A jury Wednesday spared the lives of Lyle and Erik Menendez, who shotgunned their millionaire parents to death in Beverly Hills in 1989 and now will spend the rest of their days in state prison with no hope of parole.
As the verdicts were read in the tension-filled Van Nuys courtroom, a wave of relief seemed to sweep over the brothers and their defense attorneys when they realized that the jury had rejected the death penalty.
The defense lawyers reacted with grins, tears and hugs. Their clients initially sat stoically, but later Lyle embraced his public defender and Erik smiled with one of his lawyers.
"It's just a tremendous relief when you hear those words . . . life without parole," said Lyle's lawyer, Charles Gessler, whose chest heaved and chin quivered when he heard the verdicts. "Lyle is relieved because he wants to live," Gessler said in explaining his client's emotions at a news conference.
An upbeat Leslie Abramson, whose alleged misconduct threw the penalty phase into turmoil, spoke with a throng of reporters outside the courthouse, finally freed from a gag order imposed on all parties in the case by the judge.
"On the good side, I would say that they're such considerable human beings that they're going to find a way to be productive," she said. "And in fact some of the jurors were saying that too. It was their expectation that they would both find a way to contribute to society."
The eight men and four women on the jury deliberated 13 hours over three days before deciding that life in prison was the appropriate punishment for the Aug. 20, 1989, murders of wealthy entertainment executive Jose Menendez, 45, and his beauty queen wife, Kitty Menendez, 47.
Several jurors spoke with reporters in the courtroom after the verdicts, sitting at a table in front of the jury box where over the past seven months they had heard the saga of a wealthy family whose sons exploded in violence, then said they had been sexually abused since they were small children.
There was never any disagreement, the jurors said, either in reaching the guilty verdicts March 20 or in deciding on the punishment once they examined the evidence.
Life in prison without parole "was the right decision to make," said juror Andrew Wolfberg, 25, of Santa Monica.
"It's eerie to be in the position of deciding someone's life or death," he said. "It was almost like [being] the defendants when they made their decision to kill."
Juror Bruce Seitz, 34, said it was easy for the jury to decide to spare the brothers because neither had a felony record or a history of violence.
"There was no way we could put them to death, even though that horrible crime happened and what they did was horrible," he said. "There were other good things about them that warranted life, them living."
Jurors said the abuse defense never was much of a factor in their deliberations.
"We did think there was psychological abuse to some extent. I think most of us believed that," said juror Lesley Hillings, 36. "Sexual abuse? I don't think we'll ever know if that's true or not."
Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg set July 2 as the date for formal sentencing and motions for a new trial.
Defense lawyers said they believe they have strong grounds on which to appeal the guilty verdicts. Those issues include Weisberg's decisions to try the brothers before a single jury, to limit evidence the defense wanted to introduce that the brothers were sexually and mentally abused by their parents, and to eliminate the defense's cornerstone theory that the brothers committed the murders because they feared the parents were about to kill them.
Overcome by Emotion
Erik's attorney Barry Levin said he was relieved that his client is "not going to be facing a death judgment, but he's by no means elated."
"I think Erik recognizes what a tragedy this was," Levin said. "He still has to deal daily with the agony, grief and remorse that he feels. He hopes that he can find some peace."
Levin was so overcome as the verdicts were returned that he closed his eyes and rested his head on the defense table.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God," attorney Abramson later recalled praying as Erik Menendez, whom she has called "my most cherished client," leaned heavily against her.
But, she said, he now faces a future behind bars that will be "extremely unpleasant and dangerous."
Jurors said the turmoil over a psychiatrist's testimony during the penalty phase that he altered his notes of his session with Erik under pressure from Abramson had no impact on their decision.
Abramson said it wasn't the controversy over psychiatrist William Vicary's notes that kept her silent during closing arguments. Instead, she said, it was her close relationship with Erik.
"I have been his first friend for six years," she said. "You cannot argue for your best friend. Can you imagine getting up there and asking someone to spare the life of your child?"
Levin, who made the closing argument for Erik, would not comment on the furor surrounding Abramson.