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Menendez Brothers Sentenced to Life for Killing Parents

Trial: Jury says lack of previous felonies was a factor in deciding against death penalty for Erik and Lyle, who have no hope for parole. It was 'right decision,' a panelist says.

April 18, 1996|ANN W. O'NEILL and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even though the gag order was no longer in effect, Abramson would not discuss details of Vicary's allegations.

"I can refute all of it, but I'm not going to take this forum because it's a long, fairly complicated explanation," she told reporters. "But I can unequivocally say I did not violate any laws," she said. "I doubt very much that I would ever be disbarred for such a thing."

Most upsetting to her, Abramson said, was the behavior of legal colleagues who have derided her in the media. "I have watched people who claim to be my friends and my colleagues accuse me of everything under the sun," she said.

In an interview, juror Wolfberg said that "Abramson told me today that Vicary was lying. I don't know. I feel emotionally she was so close to Erik Menendez that it's possible" she ordered the notes changed. But he agreed that the allegations played no role in the deliberations.

In a press conference elsewhere in the Van Nuys courthouse, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and lead prosecutor David P. Conn said they accepted the jury's verdict as just.

"Death is always a very difficult decision for any jury to reach. You really can't quarrel with a jury for choosing life rather than death," sad Conn, who had passionately urged jurors to return a verdict of death.

Garcetti, who had vowed when the first case ended in hung juries to retry the brothers for first-degree murder, said, "Most people in this county, perhaps even in this country, now believe that there was justice in this case."

He noted that the results of the first trial sparked intense pressures to plea-bargain the case. "But that wouldn't have been the right thing to do," he said.

Both Garcetti and Conn said they were confident that the convictions would hold up on appeal.

Asked whether Abramson or psychiatrist Vicary are now under investigation by his deputies, Garcetti said no. But he added, "Let's say it will be reviewed very carefully by this office."

Lyle and Erik Menendez were 21 and 18 in 1989 when they drove to San Diego, used a fake ID to buy two 12-gauge Mossberg shotguns and then, two nights later, blasted away at their parents as they watched a James Bond movie on television in the den of the family's Beverly Hills mansion. Coincidentally, the brothers bought tickets to another James Bond film, "Licence to Kill," as their alibi.

In the seven months between the crime and their arrests, the two spent about $1 million on a Porsche, a Jeep Cherokee, a restaurant, condominiums, Rolex watches and other luxury items.

Once handsome heirs to a fortune estimated at $14.5 million, the brothers now are penniless, gaunt and pallid from six years spent in court and the County Jail.

At their first trials, both brothers claimed that they were molested by their father--Lyle from ages 6 to 8, and Erik from ages 6 to 18. Lyle also maintained that his mother harassed him sexually. Those trials ended in January 1994 with juries for each brother deadlocked between murder and lesser manslaughter verdicts.

The legal impasse sparked nationwide debate over the brothers' so-called "abuse excuse," and issues of justice and personal responsibility.

At the retrial, which began Oct. 11, Erik Menendez alone took the witness stand and repeated his childhood horror tale of incestuous sex that he confused with his father's love and approval until, as he grew older, it became painful and punishing.

But this time, with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, a new prosecution team took a far different approach. Conn hammered away at the abuse defense by attacking it in a series of legal motions and then telling jurors the brothers' tale was a hoax.

The jurors convicted the brothers of first-degree murder with the special circumstances of murder by lying in wait and multiple murders. They also were convicted of conspiracy to murder.

Dramatic Moment

The most dramatic moment in the penalty phase came when forensic psychiatrist Vicary dropped a bombshell under Conn's cross-examination. Vicary, who had treated Erik Menendez in jail since a few months after his arrest, said that shortly before he testified in the first trial he deleted damaging sections of his notes of Erik's sessions under pressure from defense attorney Abramson.

Among the deletions were Erik's admissions that in the days leading up to the crime he had hated his parents and wanted them out of his life.

Vicary's surprise disclosure threw the penalty phase into three days of turmoil during which jurors heard no testimony.

The next day, April 5, Abramson brought a lawyer to court and invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination when Weisberg asked her about the allegation.

The judge then grappled with how to keep the case on track amid defense demands for a mistrial and calls from the other defense attorneys for Abramson to step down.

She later withdrew her claim to 5th Amendment privilege, saying it was made hastily. Instead, she invoked attorney-client privilege and Erik Menendez's other legal rights.

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