From the Archives: Lyle Menendez Case Ends in a Mistrial; D.A. to Retry Brothers
The Menendez murder case ended Friday without a single verdict as a second jury was declared deadlocked, the jurors hopelessly polarized over whether Lyle and Erik Menendez were coldblooded killers or long-suffering victims of abuse within their family’s gated Beverly Hills estate.
Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg declared a mistrial in the Lyle Menendez case Friday afternoon, ending the six-month trial. A separate jury for younger brother Erik Menendez was declared deadlocked two weeks ago in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their wealthy parents.
Prosecutors promised to try the brothers again for first-degree murder.The trial, broadcast live to a nationwide television audience, was dominated by a bold defense, which insisted that the brothers killed in fear after years of being raped and molested by their father, Jose Menendez.
That defense, it turned out, transformed jury deliberations, dividing both panels into rival camps--believers and skeptics. Jurors said their debate took on a nearly religious fervor at times.
Records unsealed Friday showed that the juries were split almost in half on most counts, with those skeptical of the brothers’ stories pushing for murder convictions, while the believers held out for lesser manslaughter convictions.
“There was basically a war,” Leslie Abramson, Erik Menendez’s lead attorney, said outside the Van Nuys courthouse.When the Erik Menendez jury deadlocked Jan. 13, Abramson declined to call it a victory win for the defense--as some legal experts did. But Jill Lansing, Lyle Menendez’s attorney, did not hesitate to proclaim Friday’s hung jury a victory.
“I don’t think that anybody at the beginning of the trial believed . . . these two young men were abused or that they could have been motivated by fear,” Lansing said. “Obviously a great number of people now understand that that was the situation.”
Both defense attorneys said they did not believe that jurors at any new trial would convict the brothers of first-degree murder, and Lansing suggested that “it would be in everyone’s interest” to reach a plea bargain.
Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said that was out of the question. “There will be no plea bargain,” he declared at a news conference in a courthouse law library.
Garcetti said he had an “ethical, professional and moral responsibility to go forward” with a retrial, despite the $1 million-plus price.
“Be damned with how much money it’s going to cost. We’re going to seek justice in this case,” he said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich, the lead prosecutor in the trial, dismissed suggestions that the hung juries were a loss. “I think that society is a loser in this case,” she said. “It appears now that vigilantism is not against the law, at least in some minds. And that’s a terrifying thought.”
Weisberg scheduled a Feb. 28 hearing to set a new trial date for the brothers. Lyle Menendez, 26, and Erik Menendez, 23, remain in custody without bail.”It is just very sad,” said Marta Cano, an aunt of the brothers who--like many relatives--testified in their defense. “The discouraging thing for me is I cannot imagine the state of California is going to continue spending money in a case like this, where there is no way they will ever find 12 people to agree.”
Though prosecutors have hinted that the discovery of new evidence will help them in a retrial, legal experts cautioned that the abuse defense seemingly had a strong emotional pull on many jurors.
“The question remains whether, even with changed prosecutorial strategies, the district attorney will be able to share his vision. The evidence to date . . . suggests that prospect is not very likely,” said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor.
The jury votes show that neither panel was close to a conviction on any count, though no juror voted for an outright acquittal of either brother.
The votes also served as a reminder of the unpredictability of juries. Although Erik Menendez was widely viewed as more sympathetic than his cooler older brother, his jury had more votes for first-degree murder--five--and proved far more contentious than the Lyle Menendez panel.Members of the Erik Menendez jury said their deliberations became almost a battle of the sexes, split largely along gender lines. All votes for first-degree murder were reportedly cast by men.
The judge asked each jury to choose from four verdicts, from first-degree murder--meaning premeditated--down to involuntary manslaughter, the legal term for an accidental killing. Some experts had speculated that jurors might compromise on second-degree murder, meaning a killing that was not premeditated.But compromise was not to be.
The Lyle Menendez jury, five men and seven women, voted this way:* In the killing of Jose Menendez: three for first-degree murder, three for second-degree murder and six for voluntary manslaughter.* In the killing of Kitty Menendez: three for first-degree murder, three for second-degree murder, five for voluntary manslaughter and one for involuntary manslaughter.* On the charge of conspiracy to commit murder: three for first-degree murder, three for second-degree murder and six for not guilty.
