For almost two weeks, jurors in the retrial of the Menendez brothers have been focusing on the bloody details of parricide, replayed shot by shot and larger than life. It has been grim work.
They have heard the chilling, metallic clicks of a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun similar to the alleged murder weapons; they have seen the blood-encrusted polo shirt Jose Menendez wore when he died. And countless autopsy photos have been projected on a courtroom screen.
If the first trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez was a soap opera wrapped within a psychodrama, so far the retrial has been a horror show.
At both trials, prosecutors called 30 witnesses, laying out their case in less than six weeks. But the two trials are as different as night and day--and the shift in focus from shrink’s couch confessionals to the stomach-wrenching crime scene could mean the difference between verdicts and another impasse. Perhaps even the difference between murder and the less serious crime of manslaughter.
“A horror show is exactly what the prosecution wants,” to avoid the hung juries of the first trial, said veteran Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Harland W. Braun. “It gives them a tremendous advantage.”
Deputy Dist. Attys. David P. Conn and Carol J. Najera are alleging that Erik and Lyle Menendez, at the time 18 and 21, murdered their parents to gain financial independence from them. The defense claims that the brothers fired their shotguns in a blind panic, afraid their parents would kill them rather than allow them to besmirch the family name with their threatened tales of child abuse and sexual molestation.
Except for the occasional crime scene photograph tacked to a bulletin board, none of the horrific evidence played a significant role in the first trial.
But in the retrial, beginning with the first witness, the prosecution has zoomed in on the bodies of Jose and Kitty Menendez.
Beverly Hills Police Detective Les Zoeller began with a narration of a videotaped tour of the Elm Drive mansion as it appeared on the night of Aug. 20, 1989, with the bloody body of Jose Menendez as it was found on a white sectional couch, his wife, Kitty, crumpled at his feet on the rich Persian rug.
The prosecution is expected to rest Monday, having ended its case with a graphic slide show of the parents’ wounds and an engineer’s shot-by-shot account of how they were inflicted--a scenario that is hotly disputed by the defense.
Over and over on a screen in the courtroom, the face that once was the pride of small-town beauty queen Kitty Menendez has flashed before the jury, reduced by three shotgun blasts to a fright mask--one eye gone, the other staring blankly from beneath a smudge of green eye shadow, every bone and most of the teeth broken. Equally disturbing is the view of her nearly severed right hand, the coral-pink nail polish jarringly bright.
Jose Menendez, once a powerful entertainment executive said to inspire fear in many who met him, has been shown countless times slumped like a mannequin on the blood-drenched sofa, his face misshapen and his head tilted at a disconcerting right angle as a result of the point-blank shotgun blast.
This is what murder is all about, prosecutor Conn says, and it’s not meant to be pretty: Hundreds of pellets from a dozen shotgun blasts tore into these parents. One shot of No. 4 buckshot hit both. In addition, Jose was shot twice more with buckshot. Kitty was shot five more times with buckshot and twice with birdshot, the final shot with the muzzle resting against her left cheek.
Conn said he has tried to avoid offending the jurors by keeping his presentation brisk.
“I want to leave the jury with the impression this was a premeditated murder,” he said. “We are seeking to communicate essential information rather than just gross them out.”
Conn says the wounds show that the sons aimed their shotguns first at their parents’ heads to kill them, then at their legs to create suspicion that organized crime figures might be behind the slayings. Such evidence, he says, shows that the killings were premeditated murder, and not the panicked acts of self-defense the brothers claim they were.
The prosecution, which seeks the death penalty, is pinning its fortunes on two outside experts: Stockton pathologist Robert Lawrence and Menlo Park engineering executive Roger Lee McCarthy, who each spent a day testifying for the prosecution. The scathing cross-examination of McCarthy attacked everything from his credentials to the stock value of his company, Failure Analysis Associates, to his motives for testifying.
In three days of questioning by defense attorney Leslie Abramson, McCarthy admitted that he had no experience in criminal cases and had never attended an autopsy or visited a crime scene. But even if Abramson’s attack sways the jury against McCarthy, prosecutors say his testimony has served to focus the jurors on the crime.
At the very least, after poring so long over the shotgun wounds of Jose and Kitty Menendez, it will be much harder for jurors to come to view the parents as monsters as the defense begins its case, experts say.
“I think the defense is going to look very diminished,” Braun said. “They can’t get up and say, ‘Oh, my God, he made me play tennis when I didn’t want to. Oh, my God, he molested me 10 years ago.’ ”
The defense will begin its case this week with criminalists calling experts such as forensic pathologist Cyril E. Wecht of Pittsburgh and noted wound ballistics authority Martin Fackler of San Francisco to dismantle the prosecution’s scenario.
And so, for at least another week, jurors again will be asked to focus on matters Abramson describes as “grim on grim.”
By the time the prosecution rested in the first trial, the jury had heard hints from prosecution witnesses that Jose and Kitty Menendez were harsh, demanding parents--details brought forth by the defense’s cross-examination. This time, much of that testimony was headed off.
Last time, the prosecution was reeling at the midpoint from days of testimony about the tangled love life of its star witness, L. Jerome Oziel, the psychologist and writer of schmaltzy love poems to whom Erik and Lyle Menendez confessed killing their parents. The problem: Abramson shredded Oziel on cross-examination, and his testimony made it easier for the defense to segue into several more weeks of testimony from friends, coaches and relatives, all of whom portrayed the Menendezes as the family from hell.
For the second trial, Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg has ruled out some of those witnesses as irrelevant.
“This case is really about a murder. It’s not about their lifestyles,” Conn said.
Recently, a pall has descended over the courtroom. The jurors, the spectators and even the defendants seem to have become desensitized to the carnage.
At first, the brothers averted their eyes and appeared sickened and distraught by the display. But as the days wore on, they stole glances. On Friday, they did not flinch when they viewed the worst scene of all: a picture of their dead father lying next to a piece of his brain. Jurors initially seemed shocked, rushing out of the box at breaks to seek relief from the relentless gore, but most now seem to take a clinical interest.
Defense attorney Abramson has tackled the grisly material head-on.
“A number of defense attorneys would be afraid to dwell on material like this. But the more you look [at the autopsy photos]), the less shock value they have,” she said.
She has communicated that message to the jury by bringing in her own huge crime scene blow-ups. And while prosecution pathologist Robert Lawrence donned latex gloves to handle Jose Menendez’s bloody shirt, Abramson grabbed the garment with her bare hands and tacked it to a bulletin board.
“It doesn’t frighten me,” she told a reporter later. “I’m not going to pick up some little germ from this after six years. The point is to convey that I’m not afraid of it.”