As she began her intense three-day summation on behalf of Erik Menendez, we were told by Terry Moran, the commentator in Van Nuys, that every eye in the jury box and in the courtroom was fixed upon her. Her description of the sexual abuse by Jose was not squeamish, as it had not been in her opening statement when she claimed there had been a
carefully calculated pattern of grooming the child for his father’s sexual gratification. This pattern included repeated acts of forcible oral copulation, sodomy, rape, and the intentional infliction of pain by the use of foreign objects upon Erik’s person. Jose Menendez’s obvious purpose was to use the child’s body to satisfy his lust.
Tennis: the game came to be seen in the trial as a form of mental and physical abuse of both sons by the father’s wish to make them stars. They had expensive coaches, along with much interference and instruction from Jose. They competed in tournaments all over the Middle West, and Lyle reached a high ranking one year in the Juniors. When they lost, Jose was said to be furious enough to drive them to tears. This conduct for once is not surprising when one remembers the notoriety of tennis fathers: Steffi Graf’s, for instance; Mary Pierce’s father denied entrance into the arena of the French Open after appalling interruptions and antics; Jennifer Capriati dropping out after her brilliant start because of what some believe to be troubles with her father.
Miss Abramson described the long, long hours on the court in the hot sun as if they were a cruel term of duty on a galley ship under the lash. But that is tennis and the hours of practice do not recede for Pete Sampras or Jim Courier at the top of their game. Practice itself is not to be compared with the energy required for actual matches of high tension that may last hours in heat of over 100 degrees. One circumstance not mentioned by the defense in proposing, in a vivid and condemning manner, the hardship of Jose’s tennis regime as a contribution to the conditions of life that could reasonably lead the sons to murder: in the months after the killings her client Erik had dropped out of UCLA, and was in a tennis tournament in Israel, along with his $50,000-a-year coach, when he was arrested.
Also tennis, a one-on-one sport, makes one strong, fast, agile in mental concentration and skilled in evasive tactics. The results of the autopsy showed Jose to be in better shape than he thought after having had heart pains and continuing to smoke. Nevertheless it is a mystery that an eighteen-year-old man had to submit like a rubber anatomical doll to “rape” by his father even up until the week before he found the protective strength to go after him with a shotgun. Self-defense and loud denunciation might have been more natural than the exhortation to run away, leaving your cars, clothes, gear, and in the case of Lyle, a collection of stuffed animals.
In her summation to the jury, Miss Abramson cast Erik as the vulnerable, less favored, more disappointing child for the ambitious parents. In certain respects she impugned Lyle in her attachment to the younger son and was perhaps free to do so since the juries hear only the testimony relating to their separate cases. Referring to the “grief shopping” she said in a dismissive tone: Erik didn’t buy anything…a jacket. Further along she argued: Erik didn’t kill anyone. That would appear to leave Lyle with the problem of two dead bodies.
The atrocity of the death penalty in California, ordained as a deterrent to violent crime, has shown its contrary aspect in this long, very expensive trial—expensive to the defendants and to the unhappy taxpayers of the state. Leslie Abramson’s fee, reported to be near a million dollars, comes from the Menendez estate, as does the considerable cost of Jill Lansing’s months of work in behalf of Lyle. On the other hand, taxpayers are responsible for the professional fees of the defendants’ second lawyers, Marcia Morrisey and Michael Burt, since co-counsel is required by California law in death-penalty cases. About the resources for the prosecution, one of the lawyers described them as K-mart style.
Important to the unraveling of the family’s dour history is the possibility that brothers, sisters, and cousins might not have been so obliging in their belittling memories of the dead were it not that the sons, the last of that Menendez branch, were themselves facing death. It is unlikely there can be much pride, in any case, to adorn the splattered family name. It is also fair to speculate that the death penalty played its part in prodding business associates, in no way central to the matter, to agree to speak about Jose’s unfortunate nature.
In the spring of 1992, Robert Harris, the convicted killer of two young boys and himself a child of profoundly abusive parents, who left him on the road at age eleven, never again to be picked up, was executed in the San Quentin gas chamber. KQED, a public television station in San Francisco, had filmed the trial and asked the prison warden for a drastic extension of the coverage: the right to film the actual execution. The warden denied the request for reasons of security, the privacy of prison attendants, and the possible effect upon other prisoners. KQED took the warden to court and after a surprisingly vigorous assembly of arguments, standing on the First and Fourth Amendments and other issues, the court ruled in favor of the warden—in this instance. Robert Harris expired with only the usual selected members of the press to tell the story first-hand.*
Court TV—An idea as old as America. So the program announces itself. The right to a public trial has the prestige of age upon it and the exposure of judicial proceedings on television is an idea, perhaps an American idea. The marriage of the cold granite of the village courthouse and the hot fibers of TV transmission, begun in 1991 on this unique, round-the-clock cable station, has become with the Menendez trial a rival to the competing network confessional programs shown five days each week. Talking things over with the millions out there seems to be a therapeutic reward for those maimed by life and often for the “perpetrators” who also shrink from the obscurity of silence.
