For the first time, jurors in the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez heard testimony Wednesday about sexual abuse, but the judge said outside their presence that the issue has "been blown out of proportion."
Diane Vander Molen, the brothers' cousin, said 8-year-old Lyle Menendez came to her in 1976 and confided that he and his father had been "touching each other down there." She said Lyle Menendez pointed to his crotch.
Vander Molen said she called the child's mother, Kitty Menendez, who did not seem to believe her--and the mother dragged the son upstairs. "It was never discussed after that," Vander Molen said, crying. "I convinced myself I was in the wrong."
Listening to their cousin, Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 22, also got teary-eyed. The brothers are charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47.
The brothers killed their parents in the den of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.
Prosecutors allege that hatred and greed drove the brothers, and are seeking the death penalty. The defense concedes the killings but asserts it was an act of self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg allowed Vander Molen, 34, of Denver to testify about the 1976 incident. But he said without jurors present: "This whole issue is being blown out of proportion--that somehow there's a linkage between the molestation, if there was one, and the killings."
Defense lawyer Leslie Abramson responded: "It does not surprise me to hear the court say that. It horrifies me but it does not surprise me."
In a comment with possible implications for the instructions he ultimately will give jurors, the judge retorted: "The fact that there was a molestation doesn't constitute a legal defense."
Outside court, Abramson conceded that much. Evidence of molestation, she said, serves only to explain the theory of self-defense. The killings, she said, occurred after the brothers had threatened to go public about years of molestation--and feared the parents would kill them first.
Weisberg, she said outside court, seemed to be "treating this case like a liquor store robbery. But this case by its very nature requires evidence not relevant in the ordinary criminal trial."
Defense lawyers Abramson and Jill Lansing, Lyle Menendez's lead attorney, allege that Jose Menendez molested his older son from age 6 to 8 and his younger son from 6 to 18.
Allegations of sexual abuse by the father surfaced just weeks before the trial began. But without jurors present, Abramson alleged Wednesday that Lyle Menendez molested his younger brother--a new claim.
Later, outside court, she said the older brother abused the younger for a "very brief period" when Lyle was 8 and Erik was about 5.
It occurred "just before the molestation of Lyle ends," Abramson said. "He was just mimicking what was being done to him." She said Erik Menendez will testify about the details.
Outside court, Abramson said the brothers divulged the alleged abuse by their father in 1983 to "someone you will hear from later," in 1987 to "someone you may or may not hear from," and in 1990--after they had been arrested and were in jail--to family members and a psychiatrist.
"Only then was it divulged to the lawyers," she said.
The lawyers and the judge clashed repeatedly in court Wednesday over other evidence offered by the defense--testimony about the Menendez family history and about the Menendez household, which cousins came prepared to describe as a grim, tense place where hugs and smiles were rare.
In a hearing outside the presence of jurors, defense lawyers said Kathleen Simonton, 32, Vander Molen's sister, would testify about how Kitty Menendez got angry at her in the summer of 1976. The reasons: she vacuumed the floor sloppily, did not fold the laundry neatly and wore a bikini at the back-yard pool.
Weisberg allowed none of it, saying it was not relevant.
The judge said testimony had to be limited to matters bearing in some way to the brothers or the killings. Not everything that happened in the house when the brothers were young is relevant, he said, adding, "This is not a child custody case."
Still, defense attorneys persisted.
Simonton told jurors that Jose Menendez forced her to eat caviar--and was so domineering that he did not let her or the brothers choose what they ate at restaurants.
After two months with the Menendez family, she said, she fled. "I wanted to go home and have a normal summer, whatever was left of it."
Vander Molen, meanwhile, testified that it was common to find droppings from the family pets--a succession of ferrets each named Chipper--around the Menendez house. She said was in the car when Kitty Menendez drove "across the entire state of Pennsylvania at 95 m.p.h." and found it terrifying.
She also said that Lyle Menendez had a stuffed animal collection, and liked to threaten his younger brother with a big, blue, stuffed Cookie Monster doll, pointing to a photo of the "Sesame Street" character. It was not clear whether the threats were playful or not.