In a scene straight out of Perry Mason, Erik Menendez apparently got caught in a big lie Friday when he testified in detail about how he and his brother went to buy handguns as protection against their parents--at a store that, it turned out, had stopped selling handguns three years before.
The dramatic moment, which could tear at the credibility of the entire defense case, was set up when the younger Menendez brother asserted under cross-examination that he and his older brother, Lyle, went to the Big 5 store in Santa Monica on Aug. 18, 1989, to buy handguns.
Erik Menendez said the handguns rested on a top shelf in a glass case. He said he "remembered specifically" how he picked one out but ended up not buying it after the clerk said there was a 15-day waiting period for such weapons.
After letting jurors soak up the confident, detailed testimony, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lester Kuriyama paused. Then he asked: "Mr. Menendez, did you know that Big 5 stopped carrying handguns in March of 1986?"
There was not a sound in the courtroom. Erik Menendez blinked twice. He did not seem rattled--but his reply was jumbled: "Ah, Mr. Kuriyama, there were guns there, and we did look at 'em and he did say we could not carry them anymore."
Erik Menendez, 22, and Lyle Menendez, 25, could draw the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their parents in the TV room of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.
The defense admits the killings but contends that the brothers fired in self-defense after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
But throughout the three-month trial, prosecutors have made it plain that they view the tearful stories of abuse--as well as the brothers' account of events in the five days leading to the slayings--as fiction.
Skeptical and sometimes sarcastic, Kuriyama focused Friday on those final days--leading Erik Menendez into the trap that the prosecution clearly had been waiting weeks to spring.
To get there, Kuriyama had Erik Menendez begin with Tuesday, Aug. 15, the night he said he watched his mother, Kitty Menendez, rip off his brother's toupee. Erik Menendez said his mother was about 5 feet, 7 inches, Lyle Menendez about 5 feet, 10 inches.
"Did she get up on her tiptoes to grab his hairpiece off his head?" Kuriyama asked.
Erik Menendez sighed and said, "She didn't need to do that."
There again was no hint of what was to come as the cross-examination moved to Wednesday, Aug. 16. Erik Menendez said he remembered little of the day.
Then to Thursday, Aug. 17, which Erik Menendez has described as a turbulent turning point for his family.
After a tennis lesson in the morning, he went out, then came home near midnight and headed to his room, he said, where his father, Jose Menendez, 45, began pounding on his door. His father looked "like a bull" as he charged and threw him on the bed, Erik Menendez said.
He said his father was yelling that Lyle Menendez had threatened moments before to expose him as a child molester. Erik Menendez said he escaped, ran downstairs and confronted his mother about allowing the abuse to go on. Then he ran outside to the guest house, where he found his brother, he said.
"Let me ask you this, Mr. Menendez," Kuriyama said. "Where was your father all this time? I thought he was so intent on attacking you."
"I never saw him again that night," Erik Menendez said.
"Your father, who you had testified would hunt you down to the four corners of the Earth, couldn't even find you in your own house?"
It was that night the brothers decided to buy guns for protection, Erik Menendez said.
About 9:30 or 10 the next morning, Friday the 18th, they arrived at the Big 5 in Santa Monica, he said.
A male clerk showed them the handgun display in the glass case, Erik Menendez said. "I think it was a two-shelf container . . . there were guns on the top, that's what I remember seeing."
Kuriyama asked two dozen questions inviting Erik Menendez to set the scene with as much detail as possible. He asked about the color of the handguns there, the type of display cabinet and the conversation with the clerk.
When the prosecutor asked if he looked at automatics or revolvers, Erik Menendez said, "I specifically remember seeing the ones that did not have a revolver."
He said that while he had "no idea" what the clerk looked like, he did remember being shown "which (guns) were real and which ones were not." Pellet guns and BB guns were "over to the right," he said, while the "real ones were more in the center, where I was."
Lyle Menendez, testifying two weeks ago, also described the visit to the Santa Monica Big 5. But prosecutors then did not press him for as many details--or confront him with what they knew.
On Friday, Kuriyama waited until Erik Menendez described how he picked out a gun. Erik Menendez did not remember its caliber or color.