Waiting for the Verdicts

A sensational double-murder case heads for a double jury

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Prosecutor Pamela Bozanich began her closing argument last Wednesday by tacking a single picture to the courtroom bulletin board. The full-color glossy showed the TV room of the Menendez mansion in Beverly Hills, California, patriarch Jose lifeless on a couch, his wife Kitty in a smashed and bloodied heap on the floor. In blunt language that veered from the schoolmarmish to the sarcastic, Bozanich delivered her message: "Lyle Menendez, accompanied by his brother, planned this murder . . . this was an intentional killing."

The next day defense attorney Jill Lansing also tacked a picture on the board, this one showing the body of a prepubescent Lyle frontally naked from the neck down. She went on to describe a toxic environment where two depraved, vicious parents turned their sons into helpless prisoners and sexual playthings. Lansing recounted testimony of the brothers being punched, belt- whipped and molested by their parents. "You need to decide what was going on in Erik and Lyle Menendez's mind that night," she said, "before you can decide what kind of crime was committed."

L.A. Law could not have presented more dramatic summations, their lines of argument taut and forcefully drawn. Indeed, channel grazers happening past Court TV last week might well have mistaken the proceedings for a staged show, complete with great clothes and great cheekbones. Unlike scripted dramas, however, these closing arguments went on for hours, with attorneys wielding charts and digressing repeatedly to help jurors sort through the 101 witnesses and 401 exhibits paraded concurrently before the brothers' separate juries. It then took Judge Stanley Weisberg more than an hour to issue jury instructions on the subtle variations in mental state that distinguish a first-degree * murder from a second-degree offense, a voluntary manslaughter from an involuntary killing -- all-important gradations that may spell the difference between life and death for Lyle, 25, and Erik, 23, in the Aug. 20, 1989, slaying of their parents.

Weisberg could only hope that after 90 days of hearing about sex, lies and audiotapes, the jurors hadn't missed his most important instruction, one that went largely unstated. At no point did the judge inform Lyle's jury of the conditions that would win acquittal -- nor will he when he addresses Erik's jury this week. Weisberg ruled last week that the brothers Menendez could not argue "perfect self-defense," meaning that they had shot their parents out of a reasonable and honest belief that their own lives were in imminent danger. If the two juries are faithful to Weisberg's instructions, the best either brother can hope for is a finding that they had genuine but unreasonable fears of danger -- and involuntarily slaughtered their parents, a verdict that carries a minimum sentence of two years and a maximum of four.

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