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Defense Seeks to Show Abuse Spurred Menendez Slayings

August 17, 1993|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the first of about 90 witnesses, the defense began its case Monday in the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, conceding that the brothers are killers but contesting the charge that they are murderers.

From the very first witness, the defense tried to strike the theme that the brothers were driven to kill their parents by years of abuse. The brothers' aunt said their father told her he had to be harsh with his young sons--to toughen Lyle, whom he could "work with," and to punish "too tender" Erik.

But from the onset, the strategy ran into difficulties. Testimony by the aunt, Marta Menendez Cano, was given without jurors present, and Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg ruled it was inadmissible, saying it stemmed from conversations about 20 years ago.

As she left the witness stand, Cano shook her head in apparent frustration. So did the brothers and their lawyers.

Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 22, are charged with first-degree murder in the shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47. The parents were shot in the den of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.

Two juries are hearing the case, one for each brother. At least one juror on the Lyle Menendez panel nodded repeatedly to testimony later Monday by the second defense witness, a psychologist who said that victims of child abuse typically feel great shame.

John Briere, 42, a professor of psychiatry at USC and an expert in the effects of child abuse on adults, also said abused children are like battered women, echoing the thrust of the defense strategy.

Much as a battered woman lashes out, the defense contends the brothers killed in self-defense, driven by years of physical, mental and sexual abuse. Allegations of abuse surfaced only weeks before the trial began.

"Men abused as children don't tell people about it," Briere said. "They feel they're going to be judged harshly."

Prosecutors--who allege that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed, and are seeking the death penalty--rested their case against Lyle on Friday and Erik on Monday.

At the end of the prosecution's case, defense lawyers asked Weisberg to narrow the trial on the grounds that prosecutors had not produced enough evidence to show the killings came after the brothers were "lying in wait."

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich said that claim was without merit. The first four weeks of the trial, she said, suggested the parents were "most likely asleep at the beginning of the attack," a point defense attorneys consistently have disputed.

Weisberg then declined to narrow the case, saying it will be up to jurors to decide what happened.

Before resting Monday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama told jurors on the Erik Menendez panel that the younger brother had been involved in two burglaries in Calabasas in 1988.

Reading from a statement describing the incidents, Kuriyama said Erik Menendez was at a friend's house in July, 1988, when he found a piece of paper bearing the combination to the family safe. Erik Menendez took money and jewelry, Kuriyama said.

About two weeks later, he said, Erik and Lyle Menendez stole goods from another house.

The burglaries involved an estimated $100,000 worth of property.

In September, 1988, Erik Menendez surrendered to county sheriff's deputies, accompanied by his father and a lawyer. Erik Menendez gave a statement admitting his involvement without implicating anyone else, Kuriyama said.

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