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Menendez Tells of Fear Before Slaying Parents : Trial: He says he and his brother were sure their father planned to kill them after confrontation over abuse claims.

September 18, 1993|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying that he "just freaked out," Lyle Menendez testified Friday that he and his brother shotgunned their parents to death after a week of escalating tension that left them sure their parents were about to kill them.

Recounting the details of the slayings for the first time in public, Lyle Menendez said that he and his brother, Erik, burst into the den of the family's mansion late on Aug. 20, 1989, and started firing.

"Things were shattering, the noise was phenomenal," he said, adding that he recalled little but a dark room, glass breaking, noise from the booming guns and smoke everywhere.

"It was just chaos. I couldn't tell who was firing at who," he said. "I was just firing my gun."

Delivering his matter-of-fact testimony in a steady monotone, Lyle Menendez showed emotion only once, crying as he described the shooting scene. Jurors showed no emotion. One spent most of the afternoon looking at her fingernails.

At the end of the day, Lyle Menendez, 25, walked back to where his 22-year-old brother was sitting, rubbed his back and tousled his hair. The brothers are charged with murder in the slayings of their parents, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez, 47.

If convicted, Lyle and Erik Menendez could be sentenced to death.

Prosecutors contend that they killed out of hatred and greed and the desire to commit the perfect crime. The defense contends that the killings were an act of self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Under the laws covering self-defense, the Menendez brothers must show that they faced an imminent danger to their lives. Not once Friday did Lyle Menendez indicate that there loomed an overt threat from either parent.

Defense lawyers argue that a lifetime of mistreatment at the hands of the Menendez parents instilled a fear that altered the sons' perceptions of what harm seemed imminent.

Jill Lansing, Lyle Menendez's lead attorney, left the Van Nuys courthouse without comment Friday afternoon.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich, who last week compared Lyle Menendez's testimony to the acting of Sir Laurence Olivier, said after the session ended: "The level of acting has fallen from Laurence Olivier to Sylvester Stallone, and is falling fast."

With her cross-examination of Lyle Menendez expected to begin Monday, Bozanich added: "Stay tuned."

Interest in Lyle Menendez's testimony has been phenomenal. Just as they had last Friday when he first took the stand, spectators seeking the nine public seats in the courtroom began lining up outside the Van Nuys courthouse before dawn.

During his four days on the witness stand, Lyle Menendez has portrayed his father as a cold and calculating tyrant and his mother as a wrathful enigma. He testified that his father sexually abused him from the ages of 6 to 8 and that his mother invited him to her bed and allowed him to touch her "everywhere."

He told jurors Friday that the killings culminated a week of building fear that began with a confrontation with his mother.

On the night of Aug. 15, the Tuesday before the killings, Kitty Menendez, worried about her ill father, began screaming at her oldest son, Lyle Menendez said.

Speaking frequently of his mother in the present tense, he said: "When my mom goes off . . . she works herself into this frenzy where she's out of control." That night, he said, she was "as bad as I'd seen her."

Raging, she ripped his toupee off his head, Lyle Menendez said. He said he cried in pain and trembled in embarrassment--because his younger brother, who had arrived in the room, saw his balding head for the first time.

Jose Menendez had bought the hairpiece two years before upon noticing that Lyle Menendez, then 19, was losing his hair--saying it was necessary for the political career he envisioned for his eldest son.

Later that Tuesday night, emboldened after learning of his brother's secret, Erik Menendez shared with him his own secret: "He told me those things with his dad were still going on," Lyle Menendez said.

Eight years before, Lyle Menendez said, he had confronted his father and told him to stop sexually abusing Erik.

And so that night, Lyle Menendez continued, he initially was disbelieving and hostile.

"I had dismissed what had happened to me as something that happened to little boys," Lyle Menendez said, adding that he asked his brother a series of accusatory questions about whether he had "liked it," why he hadn't told of the ongoing abuse long before, and why he hadn't fought back.

In response, Erik Menendez cried, he said.

Abruptly convinced by the tears and reasoning that his brother had no reason to lie, Lyle Menendez said, he hit upon a plan: He would confront the father again and order a stop to the abuse.

This time, though, "we held all the cards," Lyle Menendez said. If the abuse did not cease, the brothers would disclose the wrongdoing to outsiders. "This is something that could ruin my dad," Lyle Menendez said.

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