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Jurors' Rift Emerged Early and Ran Deep

January 29, 1994|AMY WALLACE and BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The testimony had taken five months, but two of the men on the Erik Menendez jury were sure they would have a verdict in an hour.

What was there to argue about? The younger Menendez brother was obviously guilty of first-degree murder. He was a baldfaced liar, making up that stuff about being molested by his father.

So after their jury went behind closed doors in the late afternoon of Dec. 15, both men thought they would be done in no time. Pick a foreman. Vote. Go home.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Soon they were listening to another juror, a woman, passionately telling of her personal experience in an abusive relationship. She knew a victim of abuse when she saw one--and Erik Menendez, to her, fit the bill.

Almost immediately, the panel--sharply divided along gender lines--was arguing bitterly. The men against the women. It almost came to blows.

"We were split in half," said Mark Dearing, 45, a Northridge electrician who was pushing for first-degree murder.

Nineteen days later, that jury had given up trying to agree on anything, while a second panel continued to argue the fate of Lyle Menendez, the older of the Beverly Hills brothers accused of murdering their millionaire parents. On Friday, it too was declared deadlocked.

Finally free to discuss the case, seven jurors later described weeks of frustrating and tense deliberations. In both juries, the gulf between factions was vast--and no evidence, testimony or argument could draw them into common ground.

On one extreme was Lyle Menendez juror Sharyn S. Bishop, 43, of Northridge, who believed that although both brothers "need a lot of help, no doubt," she wouldn't mind having the older one as a neighbor.

"I don't think Lyle is a threat to society," she said. "If he lived across the street from me, I wouldn't be afraid."

On the other end of the spectrum sat Jude Nelson, 52, an unemployed marketing representative from Sylmar, who called the evidence against Lyle Menendez "a classic first-degree murder case."

"We really wanted to come to a consensus," Nelson said. "But I just wasn't going to let these guys walk and have manslaughter."

Although the jury votes unsealed Friday reflected almost even splits on both panels, there were differences between the two. Discussions among the Lyle Menendez jurors were more civil. It wasn't just men against women.

On the Erik Menendez jury, in contrast, some felt that others arrived with their minds made up, creating, in the words of Hazel Thornton, "too much prejudice . . . to overcome."

"There was . . . not enough concentration on evidence and the law," said Thornton, a 36-year-old Lake View Terrace resident who voted for voluntary manslaughter. The Pacific Bell employee said to Associated Press that some jurors had a "bias against rich people and homosexuals."

Leslie Abramson, Erik Menendez's lead attorney, echoed that description, saying the jury went through "basically a war" that included "some threat of physicality."

In that war, several of the jurors saw Abramson as their triumphant general.

Although computer aficionados on the Prodigy bulletin board often poked fun at her famous frizzy blond hair, and although prosecutors were enraged at times by her aggressive style, the women on the Erik Menendez jury loved her--they admired her wardrobe and biting wit.

"Leslie--what a pit bull," said Bishop, an admirer on the Lyle Menendez jury. "But if I needed a lawyer I'd want (that) one."

The admiration did not end when the Erik Menendez trial did. Abramson disclosed Friday that she had been host to several jurors at a seven-hour dinner party at her Hancock Park home recently.

"The biggest problem with Erik's jury was it was a mix of individuals who could not work together," Abramson at the courthouse.

Reflecting differences noticed throughout the trial among the public, the women on Erik Menendez's jury were more likely to be swayed by the tales of sexual abuse, many said, while men saw the issue as either incredible or irrelevant.

"There's a possibility (of abuse), but I don't think that would rectify the fact that they did take the law into their hands to kill their parents," said juror Robert Rakestraw, 53, a full-time postal carrier from Canoga Park who voted for first-degree murder. "I don't think that justifies their actions, if molestation did occur."

Jurors declined Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg's offer Friday to use his courtroom to meet with reporters. Many did not want to talk about the marathon trial when called at home.

But the jurors who agreed to be interviewed by telephone seemed to see the case as defined by the defense's contention that the brothers had been sexually abused. Many said that the determining factor was whether they believed that claim--not the prosecution's contention that the brothers were driven by hatred and greed.

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