The Erik Menendez jury, six men and six women, voted like this:* In the killing of the father: five for first-degree murder, one for second-degree murder and six for voluntary manslaughter.* In the killing of the mother: five for first-degree mother, three for second-degree murder and four for voluntary manslaughter.* On the conspiracy count: five for first-degree murder, one for second-degree murder and six for not guilty.
Two juries were used in the trial because some evidence was admissible against only one brother.
It was a case that began as a whodunit, evolved into a lurid soap opera and finally set off debate on the cutting-edge social issue of childhood sexual abuse.
Marked by twists worthy of a theatrical melodrama, the case saw the Menendez brothers go from being portrayed as the orphaned victims of a possible mob hit to--after their arrests--spoiled brats who killed their parents out of hatred for everything but their money. Then the defense once again offered them up as victims--a claim belittled by prosecutors but which earned Lyle and Erik Menendez passionate supporters among courtroom and television onlookers.
Of those, there were many. The trial, replete with tabloid-style elements--homicide, sex, family wealth, secret tapes, a philandering psychologist and the cachet of Beverly Hills--became a staple of the cable Court TV network. Jay Leno made the brothers and their post-killing spending spree part of his monologue for weeks. “Saturday Night Live” did a skit.
Just a few weeks into the case, defense lawyer Abramson proclaimed in court: “Let the sleaze fly!”
And so it did, often in astonishing detail. The defense introduced a love poem written by a key prosecution witness, psychologist L. Jerome Oziel, to his paramour. Prosecutors prodded defense witnesses to delve into Erik Menendez’s sexual orientation. And a parade of witnesses provided a virtual trivia test of incidents to portray the Menendez household as the flip side of Ozzie and Harriet’s.
Their testimony revealed that Kitty Menendez did not clean up ferret droppings around the house and that her hair needed a “bleach job.” Jose Menendez made a niece eat caviar against her wishes.
The brothers spent 19 days on the witness stand, providing more such minutiae, but also the broad drama of the trial--with their tearful tales of sexual abuse and descriptions of the shootings.
Erik Menendez said he was molested from age 6 to 18, and that Jose Menendez stuck pins in him during sex. Lyle Menendez testified that his father molested him, too, from age 6 to 8. Crying, he said he also abused his younger brother.After they testified, thousands of people from around the country wrote the brothers at County Jail, identifying or empathizing with them, defense lawyers said.At first, the case hardly seemed like it would inspire such emotions. When Jose Menendez, 45, and Kitty Menendez, 47, were found dead, the sons were seen not as suspects but as grieving victims, even by the police.Interviewed at Beverly Hills police headquarters hours after the slayings, Lyle Menendez suggested that his father’s business dealings might have provoked the killings.
Jose Menendez was the boss at Van Nuys-based Live Entertainment, a video distribution business, and “could step on a lot of toes,” his older son said.Lyle Menendez hired bodyguards for 10 days, saying his parents “were murdered by either the cartel or the mob and he was in fear of his life,” a guard testified.
Fear, however, did not slow Lyle Menendez’s shopping. He spent $15,039 on three Rolex watches and money clips, $70,484 on a Porsche and even made a $300,000 down payment on a restaurant in Princeton, N.J.
But in March, 1990, seven months after the slayings, the spending came to a halt as the case took a 180-degree turn: The brothers were charged in the murders.For police, the key break came when a woman named Judalon Smyth alerted them that her ex-lover, psychologist Oziel, was treating the brothers--and that they had confided to him that they killed their parents.
It took more than three years to bring the brothers to trial, largely because of legal wrangling over the admissibility of notes and tapes made by Oziel.
During that time, books and movie deals were cut. The media portrayal of the brothers--now as greedy playboys--was so pervasive that when jury selection began, nearly all the potential jurors knew of the rich Menendez family. Some said they were sure the brothers were guilty.
Then, a week before trial, Abramson disclosed that the brothers would claim they acted in fear after years of abuse, portraying them as children who erupted when they could take it no more.
At the trial, the brothers came dressed in sweaters to make them look younger. Defense lawyers referred to them as “the boys.”As part of its strategy, the defense called about three dozen teachers, coaches, relatives and friends of the Menendez family, who related tale upon tale of the brothers’ childhood, portraying the household as a grim place where hugs and smiles were rare.
