Prosecutors Want Menendez Retrial Moved Downtown; Defense Objects : Courts: Quake damage is cited in request for transfer from Van Nuys. Observers say maneuvering shows that both sides see jury selection as crucial.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors asked a judge Friday to move the retrial of the Menendez brothers Downtown, saying the earthquake-battered Van Nuys courthouse can no longer handle the high-profile proceedings.

A defense attorney said she would oppose the move.

In legal papers that arrived late Friday at Van Nuys Superior Court, prosecutors noted that the Jan. 17 quake damaged several floors of that courthouse. It also led to the closure of the multilevel parking structure across the street that serves court staff and jurors.

Under those conditions, prosecutors argued, it would be unreasonable to burden the courthouse with the retrial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, charged with murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents. The Downtown Criminal Courts Building, prosecutors noted, is "fully operational."

A move Downtown would also bring the case closer to Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and his top lieutenants, who are under pressure to produce a conviction at a second trial. Garcetti has vowed that there will be no plea bargains, and that it will be tried again "as a murder case--because that's what it is."

Lyle Menendez, 26, and Erik Menendez, 23, admit they killed their wealthy parents, Jose Menendez, 45, and Kitty Menendez, 47, in the TV room of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.

Prosecutors contend that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed. But the brothers said they killed out of fear fed by years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

After six months of trial, separate juries, one for each brother, were unable last month to reach a verdict on either murder or manslaughter charges.

Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg has scheduled a Feb. 28 hearing to set a new trial date. Prosecutors asked Weisberg to also consider the move Downtown at that hearing.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich, the lead prosecutor, declined to elaborate on the transfer request.

Defense attorney Jill Lansing said the place for a transfer--if there is to be one--is to Santa Monica, the courthouse nearest Beverly Hills, where the slayings occurred.

"It has always been our request that it be handled in Santa Monica," Lansing said. "If not in Santa Monica, I'm not sure what the rationale is for having it in the Criminal Courts Building."

The rationale, prosecutors said in legal papers, is that the brothers were indicted Downtown and the transfer would simply be moving the case "back to the courthouse from which it came."

Some legal observers suggested that the maneuvering over the site of a retrial was evidence of the belief on both sides that the outcome of the retrial could hinge on jury selection. They said prosecutors probably believe that the blue-collar jury pool Downtown is likely to be less sympathetic to the brothers' emotional claims of abuse than the suburban jury pool in the San Fernando Valley--and far less sympathetic than in affluent Santa Monica.

From the prosecutors' perspective, said defense lawyer Harland W. Braun, "it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where it should go."

Some pre-indictment hearings in the case were held in Santa Monica, but the trial was moved to Van Nuys when it was assigned to Weisberg, who is based there.

Prosecutors said the Downtown Criminal Courts Building offers the added advantage of high-security courtrooms, which would "be ideal for controlling media access to the trial proceedings and for insulating jurors from media contact."

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