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Gap Divides Worlds of Menendezes, Their Jurors : Trial: The two panels are made up mostly of mainstream working people. Deliberations resume today.

December 27, 1993|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For five months, as he showed off a nifty collection of string ties and cowboy hats, re-knotted his ponytail and thoughtfully stroked his bushy white beard, Juror No. 4 bore a remarkable resemblance to country singer Willie Nelson.

Then, just a few days after Lyle Menendez's jury began deliberations, the Willie look-alike shaved his beard.

Grooming preference? Or a signal of some sort about the course of the deliberations?

With Lyle and Erik Menendez's juries beginning a third week of deliberations today, every little thing the jurors do is being scrutinized for meaning, particularly as they ask to review snippets of evidence: one day, the tape of the brothers' counseling session with their psychologist; another day, the testimony of the boat captain who took the Menendez family shark fishing the night before the sons shotgunned their parents.

Although it's always a guessing game why jurors do what they do, one thing is clear from records in the Menendez case: The tennis-playing brothers from Beverly Hills are being judged by 24 men and women who have little in common with them.

The two groups of 12 deciding whether Erik and Lyle Menendez are guilty of murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, slayings of their parents are generally mainstream working people from the San Fernando Valley, most much closer in age to the dead parents than to the sons. A number of them know from personal experience what it is like to be a victim of crime--two had fathers shot to death.

In the questionnaires that they filled out in June as potential jurors, the panelists gave other glimpses into their lives.

One juror, who lives in the same Northridge house where she grew up, is proud of an 80-pound weight loss. Another, a Navy veteran, saw combat in Korea and Vietnam. Yet another reported that he holds an office at his Masonic Lodge: Worshipful Master.

A 51-year-old Portuguese American woman said she learned to speak English in one year. A Northridge man, who turned 46 during the trial, said he owns bolt-action rifles, pistols and shotguns for protection, sport and investment.

And a 50-year-old Tarzana woman let it be known that she is married to a county prosecutor. But she also regrets that she spanked her daughters, now in their 20s.

*

As at any trial, jurors bring differing life experiences into deliberations. In the Menendez case, the debate behind closed doors is surely intense--if it's anything like the give-and-take at kitchen tables across the nation, where the trial has touched many people in a personal way because of the brothers' tearful claims that they were the victims of childhood sexual abuse.

When the juries were being selected, prosecutors and defense attorneys were tight-lipped about what characteristics they were looking for. But the general consensus among trial-watchers was that, unlike other recent high-profile trials around Los Angeles, race was not a determining factor. In this case, it was gender.

V. Hale Starr, a Phoenix-based expert who has consulted lawyers on jury selection and trial tactics for 17 years, suggested that prosecutors may have wanted more men, believing they would give "a cold, hard reading of the facts" of the shootings.

Starr said that although it is dangerous to stereotype, men and women typically have been socialized to make decisions differently. Accordingly, she said, the defense likely wanted more women, believing that they might be more open to emotion.

But, as always, there were risks: Might not women--particularly mothers--identify with Kitty Menendez, who was shot 10 times by her sons, including a final blast to the face? Or might they identify with the chief defense attorneys, both women? Or with the lead prosecutor, also a woman?

As it turned out, the Lyle Menendez jury ended up with five men and seven women. Erik Menendez's jury is split evenly, six men and six women.

Two juries are hearing the case because some evidence was admitted against only one brother.

"The fact that it's been going on so long, we already know that it's a very stressful, very high-tension situation," Starr said. "There are strong feelings being expressed and real inner turmoil being shared."

When they resume deliberations today, Lyle Menendez's jury will enter a 10th day of deliberations, spread across three weeks. Erik Menendez's jury will be in its seventh day.

Prosecutors contend that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed. Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik Menendez, 23, say years of abuse led them to fear--and finally kill--their mother and father, millionaire entertainment executive Jose Menendez.

As she was explaining that position in closing arguments, Erik Menendez's lead lawyer, Leslie Abramson, prodded jurors to open their minds to the unconventional defense.

"I can tell some of you are very resistant to what I'm saying," Abramson said as two jurors, both men, sat with folded arms.

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