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Menendez Undergoes Grilling by Prosecutor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For eight days, Erik Menendez has endured a no-holds-barred cross-examination, with prosecutor David Conn grilling him on every detail of his story of incest and child abuse.

Unlike prosecutors at the first murder trials, who made the strategic decision not to dwell on the Menendez brothers’ abuse claims, Conn has repeatedly asked biting questions, reacting to some answers with mocking tones, smirks and, on at least one occasion, outright laughter.

He has openly challenged Erik Menendez’s contention that his millionaire father sexually molested him for a dozen years--a key element of the defense theory that the brothers killed out of fear their parents would kill them first to prevent exposure of a family sex scandal.

Defense attorneys Barry Levin and Leslie Abramson have objected repeatedly to Conn’s questions and will have the opportunity this week to question their client again in an effort to repair any damage.

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“My client is holding up really well,” Abramson said. “He’s being more polite and treating Conn with better manners than Conn’s treating him.”

Erik Menendez, 25, and his brother, Lyle, 27, have been on trial since October for the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents at the family’s mansion in Beverly Hills. The brothers’ first trials, before separate juries, ended two years ago in deadlock when jurors could not decide whether to convict them of murder or manslaughter.

It is not known whether Lyle Menendez will take the stand.

The brothers’ state of mind at the time they killed Jose and Kitty Menendez remains the key issue. The defense, seeking lesser, manslaughter convictions, maintains that their fear of domineering and abusive parents lessened their ability to plan murders. But prosecutors allege that the brothers killed methodically, aiming at their parents’ heads and knees to point suspicion toward organized crime while getting their hands on the Menendez millions.

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At the first trials, prosecutors Pamela Bozanich and Lester Kuriyama focused their cross-examinations on the killings themselves. Kuriyama, who questioned Erik Menendez during the first trial, declined to comment. But at the time, Bozanich, the lead prosecutor, explained that they were trying a murder case, not a child abuse case.

But with 20/20 hindsight and a switch of strategy, Conn has brought a relentless and aggressive style of cross-examination to the retrial, grilling Erik Menendez about the details of the abuse, the brothers’ relationships with their parents and their motives to kill.

The scathing cross-examination, which continues this week, has unearthed new revelations from Menendez: He first wished at age 13 that his father would die in a plane crash. He hoped a year before the slayings that his mother would shoot his father. He fantasized about killing his father three months before the shootings.

A year before that, he said, his mother was distraught over his father’s extramarital affair when she purchased a rifle and announced, “I’m going to kill somebody.” He added: “I admit, I was hoping it was my father. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say I wanted him dead. But if my mother was going to kill him, she was my mother and I loved her tremendously. . . . I didn’t say, ‘Mom, don’t do this.’ ”

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And, he said, he never warned his father. “I wasn’t going to say, ‘Hey, Dad, watch out for Mom,’ because my love for my mother was 100 times stronger than my love for my father.”

Conn will argue that such thoughts clearly show premeditated murder. But defense attorneys counter that death fantasies are common among abuse victims.

The prosecutor has also attempted to strip away the brothers’ claim that fear ruled their childhoods. He questioned Erik Menendez sharply on the details of the week of family crisis leading up to when Menendez testified that he hid behind his brother when his drunk mother chased him that week into the estate’s pool house, Conn was openly incredulous:

Conn: “I am asking you if you were aware, according to your testimony here, that she was a middle-aged, depressed, alcoholic housewife?”

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Menendez: “Yes.”

Conn: “And you’re telling us that you stood behind Lyle Menendez because you were so fearful of this woman, is that correct?”

Menendez: “Yes, that’s what I’m telling you.”

Defense attorney Levin said in an interview that Conn has assumed the role of the brutal patriarch by “strutting around the courtroom” and raising his voice.

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“David Conn is being as abusive and belligerent as Jose Menendez ever was,” Levin said. Conn “has ridiculed him. He’s chided him. He’s baited him. He’s goaded him. He’s tried to confuse him. He’s tried to trick him.”

Levin said Erik Menendez has stood up to Conn in the same way he would have liked to confront his father--calmly answering the questions without a whine, a whimper or a flash of anger.

“He’s the best witness I’ve ever seen in a case, ever,” Levin said.

Conn has peppered Menendez with previously unasked questions sprung from public debate--be it on talk shows or at cocktail parties:

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If Menendez was beaten as a child as he claims, Conn has repeatedly asked, why didn’t his swimming, soccer and tennis coaches see or report any bruises? If his father was molesting and abusing him, where are the other witnesses to corroborate the story? Why didn’t he go to the police? If he was so afraid of his parents, why didn’t he leave home?

Menendez said he could not leave home, but cannot explain why, prompting this question from Conn: “Isn’t that because, Mr. Menendez, you were never in any danger and you knew it?”

As for reporting the molestation, Menendez said: “I didn’t know police procedure. I didn’t even think of police officers as kind, warm people who were going to go in there and save a child from a family no matter how strong or how powerful or how much money the father has.”

Conn asked, “Is that the image you are trying to convey . . . that you were like a helpless child who couldn’t go to a police station unless he knew the police officers there on a first-name basis?”

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Conn, noting that Menendez has a habit of answering his questions with questions, has compiled a list of what he calls “words Erik doesn’t understand.” He quipped that the defendant’s vocabulary seems particularly limited if the words are spoken by a prosecutor. “It’s known as prosecutorial dyslexia,” he said.

A sample: “I don’t know what you mean by thought.” “What do you mean by loner?” “What do you mean compliant?” “I don’t know what you mean by that, either.” “I don’t know what you mean by motive.” “I don’t know what you mean by helpless.” “I don’t know what you mean by fair.” “What do you mean by witch?”

The grueling cross-examination also has offered a glimpse, through Erik Menendez’s eyes, of a highly dysfunctional family whose members rarely communicated.

Perhaps the saddest and most telling moments of the retrial came when Conn asked Erik Menendez what he loved about each of his parents. Menendez mentioned his mother’s smile, initiating this exchange:

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Q: “I want you to tell the jury, Mr. Menendez, if indeed you truly loved your mother, what was it about this woman as a person that you loved?”

A: “I felt sorry for her most of my childhood. She was my mom and I can’t give you any other better explanation than she was my mother. I loved her, her smile when she was happy.”

Q: “Isn’t it true, Mr. Menendez, that you had a superficial or nonexistent relationship with your mother?”

A: “There wasn’t much communication.”

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Said Abramson in an interview: “The reason my client can’t describe any pleasant memories with his mother is he doesn’t have many.”

Asked why he loved his father, Menendez said:

“I loved my father more out of admiration. . . . I admired who he was and the family and the tradition which he came from.”

Q: “Can you tell us any more about why you loved him as a person?”

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A: “No.”

And later:

Q: “Was your father a good man?”

A: “What do you mean by good?”

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