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.
The life of the couple was in many ways provincial. Most of their social life was with other members of the two families. They did not often try to make the entertainment scene, and there we might count, for the film world, the demerit of the autopsy’s finding that Kitty, five feet two inches, weighed over 160 pounds at her death. Jose was also far more clever than his sons, and it is said that he often quizzed them at the dinner table about current affairs, hoping at least to achieve an ornamental acquisition. The couple did not pretend an interest in high culture, Hollywood style, and Kitty’s efforts at trendiness in home decoration were uncertain and unfinished—lots of boxes around the Beverly Hills rooms confused visitors. We can read of one attendance at a Christmas Eve high mass and several excursions to the Episcopal church, but there was little more than a perfunctory bow to religion. Self-help books took its place, and in that the Menendezes were creatures of their period. Above everything is the glittering success of the young man from Cuba who may have learned something from the detested Castro after all—the pleasures of control.
The New Year has arrived and the juries will be back to “deliberate” the sulphurous pile of deed, intention, motive, character, confession, interpretation. The parents are dead and the sons killed them, nothing to worry about there. The twenty-four people are to judge Why. And to determine the degree of culpability. In the week before the murders, Erik and Lyle purchased shotguns and ammunition. First they got birdshot and subsequently had to round up buckshot, more powerful, for the matter ahead. To buy the arms they went to San Diego, out of town, used a false identification, paid in cash. A few days later, they came into the house at night, and fired, number of shots contested, but quite enough to leave the bodies almost unrecognizable. The father was shot in the back of the head. The mother was shot and tried to get away, but as she lay moaning, Erik went out to get ammunition for reloading and came back and put her out of her misery—or was it Lyle with the final shot in the face? They picked up the shell casings, changed their bloody clothes, disposed of them in a dumpster somehow, hid the guns, and stood in a movie line, or went into a movie theater, for a short spell before returning home to call the police and to say, truthfully, “They shot our parents.” It took more than five months before “they” were identified.
The Menendez affair almost immediately took a turn from tragedy to comedy, with Lyle as the master comedian. He bought Rolex watches, one given away and one worn to the memorial service where the parents were honored with the usual compliments. “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath,” as Dr. Johnson observed. Lyle spoke in accents suitable to a bereaved son, tropes and measures never to be heard again from either son as they fought the possibility of the death penalty.
The spending exhilaration of the next months had the antic aspects of “I’ve got a million” movies. Lyle bought a Porsche, costing either $60,000 or $70,000, condos, high-rise, were leased, and $550,000 was put down for Lyle’s entrance into the entrepreneurial world as a restaurateur in Princeton. “Grief shopping,” this is named by the all-merciful therapists. There were bodyguards, trips back and forth from the West Coast to the East. So the months passed from the scene of the “perfect murder.”
Then Dr. Oziel, the counselor to whom Erik had been sent after the robberies, reentered the scenario, like the gun on the wall that must go off in act three. Erik had not completed the mandated course of treatment, but Oziel, rather offhand about a number of professional matters, let that pass. Still he was alerted by the murders in a family known to his case book. More than two months later, he either called Erik or was called by him to offer help in the hour of need, perhaps the inquisitive therapist’s need. At the interview, Erik said: We did it. And perhaps we can imagine the therapist, true in this instance to his calling, saying: Really? And how did you feel about that?
Either on this or a second interview in which Lyle, enraged by the confession, took part, everything was laid out on Dr. Oziel’s convenient tape recorder. The buying of the guns, the ammunition, the false identification, the actual description of the moment of the killing. No mention of sexual abuse, a curious lapse since sexual abuse is as pertinent to the therapist as a kidney to the urologist. Also there was no mention of the motive of self-defense. It was the doctor who was put in a position of defense of self, since he claimed Lyle had threatened to kill him because of what he knew about the crime. So seriously was the threat taken that Oziel stored the tapes, made preparations for the security of his family and of himself and his patient-mistress, Judalon Smyth.
Oziel had asked Miss Smyth to be in his waiting room in a position to overhear what went on at the taped interview with the brothers. It was she who at last went to the police four months later and described the crime, told of the tapes, and finally the brothers were arrested. Matters might have been simpler had not the Oziel-Smyth relationship pitched into a wind tunnel from which Smyth emerged in a state of vehement loquacity directed against Dr. Oziel. She changed therapists and learned that she had been “brainwashed” by Oziel and what she had previously claimed to hear in the office had actually been told to her by Oziel. Originally a prosecution witness, she came forth for the defense, cast doubt on the validity of the tapes, and gave being in a state of “denial” as the reason for the dramatic change in her account of how the confessions came about.