The judicial proceedings on Court TV are shaped by the rules of law, the counterpoint of defense and prosecution and decisions from the bench. The public does not, from the courtroom, see or hear anything beyond that offered the juries, those with press passes, the families, and the fans who might stand for hours outside the stage door and sometimes find a place within. Indeed, the television coverage is superior to actual courtroom visitation. It is a ringside seat, with announcers, analysis, and, in the more lively contests, call-in viewers, a chatty superfluity most notable for their patience in hanging on the line.
Court TV offers many trials, confrontations serious for the principals locked in the tedium of repetition and delay and sputtering oratory by the lawyers who go through the lessons like a teacher at the blackboard. A day at court. A trial is part of the public record, open to those who seek it—scholars, reporters, journalists, and so on. In the Menendez case there are over 20,000 pages of testimony which the passive television audience is spared the need to study and to assess. Entertainment value is the guide and the privilege; one can, as the Menendez case winds down, choose the “Malicious Wounding” matter in the case of the severed penis and turn off the suit for damages in a skiing accident.
Court TV is a seriously designed and seriously produced public offering. Its text depends entirely upon things citizens will do to each other that can lead to an indictment; or what perfidies, lies, extortions, and broken promises may be alleged and adjudicated. It is not a work of the imagination, but a work of fact, if legal matters are fact. At the least it is a demonstration of legal reality. The ambiguous aspects of filming this reality have to do with witnesses, subpoenaed or volunteer. In a proceeding like that of the Menendez case, witnesses have been accused by the contending lawyers of lying, remembering, or misremembering with malicious, biased, or self-serving intent. Unfortunate matters from the past may be excavated by private detectives to impeach credibility. Speculation by neighbors, memories of friends and former lovers, are entered as relevant, especially in custody and divorce cases. Manner and appearance may be an embarrassment, like a passport photo. At stake are baneful possibilities for families and, for the witness, the risk of being diminished in the public’s perception. Employers may find a disadvantage in one who has been subject to the voracious appetite for discreditment typical of a trial.
In the Menendez hearings, certain witnesses were accused of edging their way into the trial merely to be on television. Wide dissemination is the critical concern about the existence of Court TV or any television in the courts. In the Menendez case, a witness had a turn before the camera not once but again and again throughout the weeks. Appearances were repeated when there was no action, “nothing going on in Van Nuys,” or to fill the blanks during weekends and holiday recesses. As for the lawyers, they got their A’s and B’s from the commentaries of the anchors and assorted legal colleagues. For the “experts,” some may encounter a diminishment if they fail to “project” effectively in their role. More likely, they will receive free advertising for their next employment in witnessing.
We notice that television cameras are not at the trial of the accused in the World Trade Center bombing, six dead, thousands injured, huge losses in property, and of outstanding importance to the government and to the citizens of a country previously more or less free of international terrorism. A wise decision for federal criminal cases. The cast of characters in the bombing might have cosmetic and linguistic attributes not entirely acceptable to public taste. While we must believe these matters do not inform the verdicts, they could, if shown for months on television, bring about a rise in the national temperature.
Verdicts: The jurors, six men and six women, pronounced themselves deadlocked in the case of Erik Menendez. The judge asked them to try once more, offering a choice of first- or second-degree murder, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. Again they could not agree, or would not budge, from their clashing opinions. A mistrial was declared and the jurors dismissed. The district attorney said the state would bring a new trial on a first-degree murder charge.
January 18: An earthquake around Los Angeles, a serious disaster with loss of life, fires, highways and bridges damaged, power lines out. The members of Lyle’s jury will not convene on this the morning after. Were they soon to come together, they would have to return to the contemplation of malicious intent, premeditation, imminent danger, matters they have long considered without resolution. Deliberations that may seem of greatly diminished importance amidst the tragedies of the earthquake.
Lyle, the first born, made himself heir to the fallen tyrant and gathered his legions around him: limos, sports cars, first-class air travel, credit cards, leased hotel suites, and heavy investments meant to indicate his claim to the corporate throne. What lies ahead is unknown just now, for the prince and for his brother. Perhaps they will receive a greater leniency than many of the damned, perhaps not. But there is nothing agreeable in the future of the Menendez sons. Their forfeiture was larger than any defense strategy or counsel can restore.
There is no equity in life or in judicial decisions. In any case, you can’t go to heaven on other people’s sins. In Florida, Jeffrey Farina is eighteen years old and on death row, along with his brother, age twenty. They are bad numbers who brutally slaughtered a young woman and a young man in a robbery. The biography of the killers is a record of maimings, torture, and abandonment by their parents—a common index listing under the names of those who end up in what is called the criminal justice system. On death row, Jeffrey, in a tabloid account, is credited with a poetic coda about his situation: Everybody dies some day. It’s just a fact of life.
Then there is the pathetic, bathetic Jim Bakker, once mate of Tammy, sentenced for fraud to sixty-four years—and nobody missing.
—January 20, 1994
Author’s Note: I am grateful for Dominick Dunne’s articles in Vanity Fair, for reporting in the Los Angeles Times, The American Lawyer, and other newspapers and magazines. Also, I have consulted an advance copy of the highly informative and useful Blood Brothers, by Ron Soble and John Johnson (Signet Onyx, 1994). The facts in the press do not always agree and for the most part this article is that of a viewer of the trial on Court TV.
See Wendy Lesser, Pictures at an Execution (Harvard University Press, 1993).↩
See Wendy Lesser, Pictures at an Execution (Harvard University Press, 1993).↩