A jury Wednesday spared the lives of Lyle and Erik Menendez, who shotgunned their millionaire parents to death in Beverly Hills in 1989 and now will spend the rest of their days in state prison with no hope of parole.
As the verdicts were read in the tension-filled Van Nuys courtroom, a wave of relief seemed to sweep over the brothers and their defense attorneys when they realized that the jury had rejected the death penalty.
The defense lawyers reacted with grins, tears and hugs. Their clients initially sat stoically, but later Lyle embraced his public defender and Erik smiled with one of his lawyers.
“It’s just a tremendous relief when you hear those words . . . life without parole,” said Lyle’s lawyer, Charles Gessler, whose chest heaved and chin quivered when he heard the verdicts. “Lyle is relieved because he wants to live,” Gessler said in explaining his client’s emotions at a news conference.
An upbeat Leslie Abramson, whose alleged misconduct threw the penalty phase into turmoil, spoke with a throng of reporters outside the courthouse, finally freed from a gag order imposed on all parties in the case by the judge.
“On the good side, I would say that they’re such considerable human beings that they’re going to find a way to be productive,” she said. “And in fact some of the jurors were saying that too. It was their expectation that they would both find a way to contribute to society.”
The eight men and four women on the jury deliberated 13 hours over three days before deciding that life in prison was the appropriate punishment for the Aug. 20, 1989, murders of wealthy entertainment executive Jose Menendez, 45, and his beauty queen wife, Kitty Menendez, 47.
Several jurors spoke with reporters in the courtroom after the verdicts, sitting at a table in front of the jury box where over the past seven months they had heard the saga of a wealthy family whose sons exploded in violence, then said they had been sexually abused since they were small children.
There was never any disagreement, the jurors said, either in reaching the guilty verdicts March 20 or in deciding on the punishment once they examined the evidence.
Life in prison without parole “was the right decision to make,” said juror Andrew Wolfberg, 25, of Santa Monica.
“It’s eerie to be in the position of deciding someone’s life or death,” he said. “It was almost like [being] the defendants when they made their decision to kill.”
Juror Bruce Seitz, 34, said it was easy for the jury to decide to spare the brothers because neither had a felony record or a history of violence.
“There was no way we could put them to death, even though that horrible crime happened and what they did was horrible,” he said. “There were other good things about them that warranted life, them living.”
Jurors said the abuse defense never was much of a factor in their deliberations.
“We did think there was psychological abuse to some extent. I think most of us believed that,” said juror Lesley Hillings, 36. “Sexual abuse? I don’t think we’ll ever know if that’s true or not.”
Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg set July 2 as the date for formal sentencing and motions for a new trial.
Defense lawyers said they believe they have strong grounds on which to appeal the guilty verdicts. Those issues include Weisberg’s decisions to try the brothers before a single jury, to limit evidence the defense wanted to introduce that the brothers were sexually and mentally abused by their parents, and to eliminate the defense’s cornerstone theory that the brothers committed the murders because they feared the parents were about to kill them.
Overcome by Emotion
Erik’s attorney Barry Levin said he was relieved that his client is “not going to be facing a death judgment, but he’s by no means elated.”
“I think Erik recognizes what a tragedy this was,” Levin said. “He still has to deal daily with the agony, grief and remorse that he feels. He hopes that he can find some peace.”
Levin was so overcome as the verdicts were returned that he closed his eyes and rested his head on the defense table.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God,” attorney Abramson later recalled praying as Erik Menendez, whom she has called “my most cherished client,” leaned heavily against her.
But, she said, he now faces a future behind bars that will be “extremely unpleasant and dangerous.”
Jurors said the turmoil over a psychiatrist’s testimony during the penalty phase that he altered his notes of his session with Erik under pressure from Abramson had no impact on their decision.
Abramson said it wasn’t the controversy over psychiatrist William Vicary’s notes that kept her silent during closing arguments. Instead, she said, it was her close relationship with Erik.
“I have been his first friend for six years,” she said. “You cannot argue for your best friend. Can you imagine getting up there and asking someone to spare the life of your child?”
Levin, who made the closing argument for Erik, would not comment on the furor surrounding Abramson.
Even though the gag order was no longer in effect, Abramson would not discuss details of Vicary’s allegations.
“I can refute all of it, but I’m not going to take this forum because it’s a long, fairly complicated explanation,” she told reporters. “But I can unequivocally say I did not violate any laws,” she said. “I doubt very much that I would ever be disbarred for such a thing.”
Most upsetting to her, Abramson said, was the behavior of legal colleagues who have derided her in the media. “I have watched people who claim to be my friends and my colleagues accuse me of everything under the sun,” she said.
In an interview, juror Wolfberg said that “Abramson told me today that Vicary was lying. I don’t know. I feel emotionally she was so close to Erik Menendez that it’s possible” she ordered the notes changed. But he agreed that the allegations played no role in the deliberations.
In a press conference elsewhere in the Van Nuys courthouse, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and lead prosecutor David P. Conn said they accepted the jury’s verdict as just.
“Death is always a very difficult decision for any jury to reach. You really can’t quarrel with a jury for choosing life rather than death,” sad Conn, who had passionately urged jurors to return a verdict of death.
Garcetti, who had vowed when the first case ended in hung juries to retry the brothers for first-degree murder, said, “Most people in this county, perhaps even in this country, now believe that there was justice in this case.”
