Lyle and Erik Menendez will be retried together before one jury June 12, the judge in the brothers' murder case ruled Monday.
Ending months of drawn-out hearings on the issue, Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg said that no legal basis exists for the defense claim that the brothers could be tried fairly for the 1989 shotgun slayings of their parents only if they had separate juries or separate trials.
The judge had signaled previously that he was not about to repeat the one-trial, two-jury experiment of the first Menendez trial, which ended in deadlocks. He said repeatedly that it posed far too many logistic problems.
State law makes clear, Weisberg pointed out Monday, that two defendants charged with the same crime, involving the same events and the same victims, should be tried together before one jury.
"And this case plainly fits that description," Weisberg said, calling it a "classic" case for a single jury.
Lyle Menendez, 27, and Erik Menendez, 24, face first-degree murder charges in the Aug. 20, 1989, shotgun slayings of their wealthy parents, Jose Menendez, 45, and Kitty Menendez, 47.
At their first trial, the brothers admitted that they killed their parents in the TV room of the family's Beverly Hills mansion.
They testified, however, that they lashed out in fear after years of abuse. Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, contend that the brothers killed out of hatred and greed.
The first trial lasted six months and ended in January, 1994, with separate juries--one for each brother--deadlocked between murder and lesser manslaughter charges. Prosecutors immediately promised a retrial.
The trial was conducted with two juries because prosecutors were not willing to risk losing evidence that applied directly only to one brother.
Such evidence included, for instance, testimony that Lyle Menendez went on a spending spree after the killings. With two juries, the judge could exclude the Erik Menendez jury from the courtroom, clearing the way for evidence to be presented about the older brother's spending habits to the Lyle Menendez jury.
After the first trial ended, however, a new team of prosecutors--David Conn and Carol Najera--took over the case. They are "willing to run (the) risk" of having evidence ruled inadmissible, Weisberg said Monday.
Conn and Najera made it plain months ago that they preferred one trial, arguing to Weisberg that much of the evidence in the case would be admissible before one jury as long as jurors were reminded to consider the fate of each brother individually.
Defense attorneys countered that the brothers simply could not get a fair trial before one jury. In legal briefs, they contended that the brothers had become so inextricably linked that an "individualized determination of moral responsibility" was impossible.
The defense also said jurors were likely to judge Lyle Menendez more harshly because he is the older brother. Defense lawyers even took the highly unusual step of commissioning a telephone poll in February of potential Los Angeles-area jurors. About 345 of the 800 people surveyed identified Lyle Menendez as the leader or mastermind of the slayings solely because he is the older brother, the poll indicated.
Leslie Abramson, Erik Menendez's attorney, said Monday in court that the survey found that potential jurors had a "tendency to lump (the brothers) together as 'them,' the Menendez brothers, the Moon Unit Menendez."
Weisberg, however, dismissed the results of the poll, saying Monday that trials, like elections, are not conducted by public opinion surveys.
"If elections were decided by survey, I suppose we'd have a President Dewey on the $5 bill, and Gov. Kathleen Brown in Sacramento. But we don't have that," Weisberg said. "We have a process where people make decisions based upon all the evidence presented, and that will occur in a trial."
Outside court, Conn said he was "very happy" with the judge's ruling.
Abramson said she disagreed with Weisberg's reasoning. But, she added, "we've expected this ruling for a long time."
Still unresolved is the issue of where the retrial will be held. The first trial was in Van Nuys, but the attorneys on the case now want it moved Downtown.
Weisberg has indicated that he will make that decision as June 12 nears.