Revealing for jurors the secrets he first heard nearly four years ago, Beverly Hills psychologist L. Jerome Oziel testified Wednesday that Lyle and Erik Menendez confessed to killing their parents out of hatred and considered it the “perfect crime.”
Oziel said the brothers told him they decided the week before to kill Jose and Kitty Menendez and that it was Erik Menendez who burst first into the TV room of the family’s $4-million Beverly Hills mansion and shot his father. The older brother then “finished off the job,” the psychologist said.
The brothers later told him that Jose Menendez died quickly, Oziel added, but that Kitty Menendez was “moaning and trying to crawl away.” So the brothers went outside and reloaded their 12-gauge shotguns, he said, then came back in, where Lyle Menendez “finished murdering their mother.”
Lyle Menendez, 25, shook his head in apparent disbelief as he listened to Oziel--the key prosecution witness--describe in chilling detail the brothers’ purported confessions to him. Erik Menendez, 22, showed little emotion.
The brothers are charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47.
Prosecutors, who contend the brothers despised their parents and killed them to collect the family fortune, are seeking the death penalty. Defense lawyers concede that Lyle and Erik Menendez killed their parents but assert it was an act of self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Deputy Dist. Attys. Pamela Bozanich and Lester Kuriyama made it plain when the trial began two weeks ago in Van Nuys Superior Court that their case is built around the testimony of Oziel, who met with the brothers on Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, 1989, about two months after the killings.
Defense attorneys, eager to attack the therapist’s credibility, also have been awaiting Oziel’s appearance. Erik Menendez’s lead defense lawyer, Leslie Abramson, vowed last week to discredit him “in every way known to man and God.”
Abramson began her cross-examination late in the day, but virtually all of Oziel’s testimony Wednesday came in response to prosecutor’s questions.
Sessions between a therapist and a patient are almost always confidential. But in a ruling last year, the California Supreme Court said Oziel could testify against the brothers because the rule of confidentiality was violated when they allegedly threatened him.
Oziel has testified numerous times behind closed doors about the two therapy sessions in which the brothers allegedly discussed the shootings. But his appearance at the trial--ordered by Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg--marks his first public recounting. He testified last week outside the presence of the jurors so that the judge could rule on the admissibility of his comments.
Two juries are hearing the case, one for each brother, and Oziel’s testimony was delivered Wednesday in installments, sometimes before both juries, sometimes before just one. He referred frequently to notes he made in 1989 from tapes he dictated about each session. The tapes remain sealed.
Oziel said Wednesday that he began to see Lyle and Erik Menendez after the younger brother’s involvement in a pair of burglaries in Calabasas in 1988.
On Oct. 31, 1989, Oziel said, Erik Menendez called him and said he had to come by his office.
Upon arrival, Erik Menendez said he had been having nightmares, “very vivid images of his parents being dead,” Oziel testified. After a while, Oziel said, he and Erik Menendez went for a walk, used the bathroom at a local restaurant and then sat down on a nearby park bench.
After talking there for a bit, they headed back to Oziel’s office. At the front door to the building, Oziel said, Erik Menendez leaned back against a parking meter and said, “We did it. We killed our parents.”
The therapist and patient went back upstairs to the office, where Erik Menendez “elaborated about exactly what had happened,” Oziel said. The details came spilling forth, the therapist said, after he phoned Lyle Menendez and the older brother joined them later that day. Both brothers also attended the Nov. 2 session, he said.
Oziel said the younger brother told him the plot to kill their parents was hatched the week before the killings, while the brothers watched a TV show produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. about a character who kills his father.
Oziel said he was told the plan initially was directed only at Jose Menendez, whom the brothers considered a “dominating force and a negative force” in their lives, someone “impossible to live with.”
Erik Menendez also believed the father wanted to disinherit him, the psychologist said, and Lyle Menendez feared that his father was in the process of drafting a new will that would slash the brothers’ inheritance.
But Lyle Menendez told him they did not kill for money, Oziel said. Instead, it was “out of the hatred they had, in particular for their father.”
The brothers told him they decided they had to kill their mother as well, Oziel said, to eliminate her as a witness, and because they pitied her and “felt they would be putting their mother out of her misery.”
“Although they felt the mother didn’t deserve to die, shouldn’t die, they included her in the plan,” Oziel testified.
The couple was shot late in the evening of Aug. 20, 1989.
“Erik told me his father said, ‘No! No!’ and turned away,” Oziel recalled, making a point to face the jury box as he spoke. “The mother was shot second, as she was beginning to stand, or something like that, and she fell to the ground.”
A coroner’s deputy testified Tuesday that Jose Menendez was hit six times and died from a “contact wound” to the back of the head. Kitty Menendez was hit 10 times with shotgun pellets, he said.
Oziel said the brothers told him that, immediately after the shootings, they picked up shotgun casings scattered around the room, then changed their bloody clothes and dumped them into a trash bin. They then drove to Mulholland Drive, where Erik Menendez hid the shotguns 250 feet down a hill, Oziel said he was told.
The brothers believed they had executed the “perfect murder,” Oziel said. Police found the brothers’ fingerprints in the house, but that was to be expected because it was their house. Neighbors apparently had not heard anything and no weapons were found.
Lyle Menendez said “he knew his father would have been proud of him for killing him,” and especially proud of “the good job he did,” Oziel testified.
But Lyle Menendez was furious at first that his younger brother had confessed to the shootings, Oziel testified. When he arrived at the Oct. 31 session, the psychologist said, Lyle Menendez seemed “so menacing” that he believed the older brother was a “strong threat” to his life.
At the close of the session, Oziel added, Lyle and Erik Menendez conferred in a car outside his office. At their Nov. 2 session, the psychologist said, the pair told him that Lyle Menendez had asked his brother in the car, “How do we kill Dr. Oziel?”
Erik Menendez reportedly replied that he was “not up to killing anyone else,” Oziel testified.
Lyle Menendez also described that conversation at their session two days later, Oziel said, and explained why he opted not to kill the therapist. “He said it wouldn’t look too good if I disappeared too soon. Because if I did, it might begin to cast an unwelcome light on them,” Oziel said.
Despite the purported threat on his life, Oziel did not go to police. Beverly Hills police came to him after his former lover, Judalon Smyth, tipped officers to the alleged confessions.
How Smyth learned of them is in dispute.
As Abramson began her cross-examination late Wednesday, Oziel said he did not believe that Smyth was in his office Oct. 31, eavesdropping on the nearly four-hour session he had with the Menendez brothers.
Later that night, he said, he went to her home and told her “what I felt I needed to tell her.”
According to an appeals court opinion on the case, however, Smyth has said that she was in Oziel’s office Oct. 31 and that he told her to wait outside while he met with the brothers.