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Menendezes Are Found Guilty of Killing Parents

Verdict: After a 20-week retrial, jury convicts brothers of first-degree murder for 1989 shotgun slayings. Pair faces either execution or life in prison.

March 21, 1996|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an apparent repudiation of the abuse defense, a jury on Wednesday convicted Erik and Lyle Menendez of first-degree murder for the 1989 slayings of their parents, setting the stage for dramatic weeks of testimony as the brothers fight to escape the death penalty.

On Monday, a penalty phase will begin to decide whether they should spend the rest of their lives in prison or face execution for killing their father, hard-driving entertainment executive Jose Enrique Menendez, 45, and mother, former small-town beauty queen Mary Louise "Kitty" Menendez, 47.

Erik and Lyle were the scions of a Beverly Hills family that outwardly seemed perfect before exploding in violence. Although the defense claimed that sexual abuse and fear were the root cause of the murders, the prosecution relentlessly combated that theory.

The brothers' first trial had resulted in juror deadlock that sparked nationwide debate over the issues of child abuse and personal responsibility.

The 20-week retrial unfolded almost in a media vacuum when, after the news frenzy at the O.J. Simpson trial, television cameras were banned from the courtroom.

As the verdicts were announced shortly before noon, Erik Menendez, 25, grasped the hand of defense attorney Leslie Abramson, looked toward the courtroom ceiling and then cast his eyes downward. Another defense attorney, Barry Levin, draped his arm across Erik's shoulders to comfort him.

Older brother Lyle Menendez, 28, rested his chin in his hand, keeping his dark eyes fixed straight ahead.

Later, Erik turned to his paternal grandmother, Maria Carlotta Menendez, 78, and mouthed a message of encouragement.

The grim-faced jury of eight men and four women handed down verdicts after deliberating less than four days. The case originally went to the jury March 1, but deliberations had to start anew when the forewoman and a pregnant juror were replaced with alternates after suffering medical problems.

The jury convicted the brothers of two counts each of first-degree murder, as well as conspiracy to commit murder. Jurors also found two special circumstances that under California law are reserved for particularly heinous murders: Murder by lying in wait, and multiple murders. The special circumstances leave only two sentencing options--life in prison without the possibility of parole and death by execution.

That decision will be up to the jury, which now will hear further evidence on the brothers' background and character during a mini-trial that could last two months or more.

The penalty phase promises high drama and new, previously undisclosed evidence.

The defense says it will call as many as 40 witnesses to describe the brothers' allegedly abusive upbringing. It is not yet known whether the brothers will take the stand.

In an attempt to keep jurors from being influenced by media coverage, Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg ordered everyone connected with the case, including attorneys, potential witnesses and the defendants themselves, not to comment until the penalty phase ends.

News of the verdicts brought throngs of journalists and spectators from the paparazzi-punching trial of Alec Baldwin at the municipal courthouse next door. Deputies and fire marshals were forced to clear a pathway through the hordes to maintain access to Weisberg's fourth-floor courtroom.

As he left the courtroom, Deputy Dist. Atty. David P. Conn beamed, saying, "I feel great." Conn and co-prosecutor Carol J. Najera were greeted by colleagues' cheers and handshakes from their boss, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, as they arrived at the Van Nuys district attorney's office two floors below.

Outside the courthouse, Abramson puffed vigorously on a cigarette and gruffly brushed off reporters, reminding them about the gag order. At the first trial, Abramson had been quick with a quip and often greeted reporters by their first names.

It was her opponent, Conn, who appeared to dominate the retrial by vigorously challenging the defense contention that the brothers killed out of fear fed by a lifetime of abuse.

Claims of Abuse

The brothers admitted killing their parents during their first trial, but claimed they had been sexually and psychologically abused since they were small children. The defense claimed the brothers' profound fear and rage over the family's incest secret exploded in gunfire in the den of the family mansion on Aug. 20, 1989.

At the first trial, prosecutors barely contested the abuse defense. But Conn aggressively attacked it, a strategy that legal experts said contributed significantly to the guilty verdicts.

"I think Conn did a much better job than the prosecution in the first trial," UCLA law professor Peter Arenella said. "But it was a high-risk strategy given the possibility he could have alienated two or three jurors--if they had found Erik's testimony somewhat credible. Obviously, that risk didn't materialize."

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