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Menendez brothers convicted in parents' murder 16 years ago

March 20, 2012 |  1:44 pm

Erik and Lyle Menendez with Barbara Walters

Sixteen years ago today, Erik and Lyle Menendez were convicted of murdering their parents. Their crimes were bloody, and the trials that followed -- with their often gruesome details -- created a national sensation.

The brothers grew up in Princeton, N.J., before moving with their parents to Beverly Hills, where their father, Jose, was an entertainment industry executive. Their mother, Kitty, was a former small-town beauty queen and schoolteacher.

It was in the den of their Beverly Hills mansion on North Elm Drive that Erik and Lyle gunned down their parents on Aug. 20, 1989. Jose was shot point-blank in the back of the head. Kitty, who made a run for it, was shot multiple times.

PHOTOS: Menendez trial

The prosecution contended the brothers ambushed their parents, blasting them with pump-action shotguns, and then covered up the crime, beginning with shrieks and tears on their front lawn on the night of the killings. Lyle was 21 at the time; Erik was 18.

The brothers' first trial, broadcast on Court TV, created a national frenzy. Erik and Lyle were tried together but had separate juries. Both juries deadlocked in the first trial -- split between murder and manslaughter convictions after defense attorneys surprised prosecutors with an abuse defense.

During the first trial, the brothers admitted killing their parents -- which they'd confessed to their therapist. The defense said the brothers had been sexually and psychologically abused since they were small children. It was profound fear and rage over the family's incest secret that led to the killings, the defense said.

In the retrial, gruesome details and horrific images were the focus, as The Times reported:  The blood-encrusted polo shirt of Jose Menendez; Kitty's death mask -- one eye gone, virtually every facial bone and most of her teeth broken; an image of her nearly severed right hand.

"If the first trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez was a soap opera wrapped within a psychodrama," wrote The Times' Ann O'Neill, "so far the retrial has been a horror show."

The retrial jury rejected the abuse defense, convicting the brothers of two counts each of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. It also found them guilty of special circumstances: Murder by lying in wait and multiple murders.

Although the death penalty was possible, the retrial jury chose life in prison without possibility of parole.

"It's just a tremendous relief when you hear those words . . . life without parole," Lyle's lawyer, Charles Gessler, said at the time.

Defense lawyer Leslie Abramson said of the brothers: "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. 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."

According to a November 2005 article in People, Erik Menendez was busy doing just that, leading prayer groups and working with prison authorities on a "system that would encourage and reward inmates' good behavior."

When they were imprisoned, the brothers were separated. Lyle is at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.  Erik is at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.

The People article described Erik as a charming, polished man whose wife insisted he had been misunderstood. He talked of God and said he no longer deserved to be in prison, saying he would "never, ever take another life."

Both Erik and Lyle have married while in prison -- Lyle, twice. The older brother married longtime pen pal and former model Anna Eriksson in 1997, a marriage that lasted about a year. In 2003, he married Rebecca Sneed, a magazine editor. 

Erik in 1999 married Tammi Saccoman in a Folsom State Prison waiting room. Saccoman told people the relationship is difficult because, under California law, conjugal visits are banned. Also, she said many of her friends and family were thunderstruck by her decision.

In 2010, A&E made a documentary about Saccoman called "Mrs. Menendez."

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-- Amy Hubbard

Photo: Erik, left, and Lyle Menendez with Barbara Walters in 1996. Credit: John Sharaf / ABC News.

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