He noted that the results of the first trial sparked intense pressures to plea-bargain the case. “But that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do,” he said.
Both Garcetti and Conn said they were confident that the convictions would hold up on appeal.
Asked whether Abramson or psychiatrist Vicary are now under investigation by his deputies, Garcetti said no. But he added, “Let’s say it will be reviewed very carefully by this office.”
Lyle and Erik Menendez were 21 and 18 in 1989 when they drove to San Diego, used a fake ID to buy two 12-gauge Mossberg shotguns and then, two nights later, blasted away at their parents as they watched a James Bond movie on television in the den of the family’s Beverly Hills mansion. Coincidentally, the brothers bought tickets to another James Bond film, “Licence to Kill,” as their alibi.
In the seven months between the crime and their arrests, the two spent about $1 million on a Porsche, a Jeep Cherokee, a restaurant, condominiums, Rolex watches and other luxury items.
Once handsome heirs to a fortune estimated at $14.5 million, the brothers now are penniless, gaunt and pallid from six years spent in court and the County Jail.
At their first trials, both brothers claimed that they were molested by their father--Lyle from ages 6 to 8, and Erik from ages 6 to 18. Lyle also maintained that his mother harassed him sexually. Those trials ended in January 1994 with juries for each brother deadlocked between murder and lesser manslaughter verdicts.
The legal impasse sparked nationwide debate over the brothers’ so-called “abuse excuse,” and issues of justice and personal responsibility.
At the retrial, which began Oct. 11, Erik Menendez alone took the witness stand and repeated his childhood horror tale of incestuous sex that he confused with his father’s love and approval until, as he grew older, it became painful and punishing.
But this time, with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, a new prosecution team took a far different approach. Conn hammered away at the abuse defense by attacking it in a series of legal motions and then telling jurors the brothers’ tale was a hoax.
The jurors convicted the brothers of first-degree murder with the special circumstances of murder by lying in wait and multiple murders. They also were convicted of conspiracy to murder.
The most dramatic moment in the penalty phase came when forensic psychiatrist Vicary dropped a bombshell under Conn’s cross-examination. Vicary, who had treated Erik Menendez in jail since a few months after his arrest, said that shortly before he testified in the first trial he deleted damaging sections of his notes of Erik’s sessions under pressure from defense attorney Abramson.
Among the deletions were Erik’s admissions that in the days leading up to the crime he had hated his parents and wanted them out of his life.
Vicary’s surprise disclosure threw the penalty phase into three days of turmoil during which jurors heard no testimony.
The next day, April 5, Abramson brought a lawyer to court and invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination when Weisberg asked her about the allegation.
The judge then grappled with how to keep the case on track amid defense demands for a mistrial and calls from the other defense attorneys for Abramson to step down.
She later withdrew her claim to 5th Amendment privilege, saying it was made hastily. Instead, she invoked attorney-client privilege and Erik Menendez’s other legal rights.
Abramson, who has defended the younger brother since shortly after his 1990 arrest, has become something of a substitute mother to him. Erik Menendez apparently asked that she remain on the case after meeting behind closed doors with Weisberg and Bruce Hill, who served as independent counsel to advise Erik of his legal options.
Even though she remained by her favorite client’s side, Abramson never spoke another word to the jury on his behalf.
The story of the Menendez family, as it unfolded in the courtroom, often was compared to Greek tragedies in which the central figures’ character flaws led to their demise.
Until he was gunned down by his sons, Jose Menendez had lived a success story. He was born and raised in Cuba, but fled the Castro regime, coming at age 16 to the United States, where he lived in a relative’s attic and attended high school.
He was admitted to Southern Illinois University, where he met Mary Louise Andersen, a blond, bubbly beauty queen from Oak Park, Ill., whom everyone called “Kitty,” a nickname a brother had given her in childhood.
They married in 1963. Their first son, Lyle, was born in January 1968, followed by Erik, born in November 1970.
Kitty Menendez stayed at home with her sons while her husband climbed the corporate ladder, first at Hertz, then RCA and, finally, LIVE Entertainment, a Van Nuys-based subsidiary of Carolco Pictures, which made the “Rambo” action movies.
The sons, meanwhile, climbed the ranks of the junior tennis circuit.
During the penalty phase, which began March 27, 18 defense witnesses--relatives, teachers, coaches and friends--testified about the parents’ allegedly harsh treatment of their sons. They said that as boys, the brothers were pressured to excel, but were seldom rewarded for their efforts with anything but sarcasm and criticism from their parents.
The most compelling defense testimony came from the sisters of Jose Menendez, Teresita Baralt and Marta Cano, who implored the jurors to spare their nephews to avoid causing further anguish to a grieving family. Conn called no witnesses at first, but later presented testimony from Kitty Menendez’s two brothers. One of the brothers, Brian Andersen, sobbed on the stand as he recalled his recurring nightmares of his sister’s death and his wish that he had been there to help her.
And Andersen played a seven-minute video showing Jose, Kitty and Erik Menendez smiling and waving as they boarded a small plane just 11 days before the parents were slain by their sons. On the tape, Kitty Menendez can be heard saying, “Wave goodbye,” and later, “Here we are, home safe.”
Times staff writers Alan Abrahamson, Bob Pool and Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.
* THE JURORS’ THOUGHTS: Jurors wept, but had no doubts about their decision. B1