A former neighbor and an ex-coach testified Wednesday for the defense in the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, taking turns describing Jose and Kitty Menendez as obnoxious, careless and dangerous parents.
Lyle Menendez's sixth-grade history teacher said Jose Menendez was belligerent. The neighbor said Kitty Menendez was so negligent that when Erik Menendez cut his head on a trip to the mall, she finished buying a pair of shoes before taking him to the hospital for stitches.
The testimony was offered before the trial came to an abrupt halt Wednesday afternoon, when Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg ordered a recess until Monday, saying a juror had the flu and defense lawyer Leslie Abramson had to attend to a family emergency.
Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 22, 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 sons shot the parents in the den of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.
Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, contend that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed. The defense claims that the killings were an act of self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
The break in the proceedings stalls the trial in the second week of the defense's presentation and the sixth week overall. Defense attorneys have called a string of the Menendezes' neighbors, friends, relatives and coaches to offer anecdotes about the parents and their sons.
So far, the defense has called 13 witnesses. Before she left court, Abramson said that the defense witness list of more than 90 has been trimmed to about 50 and that the defense hopes to conclude its case by early October.
Prosecutors then expect about a week's worth of testimony before the case goes to jurors, Deputy District Atty. Pamela Bozanich said.
More coaches and teachers are expected to take the stand when the trial resumes. The anecdotes are essential to the defense strategy of sensitizing jurors--before the brothers take the stand--to what life was like in the Menendez household.
Lyle and Erik Menendez probably will not testify until after Labor Day, defense lawyer Jill Lansing said Wednesday.
Patricia Cross, 57, of Ringoes, N.J., Lyle Menendez's sixth-grade teacher when he attended the nearby Princeton Day School, testified Wednesday that Jose Menendez arrived very late--after 10:30 p.m.--to a parent-teacher conference at the school and "accosted" her, "demanding the conference that he was due."
Lyle Menendez earned average grades, she said, and his father believed that was her fault. "My son can do better," she quoted him as saying. "You will make sure that he will."
Other teachers at the school, Cross said, considered Jose and Kitty Menendez "problem parents," although Kitty Menendez was less unpleasant.
Seeking to show that Kitty Menendez was a reckless parent, the defense has made much during the trial of her driving habits, with witnesses typically saying that she drove very fast and sometimes crashed.
Under cross-examination, Cross was asked by Bozanich to describe Kitty Menendez's driving during a school-sponsored ski trip. Cross said it was fine.
The neighbor, Faith Goldsmith, 52, said Kitty Menendez--whom she called "Mary Lou" after her given name, Mary Louise Menendez--seemed indifferent to her sons from their earliest days.
Goldsmith, who lived near the Menendez family in Monsey, N.Y., in the early 1970s, recalled that when Lyle Menendez was an infant, Kitty Menendez proposed leaving him all week with her husband's mother and visiting the baby on weekends--and only on the way to and from the ski slopes.
"I thought that was an awful idea," Goldsmith said. It never came to fruition, she said.
Kitty Menendez, Goldsmith said, was obsessed with winning, demanded that her sons "be No. 1" and even cheated at Monopoly and bridge.