As his older brother, Lyle, watched intently from the defense table, Erik Menendez admitted Wednesday at the brothers' retrial that the two shot their wealthy parents to death six years ago "because we were afraid."
"What was it you were afraid of?" defense attorney Barry Levin asked as his client grimaced and fought back tears.
"I was afraid of dying," Erik Menendez said during his first moments of testimony in his retrial.
He told the jury that he loved his parents, but that he believed his father when he threatened that he would kill them to prevent a family sex scandal.
"My father was afraid I was going to reveal things," he said haltingly. "That there was a sexual relationship between he and I."
His words marked a dramatic shift in the retrial as testimony moved from the carnage in the family room of the Menendez's Beverly Hills mansion to the defense theory of what led to it-- years of parental domination and abuse.
Prosecutors contend that the brothers ambushed their parents, then fabricated their defense, which has been dubbed the "abuse excuse."
For four weeks, the trial has been relatively devoid of drama as a parade of experts for both sides testified about blood smears, ballistics and the horrific wounds the parents received when the brothers fired two 12-gauge shotguns at entertainment executive Jose Menendez and his wife, Kitty, on Aug. 20, 1989.
But the excitement was tangible as Erik Menendez, now 25, slowly walked to the witness stand to describe that slayings he admits committing just weeks after his high school graduation.
His late-afternoon appearance on the stand also provided another twist--a reversal of the brothers' roles.
Erik, by most accounts the weaker, more emotional of the two brothers, became the first to testify at the retrial while his more dominant brother's status as a witness remains uncertain.
Deputy public defenders Charles A. Gessler and Terri Towery said they will wait until Erik Menendez has finished before deciding whether Lyle's testimony is needed.
The bond between the brothers was apparent as Erik frequently glanced over toward Lyle, while Lyle leaned forward in his seat.
Defense attorneys dismissed as nonsense any suggestion that the brothers could turn against each other.
"All these two brothers have in this world are each other," Gessler said.
"They're all they had on the night of this terrible tragedy."
Much of Erik Menendez's first few moments of testimony seemed to echo his older brother's words at the first trial as he described a lifetime of fear.
At the first trial, which ended last year with juries deadlocked between murder and manslaughter convictions, Erik Menendez had followed his brother on the stand.
But on Wednesday, pale and by his own account frightened, Erik Menendez slowly began to describe his childhood, saving a description of the slaying for another day.
He spoke of a father who treated him with love as he massaged and touched him behind the closed doors of his bedroom, but treated him harshly and denigrated him everywhere else.
He recalled first being fondled by his father at age 6, when the family lived in Muncie, N.Y. Later, his father's fondling also included touching the boy's genitals "with his hands, with his mouth," Erik Menendez testified. "It made me feel he loved me."
He associated the sex with his father's approval.
"He told me that this was love," he said. "He was kind. He was gentle. He was patient and he loved me."
His father's behavior outside the bedroom was a different story, Erik Menendez testified.
"He would be mean in different ways. The way he talked to me sometimes, the way he hit me. He used his belt on me."