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Brothers' Cousin Says Testimony Not Rehearsed : Courts: Woman concedes she only told Menendezes' defense lawyers about the father's reported sexual misconduct after she visited defendants in jail. Brothers' attorneys begin bid to discredit key prosecution witness.

August 20, 1993|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After providing the first corroboration of Lyle and Erik Menendez's claims of sexual abuse, their cousin conceded Thursday that she told defense lawyers about the abuse only after visiting the brothers in jail.

On cross-examination, Diane Vander Molen said Thursday that she visited her cousins three times in jail in June, 1991. Seven months later, she said, she first told defense attorneys that 8-year-old Lyle Menendez came to her in 1976 and said he and his father had been "touching each other down there."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich intimated Thursday that the jail visits helped Vander Molen rehearse her testimony for jurors, which was delivered Wednesday. But Vander Molen said she did not rehearse, insisting she did not even go over the incident with either brother before telling defense lawyers about it.

Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 22, listened impassively Thursday to their cousin, who cried on occasion as she offered testimony on other matters. When the brothers were adolescents, she said, they once tied her up. Another time, she said, Lyle Menendez climbed on top of her and fondled her breasts.

The brothers 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.

Prosecutors contend that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed, and are seeking the death penalty. The defense, about to conclude the first week of its case, concedes the killings but contends the brothers acted in self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Vander Molen, 34, of Denver said she never witnessed sexual abuse. But much of her testimony was devoted to a portrayal of what the Menendez household was like during her visits over several summers and in 1982-83, when she lived with the family

As she had the day before, she testified Thursday about the family's pet ferret, who "pretty much had the run of the house," and left droppings everywhere. The family had another pet, a dog named Tristess, and she volunteered that it lived for 17 years. "Wow!" a juror exclaimed.

During the year that Vander Molen lived with the family, serving as a housekeeper and baby-sitter, she was 23. At the time, the brothers were about 15 and 12.

Even as adolescents, Vander Molen testified, both brothers took turns sleeping in the bed with their mother when their father was not home.

One night, she said, she and the brothers were wrestling playfully in the basement when they abruptly tied her hands together and her top came off. "They got me down to my bra," she said, but it "stopped there" after she demanded an end to it.

Another night, she said, she and Lyle Menendez were watching television. All of a sudden, "without any words spoken, Lyle climbed on top of me and began fondling my breasts. I froze," she said, as tears rolled down her face, and "it stopped."

Vander Molen said she told defense lawyers about the incidents in June, 1991, during a trip to visit the brothers in jail. But she insisted she did not relate her account of sexual abuse between Lyle Menendez and his father until a January, 1992, interview with defense lawyers in Denver.

Vander Molen finished her testimony before noon, and for most of the rest of the day, jurors were absent for the beginning of an attempt by the defense to discredit the chief prosecution witness, Beverly Hills psychologist L. Jerome Oziel.

Oziel testified earlier this month that the brothers confessed to him during counseling sessions Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, 1989, about two months after the killings.

He spent six days on the stand--four of them under cross-examination, as defense lawyers asked him repeatedly about an extramarital affair he had with Judalon Smyth. It was Smyth who told Beverly Hills police about the confessions in March, 1990, and the brothers were taken into custody days later.

Defense lawyers sought Thursday to call Oziel's former baby-sitter, Cynthia Dawn McPhee, who says she also had sex with him regularly, to testify about his character. McPhee, 30, a hairdresser who now lives in Vancouver, B.C., also alleges that he drugged and raped her. Oziel has denied any wrongdoing.

Hired as the family nanny, McPhee lived with Oziel, his wife and their two daughters from 1981 to 1986. The Oziels, she said, had her arrested once on vandalism charges and twice on theft charges.

Defense lawyers presented Weisberg with an 11-page document laying out what else McPhee would say about Oziel. But what it mostly laid out, the judge said, was the "acrimony and bitterness" between McPhee and Oziel, which he said was irrelevant.

Prosecutors asked Weisberg to bar McPhee from testifying. But after two hours of legal wrangling, and after the judge excised her testimony, she briefly took the stand late in the day.

"I got to know (Oziel) as well as anybody could know him," McPhee told jurors. "I got to know him intimately."

Defense lawyer Michael Burt asked McPhee for her opinion of Oziel. "He is the most dishonest person I've ever met," she said.

"Do you like or dislike Dr. Oziel?" Burt asked. "I dislike him very much," she said, concluding her testimony--after six minutes.

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