December 29, 2017

Erik and Lyle Menendez: Was Justice Done?

Erik (left) and Lyle - before August 20, 1989

I remember vividly the 1989 shotgun murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez.  I was living on the east coast and desperate to move to southern California.  The news stations were giddy over the murder of Jose, an entertainment executive, and his blonde wife, in their plushy Beverly Hills home - - calling it a nightmare on Elm Drive (taking off from the then-popular Freddy Krueger franchise.)  I knew only what was reported in the media (so basically what they wanted me to know) and grew to believe that the brothers had massacred their parents solely for greed.  Case closed.

Or is it?  Watching the recent A&E program called "The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All" led me to do some serious digging in this case.  All is not what I thought, that's for certain.

The one fact that is absolutely not in dispute in this case is that Erik, then 18, and Lyle, then 21, shot their parents to death on August 20, 1989.  The motive behind the killings, however, may not be what you think.

Jose and Kitty
On the evening of Sunday, August 20, Jose and Kitty were in the den of their fancy home at 722 North Elm Drive.  They had been watching a videotape of The Spy Who Loved Me and snacked on blueberries and cream.  It was a quiet night in. Around 10 p.m., their sons entered the room, armed with 12-gauge shotguns.  Jose was shot in the back of the head, point blank, killing him instantly. Three more shots to his arms followed. Kitty, who may have been dozing, jumped from the couch and attempted to flee.  She was shot in the leg and in left arm, causing a fracture. She fell in front of the couch, leaving her vulnerable to the blasts. Once down, she was shot in the left breast, right arm, left thigh . . . she was still alive and writhing on the floor when the tenth and final shot was delivered to her, when the barrel of the shotgun was placed against her cheek and the trigger was pulled.   It was incorrectly reported that both Jose and Kitty were shot in the knees after death in order to make the murders look as though they were Mob related; however, pictures of Jose, clad in shorts at the time of his death, show his knees unmarked and unwounded.

Despite statements repeated in the press, neighbors did hear the shots but attributed them to kids playing around with fireworks.  Having driven through the neighborhood and seen the house years after the murders, this is not surprising.  The houses, while grand, are close together and it would be insane to think that two 12-gauge shotguns could be blasting inside one of the residences without being heard.  Seriously.   What was the media thinking?  That it was somehow more ninja-like or shifty to suggest that these murders were committed silently?

At 11:47, a 9-1-1 call was made by Lyle in which he stated "Somebody killed my parents!"  Both he and Erik told police they had been at the movies and returned home to find their parents dead.  They should have been prime suspects, as immediate family normally is, but for whatever reason, the LAPD neglected to treat them as such or test their hands and clothing for GSR (gunshot residue.)

While the LAPD apparently wasn't seriously investigating Jose and Kitty's sons, they were checking out theories that the murders were indeed a Mob hit and/or due to shady dealings by Jose and/or his company and/or by a disgruntled employee.  They found out that Jose was not well liked by his coworkers and employees and that he had extracurricular interests outside his marriage to Kitty.

Months later, after Lyle and Erik began spending lavish amounts of money on cars, clothing and Rolex watches, Erik began seeing therapist/psychologist Jerome Oziel.  Dr. Oziel, as you will soon find out, gives therapists a bad name.

Erik confessed to Dr. Oziel that he and his older brother had committed the murders, after being tormented by his crime, suffering with anxiety, depression, insomnia and suicidal thoughts.  Oziel, who was having an affair with his patient Judalon Smyth, convinced Smyth to eavesdrop on his sessions with Erik.  He also told her what Erik discussed during his sessions  - a very clear and egregious violation of the doctor-patient privilege.  Oziel would later state that Lyle threatened him and he had Smyth eavesdrop in order to ensure his personal safety.

Oziel was married (what a catch) and attempted to end things with Smyth (as most wives don't appreciate their husbands having mistresses, much less those that are also patients.)  As hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, Smyth promptly called the police and blabbed all that she overheard and that Oziel had told her.

Under arrest
Lyle was arrested in March of 1990; Erik, who was in Israel for a tennis tournament, surrendered voluntarily three days later.  They would not be indicted for murder until December of 1992, as it took two years to determine whether or not Oziel's taped sessions with Erik were admissible.  (Some were but not those in which he discussed the murders.)

The trial began in 1993.  Lyle and Erik both testified that they had been abused, sexually and physically, for years by their father, with their mother turning a blind eye to it, and it was this abuse that led to their committing the murders.  Judge Stanley Weisberg allowed the defense to present the "abuse excuse" and call witnesses to support their case.  The trial, with a jury each for Erik and Lyle, ended in a deadlock, with the males in both juries voting to convict. The DA elected to try the Menendezes again.

On trial
Incredibly, in the second trial, where Weisberg once again presided, he reversed his decisions from the first trial and did not allow the claims of sexual abuse and rape to be presented as a defense.  That effectively meant that Erik and Lyle, while admitting to the murder of their parents, had no real defense for their actions.  As the abuse was not allowed, the many witnesses who took the stand in the first trial, to recount having seen the abuse, were not permitted in the second trial.  The juries, having only the option for first degree murder or acquittal - - not manslaughter - - , convicted both brothers of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.  The state wanted the death penalty; Erik and Lyle were spared due their lack of a past criminal history and on July 2, 1996, Weisberg sentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As expected, attorneys for Lyle and Erik filed appeals.  In February of 1998, the California Court of Appeals upheld the convictions. In May of that same year, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the convictions and the sentences with none of the justices voting to review the case.

The habeas corpus petitions filed by both were denied by the Supreme Court of California in 1999.  Attorneys then filed habeas corpus petitions on behalf of both in the U.S. District Court;  the petitions were denied in March of 2003.  An appeal was then made to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District. The denial of the petitions was affirmed in September of 2005.