The confessions stood and the brothers moved from what they had done to the elaborate justification. Just how and when the jailed brothers and their legal counsel arrived at the very useful claims of sexual abuse and self-defense remains murky. The days before the murders, before the decision to buy guns, the state of mind had to be organized or scripted. The inanity of the hairpiece emerged as a precipitating item of goods or something. During a family quarrel, Kitty is said to have reached up and pulled off the hairpiece worn by Lyle, its disguising configuration making him resemble, as many have noted, Michael Milken. Erik announced he was shocked to learn that his brother was wearing the wig or the rug, and that this act of revelation and humiliation led him to his own revelation to his brother about the long sexual molestation by the father—a sudden cataloguing of family facts previously unacknowledged. The confession, Lyle said, led him to confront his father and say: Leave Erik alone. The father is said to have replied: What I do with my son is my own business. Don’t throw your life away. Thinking over the exchange, Erik decided: Dad’s going to kill us. So runs the case.
Easy to believe the mother snatched off Lyle’s hairpiece during a quarrel, but why was Erik sequestered in the torture chamber when Lyle was inspecting his hair purchase under the gaze of the fiercely overseeing parents or looking like a coquette at his transformation in the mirror, pondering the color, the curls, a bit of trim here or there? Needless to say, several claimed Erik knew about the hairpiece, but the defense was stuck with this trifling step on the path to murder and attacked the bearers of contrary evidence in the manner of a subway cop nabbing a pickpocket.
Experts and therapists: Each came forth with the grave designation of “Doctor” from his Ph.D. in sociology or social work, psychology or family therapy, and one with a medical degree, he a “forensic psychiatrist.” In one of the television colloquies with outside lawyers, a cynical if experienced litigator said with a shrug: experts are a dime a dozen. There were nearly a dozen rounded up by the defense and all commanding more than a dime for their hours with the brothers, hours of preparation and hours on the stand.
This free-ranging clerisy for a secular age each proved to be solemn, predictable, and repetitive in language and diagnosis. One who seemed to make an especially good impression was Dr. Ann Burgess, a soft-voiced lady with a grandmotherly aspect to her performance. Dr. Burgess had, in addition to her therapeutic experience, experience in crime-scene evaluation for the FBI. Although the FBI was not called to serve in the Menendez case, the doctor stood firmly on this impressive imprimatur. Her observation was that the crime scene at hand was a mess, as indeed it was. The wildness of the shooting indicated to her that the crime was not planned, but was an outburst of fear and panic inevitably bred in the brothers from a lifetime of sexual and mental abuse. Also Dr. Burgess offered a rather bizarre addendum. She claimed there was “scientific evidence” to show that abused children had changes in their brain chemistry. Perhaps she meant that the brain cells of Lyle and Erik were rattling around in a deviant pattern on the night of the murders, but somehow got back on track as they churned out a story worthy of credibility in every detail by the brain cells of the experts.
The prosecution was scorned and ridiculed by the defense for not calling up its own experts. Is there such a thing as a prosecuting therapist? Could the prosecution send a Ph.D. of this or that to interview Lyle and Erik in their cells and return to say they were callow and cunning young killers showing all the symptoms of those indicted for first-degree murder? Or perhaps to offer as Dick Cavett did when the microphone caught him outside the courthouse: “They’re lying in their teeth, if those are their teeth.”
January 11. Erik’s jury is deadlocked and the judge has asked them to try once more to reach a verdict. The admonition was termed “outrageous” by Leslie Abramson, Erik’s defense attorney. If the deadlock holds it will be an extraordinary victory for Erik Menendez, which he will owe to the tactical skill and intensity of Miss Abramson. She is a distinguished opponent of the death penalty, a small woman, with a pretty face and a mop of curly blonde hair that might be called famous so often is it remarked upon. In 1989, she defended a Pakistani gynecologist charged with murdering his eleven-year-old son, cutting up the body, and putting it in a trash barrel. Miss Abramson practices a total preparation for her case and projects a compelling, insistent belief in her client that seems to suggest that not only is the first-degree charge a cruel imposition, but that a reduction to a lesser charge is a defeat of justice. The Pakistani gynecologist case ended in an acquittal.
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).↩