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Purported Lyle Menendez Letter Sparks Controversy : Courts: Note allegedly gave advice on testimony. Defense questions the document’s authenticity.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weeks after prosecutors promised that they would have new evidence for the retrial of the Menendez brothers, a potential piece of new evidence has surfaced--and immediately generated controversy.

At issue is a letter purportedly written by Lyle Menendez to a former girlfriend before she testified at the brothers’ recently completed trial in Van Nuys Superior Court, which resulted in two hung juries.

According to an article in Vanity Fair magazine, published this week, the letter was sent from County Jail to advise the ex-girlfriend, Traci L. Baker, how she could help the defense by testifying about a dinner at the Menendez home at which family members seemed afraid that Kitty Menendez was trying to poison their food.

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Baker, 24, could not be reached for comment, and it is not known whether she actually received the letter, Vanity Fair reported.

But defense lawyers questioned the authenticity of the letter and the circumstances of its release. Leslie Abramson, the lead attorney for Erik Menendez, said she suspected that county prosecutors were leaking “pseudo-evidence” to the “sensationalist media . . . for the purpose of biasing prospective jurors” who might be seated for the retrial of the brothers accused of murder in the 1989 slayings of their parents.

Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne denied that prosecutors gave him the letter. “Absolutely not!” he said. “N-O-T.”

A spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, Sandi Gibbons, also said prosecutors had not leaked it. “That’s ridiculous,” she said.

Reacting to news reports that Abramson had questioned the ethics of prosecutors, Gibbons added: “I think Ms. Abramson knows better and is basically trying to put her own spin on something that’s obviously harmful to her case.”

After the first hung jury, Garcetti announced that his office already had new evidence to use at any retrial. Gibbons would not confirm or deny that the purported Lyle Menendez letter is among that evidence, but said: “We’re aware of the existence of the letter.”

Jill Lansing, Lyle Menendez’s lead attorney, said the defense did not know of the document until this week.

While “some of the handwriting looks similar” to Lyle Menendez’s, other words look nothing like his writing, Lansing said.

“It seems to me that if this letter was real, (prosecutors) would have used it at the trial,” she said.

The letter, however, apparently surfaced too late for prosecutors to attempt to introduce it at the trial that ended two weeks ago with jurors split over whether Lyle Menendez, 26, and Erik Menendez, 23, should be convicted of murder or lesser manslaughter charges.

In her Oct. 12 testimony, Baker, who dated Lyle Menendez for three months in 1988, described an unsettling dinner at the Menendez home. After the food was served, she said, the brothers’ father, Jose Menendez, stood up and said “something to (his wife) like, ‘What did you do to this food? Why are you serving this food?’ ”

She testified that Jose Menendez then took her and his sons to dinner at a Hamburger Hamlet restaurant. “I found him to be a very charming man,” Baker said of Jose Menendez.

The purported letter from Lyle Menendez--dated Feb. 5, with no year--contains suggestions about how Baker should testify about such a dinner, and says, “We will decide later around what date this incident occurred.”

The letter advises her to make notes, then “throw it away.”

It says the events “may seem strange and irrelevant to my case but I assure you they will be very helpful. You’ll just have to trust me on it. Later on I can explain why but for now I’ll just lay them out.”

Although it says the date of the dinner would be decided later, the letter says “it was a weekend,” and “you and I had spent the day together. Mrs. Menendez had cooked dinner and it was served in the dining room. Everyone was seated except Mrs. Menendez. She was still bringing this and that in from the kitchen.”

According to Vanity Fair, the letter goes on to tell Baker how Jose Menendez asked his wife “in a stern voice” if she had done something to the food.

The letter also describes their departure for the Hamburger Hamlet, and says that after returning home, “you and I stayed out front and kissed for a long time.”

“You really don’t need to know any more detail than I’ve provided here,” the letter says. “It was a long time ago. It would be strange if you remember things too well.”

At the trial, Baker was called by the defense to bolster the notion that Kitty Menendez was an erratic woman who might have been trying to poison her family. During his testimony, Erik Menendez said, “I would normally eat the food unless I thought there was something wrong with my mother.”

Prosecutors sought to portray the brothers as liars who fabricated the defense that they killed out of fear generated by years of abuse.

During the trial, Lyle Menendez admitted that he offered one former girlfriend, Jamie Pisarcik, a bribe to testify falsely that Jose Menendez made a pass at her.

Although Garcetti’s spokeswoman characterized the alleged letter to a second girlfriend--Baker--as “obviously harmful” to the defense, defense attorneys did not agree. “I think we need a lot more information before anybody can draw any conclusions from it,” Lansing said.

Although Lansing would not discuss the substance of the letter, she acknowledged that if it was authenticated and admitted as evidence the defense conceivably could have a simple way of defusing it: by saying that it was merely a reminder of real events.

Abramson questioned whether the letter could be evidence. She was quoted in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, as saying: “If this was authenticated or even capable of being authenticated, we would have heard about it, which makes me think it’s a hoax, a forgery or illegally obtained, in which case it’s inadmissible in court.”


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