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 by forty-one whacks for the mother, step-mother in that case. Family murders, observing the classical unities of time, place, and action, are more gripping to the public than random victims, an aesthetic plus, if you will.
After more than five months of trial proceedings, over 20,000 pages of testimony from the defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and “experts”; after comment from the TV anchors, and analysis by legal professionals, and call-ins from the public (“Hi, Carol. Love the show”), the thousands and thousands of viewers attending the progress of the trial are rich in a large number of new and unexpected intimacies about the dead, their families, and plain citizens caught up in the coils of litigation.
An intimacy of body and soul, psyche and spirit, fears and resentments, fierce compulsions and extended mitigations shaped by the insights of “therapists”—all these are proposed by the defense for the “boys,” a locution sarcastically employed by the prosecution for males twenty-one and eighteen at the time they struck. Lyle, the older, had had an unsatisfactory year at Princeton University and was on probation for cheating on an exam; Erik, the younger, was planning to enter UCLA. Along with an exculpating portrait of the confessed killers, the defense undertook a sort of telepathic probing of the dark, satanic depths in the characters of the dead, known to us as Jose and Kitty, appellations more blithe than those of Lyle and Erik. The parents, deplorable man and wife, are to be seen as killing themselves—not just in a metaphorical sense, but through the morbidity of provocation.
And good riddance for the extraordinarily successful Jose, age forty-five when he died with few to say a good word for him. As for Kitty, née Mary Louise Anderson, unnatural, “un-available” (a favorite word) mother; natural enough wife in her fury over the philandering with women of the wide-ranging Jose. And a shrug for the philandering with Lyle and Erik, if she was aware of it, and if such there was to the extent claimed. Sore and depressed, Kitty was proposed as a team player in the wishes of her husband. For the rest, negligent, sloppy, self-centered, a bit of a drunk. Thus the maternal victim, forty-seven years old at the time of death, has been sorted out to aid in the defense of her children. It is very imprudent to be killed.
Christmas Eve: The juries, one for Lyle and another for Erik, are off for the holidays; so Terry Moran tells us as he appears outside the courthouse in Van Nuys, California, where the trial is being held. Lyle and Erik Menendez have been in the Los Angeles County jail for more than three and a half years, with this their fourth Christmas. The Los Angeles County jail is a place hideously befouled in all its appointments, as we have learned from an interview with a young woman who investigates prison conditions on behalf of the ACLU. However, Lyle or Erik, or both, said recently that he would rather spend the rest of his life in the LA jail than return to the life with his parents in the house with the swimming pool, tennis courts, and guest house. Having said they killed in overwhelming fear for their own lives, the brothers are denied any measure of ruefulness for the loss of parents, money, freedom, and youth. A condition of extreme moral and emotional deprivation, if part of the escape from punishment, a wish natural to the human condition. Of course, it need not be true that regret keeps its distance even as they arrive at the court handcuffed and leg-shackled, which causes them to walk in an awkward, loping movement when the irons are removed.
The road from crime to punishment runs from excitement to misery, a long way, and it has been observed that the one on trial is not the same as the one who committed the crime. “This even-handed justice commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice to our own lips.” So it is with the Menendez brothers, whose only plea and hope is that the victims are the guilty ones and they the instruments of a just punishment.
Jose Menendez—his biography will be circulating in the books that are surely written, set in type, ready for the market when the epilogue of the verdicts is announced on Court TV. Jose’s ending was calamity followed by calumny, but up until then he was a curious case, inspirational if financial success is the measure. He managed to leave Cuba at the age of sixteen, and to die with a fortune the press claimed to be $14 million. No doubt an exaggeration and now depleted, if not “all gone,” as one of the lawyers said. The trial, taxes, unpaid mortgages on two expensive houses, the exuberant spending of the sons as soon as the bodies were put on the trolley and hauled to the morgue? In Cuba, Jose’s family was prominent and respected. On the mother’s side there had been professors, lawyers, and doctors. The Menendez grandfather had been a professor of medicine and the founder of a bank. In the immediate family there were exceptional gifts in sports, with Jose’s father a famous soccer player and his mother, still living, a champion swimmer.
After high school in the United States, Jose received a swimming scholarship to Southern Illinois University. There he met and married, at nineteen, Mary Louise Anderson, a native of Illinois and of modest background. They left Illinois for New York City where Jose took a degree in accounting at Queens College, while working as a waiter at “21.” If there is such a thing as a concrete talent for business, this Cuban émigré reflected it to an astonishing degree. He moved along without special luck, useful connections, or a graduate degree from any of the prominent Schools of Business, and without selling drugs, the balloon trip to expendable income.
At the Hertz Corporation, Menendez rose to be an executive in the carleasing division. The family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where the sons attended private school. When Hertz was bought out by RCA, he shifted to the record division. Menendez left the company in 1986, when or because he was not elevated to a vice-presidency post. No matter, he was soon a chief executive officer at Live Entertainment, a division of the powerful Carolco Pictures in Los Angeles, distributor of the Rambo films and others.
Dominick Dunne’s researches on the case: “Jose Menendez’s success at Live Entertainment was dazzling. In 1986 the company lost $20 million; a year later under Menendez, Live earned $8 million and in 1988 doubled that.” The family is now in California, in Calabasas, a suburb of Los Angeles. This suburban residence became uncomfortable when Lyle and Erik had their first burst of criminal behavior in not one but two “high-class” burglaries. More than $100,000 were stolen in cash, jewelry, and other items. Jose came to the rescue in fatherly fashion with most of the loot returned and damages paid. Reports in the press speculate that Erik took the rap because he was underage and there was a wish to protect Lyle’s entrance into Princeton, where he distinguished himself negatively. Erik got off with probation and the instruction to receive “counseling.” The counsel chosen was Dr. Jerome Oziel, a clinical psychologist who later heard and taped Erik’s confession of the murders. This circumstance did great damage to the brothers and more than a little to Dr. Oziel’s reputation by the exposure to the public of unfortunate matters in his own life and practice.
The Menendez family moved to the Beverly Hills impressive spread where the parents met their grisly end. At that time, Jose was making a salary of $500,000 a year with bonuses of nearly a million. The person who was making this sum was described at the trial as intimidating, insulting, humiliating to employees, a “control freak” in positions of power, that is, in the office and at home. Business associates found him overbearing and ruthless. Members of his own family and that of his wife spoke of his intense demands on his sons, his strictness, his concentration on their performance at school and on the tennis court. As for Kitty, she was also a nag about performance, that of her sons, if not of her own, a common inclination of parents. She was clever enough to do most of the sons’ homework, but she drank too much, was said by some to be secretive and critical. She threatened suicide and tried it once when she learned of Jose’s eight-year affair with a former secretary, whom she trailed, denounced on the phone, that sort of thing.