Legally, this is where the road ends for Lyle and Erik Menendez.

These are my thoughts.  They are clearly guilty of killing their parents.  There is no dispute on that.  Was there abuse in the Menendez household?  I think so.  Not because Lyle and Erik testified there was (although I can't imagine any teenage boy - - or a young adult of Lyle's age at the time - - who would be willing to claim that his father, an adult male, forced him to give and receive oral and anal sex) but because they had witnesses to back it up.  And not just friends, their tennis coach and Erik's therapist post-Oziel but also the son of Jose Menendez' brother and the sister and niece of Kitty Menendez.

It's really incredible when you think on it.  Not one person during the first or second trial spoke on behalf of Jose Menendez to defend his character. Not one individual said he was a nice, good, decent person.  Not saying that meant he deserved to be killed but it says something, doesn't it?  Jose's own mother sat in the courtroom, supporting her grandsons  - the same Lyle and Erik who killed her son.   Kitty's sister spoke of the abuse she and Kitty were exposed to while growing up, which may have slanted her view on Jose's abuse; Jose's nephew testified as to Kitty's addiction to prescription pills and alcohol.  While the press took such revelations as victim blaming, victim shaming and putting the victims themselves on trial, they were only correct in that the victims were indeed on trial.  And should have been, based upon the allegations.

I believe that Judge Weisberg was correct during the first trial, where he allowed Leslie Abramson, Barry Levin and Jill Lansing to present claims of abuse and belief of imminent danger from their parents.  It was a legitimate defense and the jury should have been allowed to consider it and debate on it (as they did.)

When the Los Angeles D.A. essentially lost the case via a mistrial, I think he erred greatly in reversing that decision.  Did he do so under pressure from the D.A., who surely had egg on his face?  Weisberg had sat through the first trial.  He knew exactly what would happen if Lyle and Erik were unable to present the abuse defense.  Things were made worse for the defense when Weisberg sealed the deal by taking manslaughter off the table.

As someone who once believed that the brothers killed their parents for good old fashioned money, I have changed my stance.  I believe after years of abuse, they snapped.  Do I believe they were convinced their lives were in imminent danger on the night of August 20, 1989?  I honestly don't know.  I can't answer one way or the other because I don't know what years of abuse may or may not do to someone psychologically.  According to Erik, on the afternoon of August 20, he told Lyle that Jose had been sexually abusing him for years and was still doing so, an admission which pained Lyle greatly as he too had been abused by Jose and, as a child, had turned around to abuse Erik.  Also that day, Erik claimed that he was told by his parents that rather than living in the dorms for his upcoming freshman year at college, he would remain at home.  Where he would be available for any type of abuse.  Would these two occurrences be enough to push the brothers into a murderous act?

Erik, in a telephone conversation for "The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All," admitted guilt for his act.  A crime, he said.  He apologized to his mother's sister and niece and his father's mother for the effect his actions had on them - - pushing them into the spotlight and causing them grief over the loss of Jose and Kitty.  The same aunt, niece and grandmother who have stood by him (and Lyle) since their arrests and who, as recently as this year, have visited Erik in prison in San Diego.  Erik also told his therapist, Dr. William Vicary, that if he could do anything differently, he would - - he would have killed himself rather than his parents.

Should Lyle and Erik Menendez have been convicted for the deaths of their parents?  Yes.  I think manslaughter may have been a better option but even convicting for first degree murder, their home lives and the abuse they suffered at the hands of both parents should have been an extenuating factor and circumstance given weight during the penalty phase.  Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was wrong.  Even the Manson killers are given opportunity for parole.

In my opinion, the Menendezes have served their time.  They have been incarcerated since 1990.  That's twenty-seven years.  I think it's enough.  I wish the State of California felt the same.

"The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All" can be viewed via On Demand or at A&E's website.

Following their murders, Jose and Kitty were buried in New Jersey, at Princeton Cemetery.

722 North Elm Drive
The Mediterranean style house in which they died was sold in 1991 at a $1.2 million loss to a television writer (it was sold for $3.6 million.)  In 2001,  it was sold to a telecommunications executive.  Extensive interior renovations were done in 2002 but the exterior remains much the same as it did in 1989.  Over the years, many A-listers have rented the property, including Elton John and Prince.

Their first California home in Calabasas, a property they still owned at the time of their deaths, was bought at auction for $1.3 million in 1994, well under the $2.65 million appraisal.

The Menendez estate, valued at $14.5 million at the time of the murders (an amount that would be equivalent to nearly $29 million today), was nearly bankrupt by 1994.  Lyle and Erik reportedly went through close to a million dollars before their arrests.  The proceeds from the sale of the Beverly Hills home went to pay off the mortgage and the IRS. The money netted from the sale of the Calabasas home paid off the outstanding $864,000 mortgage and some $600,000 in outstanding taxes.  The remainder of the estate was quickly drained by the defense attorneys.

Two made-for-television movies were made about the Menendez murders;

Erik's former therapist, the sleazy Dr. Oziel, lost his license in 1997.  Breaking confidentiality and sleeping with female patients will do that for you.

Judge Stanley Weisberg retired in 2008.

Lyle married on July 2, 1996, the same day he and Erik were sentenced to life in prison.  The marriage ended in divorce in 2001; he remarried in 2003.  He is currently incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison, where he runs a support group for inmates who have experienced sexual abuse.

Erik married in 1999, becoming a stepfather in the process, and remains married to date. He is currently incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, where he works as a caregiver for terminally ill and physically challenged inmates.

The brothers remain in contact via letters.

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