Amid the references to caviar and ferret droppings, Jose Menendez was depicted as domineering and authoritarian; Kitty Menendez as a cold, rage-filled enigma with a drug and alcohol problem.
When the defendants took the stand, each said the killings took place after a series of confrontations that began when Kitty Menendez ripped off her older son’s toupee on Aug. 15, 1989.
Two days later, the defense said, Lyle Menendez threatened their father that he would tell outsiders about the alleged molestation of Erik Menendez if it did not stop.
Though such testimony might have gained sympathy for the brothers, under California law it was not enough to make a case for self-defense. Under the law, child abuse--no matter how severe--does not justify murder.
But the brothers’ attorneys went a step further, contending that the years of abuse made the brothers incredibly fearful of their parents. The brothers testified that they were sure they were about to be killed on the night of Aug. 20 when their parents entered the TV room and closed the door behind them. The brothers said they thus burst inside to kill their parents first.Prosecutors gave a different version, saying that the parents were coldbloodedly blown away while watching TV, eating berries and filling out a college application for Erik Menendez.
Still, the defense made an all-out effort to bolster the notion that the brothers perceived that their lives were in danger. A string of experts in child abuse--a psychologist, a psychiatrist and professors in nursing, psychology and social work--said extensive jailhouse interviews persuaded them the brothers were telling the truth.
Prosecutors did not put on any expert witnesses, saying that would only have lent credibility to what Bozanich belittled as psychobabble.
Prosecutors reminded jurors how Lyle and Erik Menendez had lied in the past to police, the media and family about the slayings. In one dramatic moment of the trial, prosecutors also caught the brothers in an apparent lie in court.
The setup was their testimony that they went to a Santa Monica Big 5 store on Aug. 18, 1989, to buy handguns. Deputy Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama then disclosed that the sporting goods chain had not sold handguns since 1986.
Prosecutors also scored a victory when Weisberg ruled that jurors could hear a tape recording of a session the brothers held with Oziel several months after the slayings. The defense had fought to get the tape sealed on the grounds of patient-client confidentiality, but the judge ruled it relevant because the brothers had made their mental state a central issue.
On the tape, the brothers said they killed their mother to put her “out of her misery,” and that their father’s infidelity caused her despair. There was no mention of sexual abuse or self-defense.In the end, though, no piece of evidence was enough for a verdict. The Erik Menendez jury gave up after 19 days. The Lyle Menendez jury took 25 days--although it met for only five hours over three days this week, after enduring a long break because of the Jan. 17 earthquake, which damaged jurors’ San Fernando Valley homes and the courthouse.
Jurors insisted that the quake had little impact on deliberations that were seemingly doomed from the start.
“We regret to inform the court that we are still unable to reach a verdict on any of the three counts or lesser charges,” said the note sent Friday by the jury foreman, a 35-year-old mailman.
At that, Weisberg declared a mistrial.
As the courtroom cleared, Abramson draped an arm around Lyle Menendez. Looking over at Lansing, the other chief defense lawyer, Lyle Menendez smiled.
Chronology of the Menendez Case
1986: The Menendez family moves from New Jersey to California. Jose Menendez, a Cuban immigrant who began working as a dishwasher and rose to become a top executive at Hertz and the RCA Corp., takes over as chief executive at Live Entertainment, a Van Nuys-based video distributor. He moves with his wife, Kitty, and two tennis-playing teen-agers--Lyle and Erik--into a Calabasas home.
1987:Nov. 8: Kitty Menendez is taken to the hospital for a drug overdose.
1988, January: Erik Menendez and a friend at Calabasas High School write a screenplay about a son who murders his parents for $157 million. Prosecutors later lose a bid to use the script at the brothers’ trial.
July: Erik Menendez helps burglarize two houses in Calabasas, getting about $100,000 in property. Lyle joins in the second break-in. To satisfy authorities, Jose Menendez makes restitution and his younger son, Erik, begins seeing Beverly Hills psychologist L. Jerome Oziel.
1989 :July 30-31: NBC-TV airs a movie on the Billionaire Boys Club, a money-happy group of young Southern California men who turn to murder. The club includes the older brother of one of Erik’s friends--and prosecutors later suggest that the film gave the Menendez brothers the idea of killing their parents.
