their experiences as victims of sexual abuse?"
Another question said: "If a teen-age boy or young man says he is the victim of abuse, would you automatically believe or disbelieve him?" And: "Do you think that family violence is a private problem that should be handled entirely within the family?"
Another asked: "Do you think the law of self-defense should be applied equally whether the person killed is a family member or a stranger?"
A 62-year-old retired teacher who lives in Reseda said the answer to that question was no. "A stranger is less vulnerable than a family member," he wrote in his questionnaire--one of 16 completed forms made public Tuesday--adding that he felt a child has no right to kill a parent.
A 31-year-old Canoga Park woman, a grocery store delicatessen manager, said she wasn't so sure. "It's instinct," she wrote.
She also said, "I don't understand how a child could have such hatred for his own family--unless severely abused."
In a legal skirmish Tuesday, defense lawyers contended that a "continuous flow of negative pretrial publicity" has already turned a "substantial portion" of the jury against the two, jeopardizing the brothers' rights to a fair trial.
Weisberg said he believed that the painstaking selection process is successfully exposing biased jurors. "If the defense takes the posture that we are facing an angry mob here in the courtroom ready to jump at the (brothers') throats . . . that is absolutely untrue," the judge said.
More than 1,000 jurors have been called in the past month, but only about 180 remain eligible to sit on either case. Twelve jurors and six alternates will be chosen for each case, or 36 jurors in all.