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Kitty Menendez Called Confused, Strange : Trial: Witness says she 'kept staring' into space in visit three weeks before she was killed. The defense also has three others testify about slain couple.

August 31, 1993|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kitty Menendez, who over the years was needy, pathetic, athletic, disorganized, suspicious and spacey, "all kinds of contradictory things," simply seemed strange three weeks before her sons killed her, a former neighbor testified Monday.

Called by the defense as Lyle and Erik Menendez's murder trial resumed after a four-day recess, Alicia Hercz said Kitty Menendez "kept staring" into space when they met Aug. 1, 1989, at the Menendez home in Beverly Hills.

Odder still, Hercz said, Kitty Menendez kept referring to an impending trip she was taking to visit family in South America--although she had no relatives there and apparently was confusing the nonexistent town of Quito, Peru, with Kalamazoo, Mich., where she was headed for a tennis tournament.

"It was the strangest I had ever seen her," Hercz said.

The testimony was offered as part of the defense strategy to paint for jurors a psychological profile of Kitty Menendez, 47, and Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive. Their sons shot both to death on Aug. 20, 1989, in the family's Beverly Hills mansion.

Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 22, are charged with first-degree murder in the shotgun slayings and could face the death penalty if convicted. The Van Nuys Superior Court trial is in its seventh week.

The trial resumed Monday after a break because of a death in the family of defense lawyer Leslie Abramson. Abramson was not in court Monday, and Judge Stanley M. Weisberg ordered court closed today so she can return from the East Coast. The trial is to resume Wednesday.

Prosecutors contend that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed. The defense concedes the killings but contends they were acts of self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Hercz was a neighbor when the Menendez family lived in New Jersey. She taught Spanish to ninth-grader Lyle Menendez at an exclusive Princeton-area college prep school. But she said she also socialized with the family and visited them after they moved to California--including the trip weeks before the slayings.

Also called to the stand by the defense Monday were a tennis coach, another teacher and a school nurse.

Each of the four offered anecdotes much like those produced over the past two weeks by 13 other witnesses--neighbors, teachers, coaches and relatives--who have characterized Jose Menendez as domineering and Kitty Menendez as a secretive enigma.

The testimony is part of the defense strategy to lay a framework for the testimony of Lyle and Erik Menendez and a slew of experts in child abuse who will follow each to the stand.

One brother is likely to testify next week, although it is not clear who will go first, defense lawyers said.

Hercz, 48, who now lives in Washington, D.C., called Jose Menendez cruel, controlling, destructive and sarcastic.

She said Lyle Menendez was a sad, pathetic, morose loner.

Sandra Robinson Sharp, who taught Spanish to both brothers at the Princeton Day School, called Erik Menendez needy, vulnerable, sensitive, caring and very fragile.

Sharp, 46, said that Kitty Menendez always came to parent-teacher conferences in sweat suits. "Her hair was messy and needed a bleach job," Sharp said, adding that Kitty Menendez "had a noticeable smell I was never able to identify."

After 13 prior witnesses, prosecutors seemed Monday to have heard enough.

William Kurtain, 39, the tennis coach, testified that Jose Menendez barked orders to his sons and that a pet ferret had the run of the Menendez home. That drew mocking questions from Deputy Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama.

"How would you characterize the barking?" he asked the witness. "More like a dog? More like a ferret?"

Weisberg upheld defense objections to the questions.

By the end of the day, Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich said prosecutors would object to any more testimony from teachers or coaches, saying it was "terrain that has already been well-explored by the defense."

Weisberg agreed, saying such evidence "was becoming cumulative." Defense lawyers promised that they had called their last teacher or coach.

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