Aug. 15: On this night, according to the brothers, Kitty Menendez rips off Lyle Menendez’s toupee in the family’s new home, a Beverly Hills mansion. As the brothers tell it, Erik Menendez is shocked to learn Lyle wore a wig, but also feels closer to him--and thus confides that he has been molested by their father since age 6.
Aug. 17: Lyle confronts Jose Menendez, telling him to stop the abuse, according to Lyle’s testimony. He says his father responded: “We all make choices in our life. Erik made his. You made yours.”
Aug. 18: According to the brothers’ testimony, they shop for handguns at a Big 5 store in Santa Monica, then wind up instead buying two shotguns in San Diego, using a false ID.
Aug. 20: About 10 p.m., the brothers burst into the TV room of the house and blast away at their parents, hitting Jose Menendez six times and Kitty Menendez 10 times. After dumping weapons and bloody clothing, the brothers drive to a food festival in Santa Monica to establish an alibi. They return home and, at 11:47 p.m., Lyle Menendez dials 911. In seeming hysterics, he reports the discovery of the bodies.
Aug. 21: Lyle Menendez tells Beverly Hills police his father’s business dealings might have provoked the killings.
Aug. 24: Lyle Menendez spends $15,039 on three Rolex watches and money clips.
Aug. 31: Summoned to the mansion by Lyle Menendez, computer expert Howard Witkin searches the family computer to look for new wills, but finds none. Lyle Menendez pays him with a check for $150. It bounces.
Sept. 6: Lyle Menendez buys a $70,484 Porsche. Later, he puts down $300,000 on a chicken-wing restaurant in New Jersey. “I realize, I look back, it sounds awful,” he says in testifying about the spending.
Oct. 31: Erik Menendez confides to Oziel that he and his brother killed their parents. Lyle Menendez, called to the therapist’s office, confirms his brother’s account.
Nov. 2: The brothers meet again with Oziel. Oziel’s lover, Judalon Smyth, is in the waiting room, and later claims she overhears “bits and pieces” of conversation.
Dec. 11: In another session with Oziel, which is taped, the brothers say they killed their mother to put her “out of her misery” and that their father’s infidelity caused her despair.
March 4: Judalon Smyth, who has been living at Oziel’s in Sherman Oaks--under the same roof with his wife and two daughters--leaves, ending their affair.
March 6: Smyth tells police that the brothers confessed to Oziel.
March 8: Oziel’s bank safe deposit box is searched. Police find notes the psychologist dictated after the Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 meetings, and the Dec. 11 tape. Lyle Menendez is arrested.
March 11: Erik flies home from a tennis tournament in Israel and is arrested at Los Angeles International Airport. Both brothers are held without bail.
Aug. 27: In a split decision, the California Supreme Court rules that Oziel’s notes on the Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 sessions can be used as evidence against the brothers because Lyle Menendez allegedly threatened the psychologist. But the court blocks use of the Dec. 11 tape on grounds of patient-therapist confidentiality.
Dec. 7: The Los Angeles County grand jury indicts the brothers on murder and conspiracy charges, with special circumstances that could mean the death penalty.
May 14: Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg rules that two juries will hear the case because some evidence is admissible against only one brother.
July 11: Defense lawyer Leslie Abramson, representing Erik Menendez, discloses that he will say the brothers killed in self-defense after years of abuse.
July 20: Before opening statements begin, spectators line up for seats in court. Prosecutors allege that Lyle and Erik Menendez were driven by hatred and greed. Abramson says they killed in “pure terror, pure panic.”
July 29: With Oziel scheduled to testify, Abramson vows to “attack his credibility in every way known to man and God.”
Aug. 4: Oziel testifies that the brothers considered the killings the “perfect crime.”
Aug. 10: Under cross-examination, he is made to recount his affair with Smyth. Even he laughs at a poem he wrote her: “For like a nymph, she strides from the forest at daybreak dressed in white where no other man has known her—Judalon.”
Aug. 16: The prosecution rests after calling 26 witnesses.
