Court TV: December 23, 1993. Waiting for the verdicts in the trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez for the shotgun murders of their parents on August 20, 1989, in their Beverly Hills, California, house. A three-million-dollar “mansion” it was, to set the scene. The crime and the trial, as shown on television, have become a national attraction, one of outstanding gruesomeness, with the parents literally “blown away,” a phrase sometimes heard in court, as they sat eating ice cream and, like us, watching television on a Sunday evening. The Menendez sons, twenty-one and eighteen years old at the time of the murders, engaged in an interesting span of activities until, some months later in October 1989, the brothers rashly confessed to a psychologist. But the confession was not given to the police until March and they were at last arrested by, in this instance, a sluggish Los Angeles Police Department.
Incarceration followed and gradually the brothers offered a defense of unusual squalor, or perhaps a usual squalor spreading its scrofulous blight over the American landscape. They claimed years of sexual abuse by their father, abuse almost unremitting in the case of the younger brother, Erik. The tear-stained faces of the two sons described the sexual assaults in detail on the witness stand—“massages,” oral ejaculation, and all the rest. Along with that claim, a more opaque motive or justification of the murders was offered. The brothers testified that, after an unpleasant scene, they threatened to reveal the “secret,” and the consequence was that they believed their parents were going to kill them. Bursting into the house with the shotguns blasting away was to be seen as a preemptive strike in self-defense. That the mother was included in the slaughter proved a delicate problem, which the defense lawyers met with a sometimes coarse efficiency in disparagement of any sympathy that might come the mother’s way.
When the defense laid out its plans for the architecture of the self-defense plea, the judge did not find the peculiar foundations strong enough to sustain a “perfect self-defense” and allowed the indictment of first-degree murder to stand in the death-penalty, gas-chamber state of California. For its vivid attractions of money, worldly position, sex, bizarre details, flamboyant lawyers such as Leslie Abramson defending Erik, and above all for its being shown on television almost moment by moment, the trial became a huge success in arousing a squabbling public interest.
William Roughead’s accounts of Victorian women and their careful attentions to the evening broth laced with arsenic, vomited up one night and freshly prepared to be offered the next, tell of “popular” crimes of the period. For us, the poisoners display a slow-acting simplicity of arrangements in their determination to dispose of the troublesome. The American event the Menendez dramaturgy brings to mind is that of Lizzie Borden, who has grown somewhat trite from long acquaintance. However, she was efficient, rapid, and forceful in her use of the available weaponry of the time, in her axe-parricide followed…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.