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Everything To Know About The Menendez Brothers’ Murder Trial
While prosecutors painted Lyle and Erik Menendez as spoiled, self-serving liars who killed their own parents to inherit their millions, the defense argued they were traumatized victims of sexual abuse who feared for their lives.
It had all the elements of a dramatic courtroom thriller: two wealthy brothers accused of violently gunning down their own parents in the family’s lavish Beverly Hills mansion, a frenzied spending spree in the crime’s aftermath and allegations of disturbing, hidden family secrets.
Adding to the appeal, for one of the first times, the sensational trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez all played out on television screens across America in real-time, turning the heinous double murder into compelling fodder for entertainment.
“[The Menendez trial] probably had the effect, maybe good, maybe bad, of demonstrating that, even if you didn’t have a celebrity, if the circumstances were dramatic enough, people will be captivated,” Steve Brill, founder of Court TV told Rolling Stone in 2017 of one of the network’s biggest trials. “We’ve had lots of trials like that since, but that was really the one that proved that people would be interested in watching big trials.”
The trial and subsequent conviction of both brothers for the murders once again will take center stage in Peacock’s upcoming docuseries “Menendez + Menudo: Boys Betrayed,” which brings stunning new accusations to light that could have benefited the defense team.
How Did Jose And Kitty Menendez Die?
Lyle and Erik Menendez were just 21- and 18-years-old, respectively, when they told police they came home from a movie on August 20, 1989 and discovered their parents, successful business executive Jose Menendez and his wife Mary Louise Menendez, who went by Kitty, shot to death in the den of the family’s Mediterranean-style mansion.
Jose was found bleeding profusely on the family’s white couch with a shotgun blast to the side of the head while his wife was curled in a fetal position near his feet. She’d suffered several shotgun wounds to the knee and a damaging blast to the face.
How Were Erik and Lyle Menendez Caught?
The brothers insisted they discovered the bodies after returning home that night, but in the months that would follow, investigators were struck by their lavish shopping sprees, spending their new-found inheritance on Rolex watches, a Porsche, clothing, private tennis lessons and a chicken wings restaurant.
“They were just spending, spending, spending,” Detective Les Zoeller told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
Furthering suspicion, police discovered that Erik had written a screenplay about a man who killed his parents to inherit $157 million. But it was Erik’s recorded confession during a therapy session with Dr. Jerome Oziel that finally led to an arrest after Oziel’s mistress, Judalon Smyth, brought the recording to police, according to Court TV.
Why Did Erik and Lyle Menendez Kill Their Parents?
By the time the sensational murder trial began in 1993, Lyle and Erik had admitted they killed their parents but claimed that they had only carried out the acts after years of sexual abuse, relying on an “imperfect self-defense” law that required them to prove they had an honest but unreasonable belief that their lives had been in danger.
Prosecutors painted the Menendez brothers as spoiled, self-serving liars who had killed their wealthy parents to gain access to their $14 million inheritance, honing homing in on the extreme violence of the murders and reckless spending in the following months after the killings, according to The Los Angeles Times. They relied on testimony from Zoeller and Erik’s former best friend Craig Cignarelli, who testified that Erik had confessed to the killings just two days after the murders, telling his friend that he killed his mom while older brother Lyle shot Jose, Court TV reports.
The most stunning evidence, however, was the confession tape recorded during their sessions with Oziel in which the brothers told the therapist they had killed their mother to put her “out of her misery” after she struggled for years to endure their father’s infidelity. They made no mention on the tape of their allegations of abuse.
Yet the defense hit hard on the character of Jose and Kitty Menendez, calling countless neighbors, teachers and relatives who portrayed Jose, a well-known figure in the entertainment industry, as a controlling and relentlessly demanding father.
What Did Jose Menendez Allegedly Do To Sons Erik and Lyle?
The most powerful evidence came from the brothers themselves, who often donned collared shirts and sweaters in court. The brothers claimed they had been physically and sexually abused by their father for years – and their mother turned a blind eye to the rampant abuse.
“We would be in the bathroom, and uh, he would put me on my knees and…uh, have oral sex with him,” Lyle said of the abuse, which he testified occurred between the ages of 6 and 8, according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.” “He raped me.”
According to Lyle the abuse stopped when he was 8 years old, but he never realized that was because his father had turned his focus to his younger brother Erik, who delivered his own emotional testimony.
“He would have me give him oral sex and he would stick the needles or tacks into my thighs as he was doing this,” Erik said.
Erik testified that if he refused his father, Jose would come back with a knife and threaten him.
On Aug. 17, 1989 – just three days before the murder – Lyle testified that he had confronted his father about the abuse and threatened to reveal the dark deeds.
The brothers claimed they shot their parents because they believed they were going to be killed if they didn’t act.
What Were The Menendez Brothers Convicted Of?
After months of witness testimony and conflicting portraits of Lyle, Erik and their parents, the two juries tasked with independently determining each brother’s fate were unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was called.
The case was retried before a new jury in 1995 (this time only one jury would be tasked with determining the guilt of both brothers). Unlike their first trial, no video cameras were allowed in the courtroom and Judge Stanley Weisberg ruled the defense could not claim “imperfect self-defense,” because of a lack of evidence to support the claim, CNN reported.
Prosecutors again contended that the brothers decided to kill their parents after they realized they’d never live up to their father’s expectations and wanted to gain access to the massive fortune he’d accrued.
"Lyle Menendez did not have the drive. He did not have the intellect. He did not have the motivation. And Erik Menendez was an even greater failure. He was weak. Erik Menendez was soft... He was described as a crybaby,” prosecutor David Conn told the jury.
He called out their claims of abuse as “the silliest, most ridiculous story ever told in a courtroom” and referred to their confession in therapy as the smoking gun in the case, noting the brothers never alleged any abuse while talking with Oziel.
This time around Lyle never took the stand after letters were found suggesting he had encouraged people to lie on his behalf in the original trial. The judge also significantly reduced the amount of testimony that could be provided about the abuse allegations.
Lyle and Erik Menendez were convicted of first-degree murder on March 20, 1996 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
How Are The Menendez Brothers Tied To Menudo?
After decades in prison, the case is receiving renewed interest after Roy Rosselló, a former member of the popular boy band Menudo, has come forward to publicly claim he was sexually assaulted by Jose, a former executive for the music label RCA, as a teenager, Variety reports.
The allegations and the impact it could have had on the brother’s defense will be explored in the new three-part docuseries “Menendez + Menudo: Boys Betrayed.”
“You know, I always hoped and believed the truth about my dad would come out, but I never wished for it to come out like this, uh, the result of trauma that another child has suffered,” Erik said from behind bars after learning of the allegations through a phone call with journalist Robert Rand, according to the TODAY show.
It’s still unclear what impact, if any, Rosselló’s accusations will have on the fate of the brothers.