When you put the shotgun up against her left cheek and pulled the trigger, did you love your mother?
That question-and-answer sequence is remarkable, partly because it is not especially bizarre or lurid. At least not by the standards of the Southern California trial it comes from. Other testimony last week moved some jurors to tears, as Lyle Menendez described how, when he was seven years old, he had been forced to perform oral sex on his father and later had been sodomized with a toothbrush. Lyle, now 24, and his brother Erik, 21, are seeking to explain why they burst into the television room of the family's $5 million Beverly Hills mansion on the night of Aug. 20, 1989, and killed their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez, with 15 shotgun blasts, including two "contact" shots -- from guns pressed against the back of Jose's head and Kitty's cheek.
The trial is testing the limits of the so-called battered-child-syndrome defense. (A variant, the battered-wife defense, is sometimes used by women who kill abusive husbands.) The Menendez brothers contend that they killed their parents not to avenge years of sexual and emotional torture -- that would be no legal justification -- but in self-defense. Even though Jose and Kitty were sitting placidly watching television? Yes. The law sometimes recognizes self- defense pleas from people who are not under attack but who reasonably fear imminent death unless they get their potential assailants first. The battered- child-syndrome defense holds that a child can be so terrorized by years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse that he or she genuinely reads menace -- accurately or not -- into a look, a gesture, an ambiguous word that an outsider might not consider a dire threat.
The Menendez case originally looked much simpler. When Jose, 45, a Cuban refugee who had become the wealthy chief of a music- and video-distribution business, and Kitty, 44, a onetime beauty queen, were gunned down, the first suspicion was of a Mafia hit. But the mangled condition of the bodies argued for a motive of hatred rather than business. Though they pretended to discover the bodies, Lyle, then 21, and Erik, 18, did not put on a very convincing show of grief; they went on a $700,000 spending spree with the insurance money. In March 1990, Judalon Smyth told police that after being asked to sit outside the office of her then lover, psychologist Jerome Oziel, she had overheard the brothers admit the killings to Oziel. Police seized Oziel's tapes and arrested Lyle and Erik on suspicion of having murdered their parents to hasten their enjoyment of a $14 million inheritance.