Sons and Murderers

Decades of alleged parental sexual abuse ended with 15 shotgun blasts, but can the Menendez brothers convince jurors they did it in self-defense?

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By Sunday morning, after another alleged attempt by Jose to enter Erik's room, the brothers concluded that Erik had to get out of the house. Lyle, making conversation, asked his father for the phone number of a tennis camp he planned to attend. Jose replied, "What does it matter anymore?" Lyle said he took that "to be my dad's sarcastic way of saying, 'You're dead!' " The boys told Kitty they were going out to meet some friends; she ordered them to stay in the house. Jose told Erik to go upstairs and wait for him. Lyle screamed, "No, you're not going to touch Erik!" Jose summoned Kitty to the TV room and closed the doors. Said Lyle: "I thought this was the end. I thought they were going inside the TV room to plan to kill us." He ran upstairs to get Erik. Both brothers got their guns, and blam! And blam! again and 13 more times.

Is this story believable? Prosecutor Pamela Bozanich accuses Lyle of tear- jerking hamminess. "The level of ((Lyle's)) acting," she once remarked, "has fallen from Laurence Olivier to Sylvester Stallone." But she has been unable to shake his story much despite a pounding cross-examination. At one point, she asked why the brothers had not told the police of their fears that they would be killed. Lyle said, "We discussed: Would the police side with us, believe us?" Their conclusion: no, but "filing charges would definitely have put us in a position to be killed" by a still more outraged father.

There are problematic points in Lyle's story, though. He testified that the brothers were convinced Jose and Kitty would kill them on a shark-fishing trip the day before the final explosion. They went anyway, and nothing happened, but, said Lyle, the two boys came back convinced more than ever that they were in mortal danger. More important, while Lyle painted a menacing portrait of his father, he was less successful explaining why the brothers thought Kitty would have joined her husband in killing her sons. Some outside legal experts think the prosecution may successfully contend that the brothers killed Kitty primarily to eliminate any possibility of her identifying them as Jose's slayers -- allowing them to collect the $14 million inheritance.

Much may depend on Erik's story this week and succeeding testimony by defense experts who will testify on the psychological effect of long-continued sexual and emotional abuse. But the atmosphere of the trial has changed sharply. At first, the common belief was that Lyle and Erik would be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced either to death or to life without parole. But hardly anyone seems to expect that now; Lyle has been too effective in painting them as victims. Even prosecutor Bozanich has told reporters, "I think the disturbed family is part of the motivation. I don't think this was a crime solely for financial gain."

On the other hand, Lyle has not exactly shown the brothers to be lovable enough to deserve outright acquittal. Witness part of his testimony about killing Kitty: "I could see somebody moving where my mother should be. So I reloaded. I ran around and shot my mom. I shot her close." The betting now is that the two will be convicted of a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder, with acquittal an outside chance. But nobody ever knows what a jury, let alone two juries, will do when the door closes.

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