Mistrial Declared in Case Against Erik Menendez : Courts: Judge rules after jurors again say they are hopelessly deadlocked. Some held out for first-degree murder convictions. Brother’s jury continues deliberations.


A mistrial was declared Thursday in the murder trial of Erik Menendez after his jury reported it could not reach verdicts in the case that began as a simple whodunit but became dominated by impassioned claims of fear and molestation within the gates of a Beverly Hills mansion.

Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg declared the mistrial Thursday afternoon after jurors said they could not reach unanimous agreement on any of the counts against Erik Menendez, 23, who, along with his older brother Lyle, was charged in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their multimillionaire parents.

In notes to the judge, the jury’s foreman indicated that the panel had been divided on the emotional case from the moment deliberations began three weeks ago--and that neither side had budged.


Weisberg sealed the jury’s vote and ordered the 12 members not to discuss their deliberations in public until a second jury has completed its consideration of the charges against Lyle Menendez, 26.

But a short hearing in court revealed that some jurors held out to the end for first-degree murder convictions, while others embraced the bold defense that portrayed the brothers as the true victims in the Menendez household.

Prosecutors, clearly disappointed, declined comment on the mistrial. But Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti had vowed earlier in the week to retry either Menendez brother for murder if there were no verdicts in the six-month trial.

Although many viewed the deadlock as a victory for the defense, Erik Menendez’s lead attorney, Leslie Abramson, measured her words after the ruling.

“I don’t consider it a victory. A victory would be if my client was free,” she said.

She vowed to defend Erik Menendez, who remains in custody without bail, a second time if possible. “I do not believe any jury will ever convict Erik Menendez of first-degree murder,” she said.

Erik and Lyle Menendez, portrayed by the media as tennis-playing playboys who enjoyed the good life with the help of family credit cards, were not arrested until seven months after the bodies of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, and Kitty Menendez, 47, were discovered in the TV room of their home. The brothers encouraged authorities’ belief that the killings likely were tied to Jose Menendez’s dealings as head of a Van Nuys entertainment company.

After the brothers were arrested, prosecutors contended that they killed out of hatred and greed.

At trial, the brothers admitted the slayings, but testified that they fired in self-defense, recounting years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

It was that claim that polarized spectators--including a nationwide TV audience--into two groups: believers and skeptics.

The same dynamic apparently has been at work in the jury rooms. Two juries were selected to hear the case because some evidence was admitted against only one brother.

The foreman of the Erik Menendez jury, in a note sent to Weisberg early Thursday, said the panel had tried hard to break the deadlock it first reported Monday.

But it just could not be done, according to the foreman, a dean at Cal State Northridge.

“If anything, we have become more entrenched in our positions,” his note said.

Weisberg had given jurors a range of verdicts in the slaying of each parent--from first-degree murder, which carries a potential death penalty, down to involuntary manslaughter, which means a prison term as short as two years.


During its 21st day of deliberations Thursday, the jury for Lyle Menendez asked for legal definitions relating to the lesser manslaughter charges. Although it began its work before the Erik Menendez jury, that panel has sent no notes indicating a deadlock.

After the Erik Menendez jury signaled its problems Monday, Weisberg ordered members to keep trying. Late Tuesday, the foreman sent a note with three questions about complex legal terms, suggesting that the jury was striving to break its deadlock.

But as the jury entered its 19th day of deliberations, the note Thursday morning quashed hope of a breakthrough. “Since our last report to you, we have been unable to move closer to any agreement,” it said.

Weisberg gave jurors new forms designed not so much to get a verdict, but to possibly pare down the charges that would be considered in a retrial--by eliminating first-degree murder, for instance.

Relieving them of the more difficult chore of agreeing on one verdict, he asked the jurors to consider the question of guilt or innocence for each possible charge separately. If the jury was unanimous in acquitting Erik Menendez of first-degree murder, but remained deadlocked on the lesser charges, the prosecution then would have been foreclosed from seeking a first-degree conviction at a second trial.

After just a few hours more behind closed doors, however, the foreman sent out another note.

And so, at 3:40 p.m., jurors filed somberly into the courtroom, some still clutching their notebooks.