Aug. 17: The defense begins a parade of teachers, coaches, relatives, neighbors and friends to depict Jose Menendez as a power freak and Kitty Menendez as a suicidal enigma. Weisberg warns the lawyers to keep to relevant evidence: “Every time someone picked their nose and the father slapped his hand, that’s not going to be before the jury,” he says.
Sept. 10: Lyle Menendez takes the stand, saying that he was molested by his father from age 6 to 8. Sobbing, he says he, in turn, sexually abused his younger brother.
Sept. 17: Recounting the slayings, Lyle says he just “freaked out,” and now mostly recalls a dark room, glass breaking, booming guns and lots of smoke.
Sept. 20: Lyle Menendez admits offering his onetime girlfriend, Jamie Pisarcik, a bribe to testify falsely that Jose Menendez made an unwanted pass at her.
Sept. 21: On cross-examination, Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich asks Lyle Menendez: “You almost got away with it, didn’t you?”
Sept. 23: Lyle Menendez says his mother appeared to be “sneaking” away, so he reloaded and shot her one final time.
Sept. 27: Erik Menendez, pale and trembling, takes the stand and testifies that his father molested him from age 6 to 18, sometimes sticking pins in him during sex.
Oct. 1: Prosecutors spring a trap. They allow Erik Menendez to testify about shopping for handguns at a Big 5 store--then reveal that the Big 5 chain had stopped selling handguns three years earlier.
Oct. 13: A new phase of the defense opens with five expert witnesses on the mind-set of the brothers. Ann H. Tyler, a Salt Lake City-based psychologist, tells jurors that Erik Menendez endured “psychological maltreatment.”
Oct. 15: Ann Burgess, a nursing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says the crime scene was “disorganized,” suggesting there was no plan to kill. She later cites research on snails to bolster the notion that prolonged fear can “rewire” the brain.
Nov. 3: Weisberg rules that the Dec. 11, 1989, tape of the counseling session with Oziel now is admissible as evidence because the defense made the brothers’ mental state a central issue.
Nov. 12: Defense attorneys play the tape for jurors, saying they did not want it to seem they were hiding evidence. There are gasps when Lyle says of his mother and father: “You miss just having these people around. I miss not having my dog around. If I can make such a gross analogy.”
Nov. 15: Smyth, whose tip led to the brothers’ arrests, is called by the defense to discredit Oziel. She says he wanted the brothers to confess on tape so he could control them.
Nov. 18: After three months of testimony and 56 witnesses, the defense rests.
Nov. 23: The prosecution, in its rebuttal, calls Brian Andersen, Kitty Menendez’s brother. He says the Menendez parents were loving and caring, but their sons were brats.
Dec. 6: Weisberg rules that the evidence does not justify a legal instruction giving jurors the option of outright acquittal.
Dec. 9: As closing arguments begin, Lyle Menendez’s lead lawyer, Jill Lansing, implores jurors to convict him of manslaughter, not murder. She asks jurors to consider: “What in the world could have caused these two boys to kill their parents?”
Dec. 10: With Bozanich calling the brothers cold-blooded killers who put on the “best defense daddy’s money could buy,” Lyle Menendez’s case goes to the jury.
Dec. 13: Deputy. Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama kicks off his closing argument for the Erik Menendez jury by posting pictures of the killing scene. Abramson calls that a “cheap prosecution trick,” then puts up her own pictures, of the brothers as naked young boys.
Dec. 15: Relating her “fantasy” of seeing Erik Menendez a free man, Abramson urges jurors to acquit him. Closing arguments wrap up with Kuriyama suggesting that Erik Menendez was gay and that his sexual orientation--not abuse by his parents--fed the family friction that led to the slayings.
Jan. 10: The Erik Menendez jury announces that it seems hopelessly deadlocked. Weisberg urges the panel to keep trying.
Jan. 13: A hung jury is declared in the case against Erik Menendez.
Jan. 17: The earthquake damages the courthouse--and the neighborhoods of many jurors--causing a postponement of deliberations for the Lyle Menendez panel.
Jan. 24: The jury finally resumes deliberations, in a trailer.
Jan. 25: The jury reports: “We are unable to come to a unanimous decision.” The judge asks the panel to keep trying.
Jan. 29: With the Lyle Menendez jury still hung, Weisberg declares a mistrial. Prosecutors vow to retry the brothers.
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