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Expert Says Menendez Scene Indicates Fear Led to Slayings : Trial: Barrage of random shots signifies ‘a high degree of emotion,’ an analyst testifies.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

When they killed their parents, Lyle and Erik Menendez were driven by a “high degree of emotion,” including fear, which led them to fire so many shots it seemed like “overkill,” a crime scene expert testified Friday.

With the defense seeking to show that the Aug. 20, 1989, killings were not premeditated, Ann Burgess, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the killings seemed “disorganized” to her, suggesting that little planning had gone into them.

Burgess--who has studied homicide scenes for the FBI--said she drew that conclusion from several facets of the shooting: that Jose Menendez was shot six times and Kitty Menendez 10 times; that the shots seemed random, not aimed at any one body part, and because some shots missed.

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These facts, Burgess said, “speak to a more pervasive emotion than just one emotion, such as anger or rage.” It points instead, she said, “to a wider aspect, such as fear.”

Erik Menendez, 22, and Lyle Menendez, 25, are charged with first-degree murder in the slayings in the TV room of the family’s $4-million Beverly Hills mansion.

If convicted, the brothers could draw the death penalty.

Prosecutors contend that they killed out of hatred and greed. The brothers admit the killings but testified that they fired in fear and self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Burgess, a professor of “psychiatric mental health nursing” and the second defense expert to testify, said she began analyzing crime scenes for the FBI in 1980, as part of the bureau’s “Crime Classification Project.”

She said she also is a nationally recognized expert in child sexual abuse and “victimology.” With another scientist, she said, she coined the phrase “rape trauma syndrome,” now widely accepted in scientific literature.

Like a psychologist, she is expert in mental health. But as a nurse, she said, she also has a medical background. A key defense witness, her testimony is scheduled to span several days.

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Answering questions Friday from defense lawyer Leslie Abramson, Burgess conceded that there were some signs that the killings were “organized.”

Immediately after the shootings, the brothers said, they picked up every shotgun shell they had fired, then pitched them in a trash dumpster. Also, Erik Menendez testified that he ditched both shotguns in brush off Mulholland Drive.

Burgess called that “post-crime planning.”

Otherwise, she said, the killings were “disorganized.”

The high number of shots the brothers fired is evidence of their extreme emotion, she said. The actual number of rounds remains in dispute, with estimates usually between 10 and 15, with each shotgun blast capable of producing more than one wound.

“A large number more shots were fired than were necessary,” she said.

Her FBI research, she said, found that shots fired at a specific body part, such as the face or sexual organs, pointed to a specific anger or rage.

But Kitty and Jose Menendez were hit all over, she noted.

After the initial blasts, Abramson reminded Burgess--in a question designed to preempt prosecutors’ cross-examination--that Lyle Menendez had gone outside to his brother’s car, reloaded, come back inside and fired a final shot at his mother’s cheek.

That, Burgess said, was simply more evidence of “overkill.”

Switching concepts later in the day, Burgess moved on to the term “hyper-vigilance,” the idea that abused children or battered women are extremely sensitive to cues of impending violence, cues that outsiders would not pick up.

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Prosecutors have belittled the brothers’ claims that they were in danger--noting that the parents were apparently watching television, and perhaps even eating ice cream and berries, when they were shot.

But the defense contends that Lyle and Erik Menendez were “hyper-vigilant,” and saw signs on the night of Aug. 20 that their parents were about to kill them. The closed door of the TV room was a menacing sign to them, they said.

Burgess told jurors that psychologists have long operated on the belief that living through trauma leaves someone more fearful, in general, than before.

Now, she said, researchers believe there may be a physical reason why that is so.

In testimony that was partly a briefing on advances in research under government grants in the so-called “Decade of the Brain,” Burgess said scientists believe that the brain “rewires” itself after being traumatized.

The brain, she said, becomes sensitive to low-level fear.

Testimony ended there because a juror had a medical appointment. Burgess is due back on the stand Monday.

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