Before a packed court--so filled that spectators had to draw lots to get a seat--Weisberg read aloud the new note: “We are unable to reach unanimous verdicts.”

He asked the foreman if there was any “reasonable probability” of a verdict. The foreman said no.

Weisberg then asked all 12 jurors the same question. Even before he finished the question, jurors were shaking their heads. He was met with a chorus: “No.”

Instead of following the usual routine of asking the foreman in open court about the results of votes taken in the jury room, Weisberg said he would ask the foreman to prepare a form listing any votes.

“These numbers here, this is how it’s been the last three weeks?” Weisberg asked, keeping the figures to himself.

“Pretty close,” the foreman replied.

At that, Weisberg said: “The court finds the jury is hopelessly deadlocked.” The judge scheduled a Feb. 28 hearing to set a new trial date.

The declaration of a mistrial, legal experts said, made winners of the defense--at least for now.

“One ought to remember the prosecution characterized this case as an open and shut, slam-dunk, first-degree murder with special circumstances,” said Peter Aranella, a criminal law professor at UCLA. “So that makes this clearly a defense victory.

But Robert Pugsley, a Southwestern University criminal law professor, said a retrial will pose problems for both sides.

“I see enormous pragmatic difficulties in mounting a full-scale second prosecution, including financial and community resources,” he said.

Lead attorneys Abramson and Jill Lansing, who represents Lyle Menendez, are on record as saying that the Menendez estate, once estimated as worth $14 million, is virtually gone. “It remains to be seen whether they’re willing to work for publicity from now on,” Pugsley said.

Abramson also cited that factor outside court, saying she would have to be paid by the county at a retrial. “I can’t go bankrupt in order to do it,” she said.

According to county records, two other defense lawyers were paid through the trial with public funds, routine for a death penalty case. Michael Burt earned $246,625 through Dec. 22 while Marcia Morrissey was paid $130,336.

Prosecutors will have to muster support for a costly second go-round. One alternative would be a plea bargain, an arrangement Abramson said she might be open to--if prosecutors agreed to merely a manslaughter conviction.

“Finally, you have to ask yourself: Is there the public stomach for this kind of spectacle again?” Pugsley said. “For lack of a better word, this show.”

The show was on full display Thursday. As attorneys left the courthouse, one TV cameraman fell to the ground amid the mob chasing Lansing.

Weisberg cautioned the Lyle Menendez jury to ignore the crush of media, saying there was likely to be news about “the co-defendant.” He admonished jurors “not to be exposed” to any of it.


The note sent Thursday by the foreman of the Lyle Menendez jury, a postal worker, asked three questions suggesting that the panel was debating fine points of the law relating to manslaughter, and the defense contention that the brothers believed their lives were in danger when they blasted away at their parents.

The first question said some jurors interpreted the instructions to mean that if a person kills in the “honest but unreasonable belief that he’s in imminent peril,” then that “excludes malice and therefore murder.”

Under the law, malice must be present for a killing to become murder. Without it, a killing can only be manslaughter.

Jurors asked the judge if their interpretation of the law was correct. Yes, he said.

They also asked: “If a person . . . harbors malice . . . does the fact that he believed he was defending himself negate the malice aforethought?”

Yes, the judge answered.

Finally, the note asked if an “honest but unreasonable belief” in imminent harm “in fact holds (the defendant) accountable to voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.”

Yes, Weisberg answered.

Times staff writer Amy Wallace contributed to this report.

Jury Notes

The jury weighing murder charges against Erik Menendez signaled its stalemate this week in three notes from the foreman. Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg asked the panel to continue deliberating after the first two, then declared a mistrial Thursday afternoon. Here is the text of the notes:


“We are deadlocked. Positions have essentially not changed after three weeks of discussion and debate. I see no hope for reaching agreement on any of the counts.”


“We remain deadlocked. Since our last report to you, we have been unable to move closer to agreement on any of the counts. If anything, we have become more entrenched in our positions. A poll taken this morning shows the jury believes there is no reasonable probability of our reaching a verdict or verdicts without violence to our individual judgments.”


“We are unable to reach unanimous verdicts as to the charges in counts 1, 2 and 3 and therefore have not signed any verdict forms.”