Case Summary

Joseph Lyle Menendez (born January 10, 1968) and Erik Galen Menendez (born November 27, 1970) shot and killed their parents, Jose and Mary Louise (“Kitty”) Menendez, in the family’s Beverly Hills home on August 20, 1989. The prosecution’s theory of the case was that the killings were motivated by greed and the brothers’ desire to acquire by early inheritance their parents’ considerable wealth. The defense claimed that Lyle and Erik killed their parents out of fear for their lives after years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

Lyle and Erik were arrested in March 1990 and held without bail in the Los Angeles County Jail. The case was delayed more than two years by legal battles over whether prosecutors could use as evidence potentially incriminating audio tapes made by the brothers’ psychologist, Dr. Jerome Oziel.

Lyle and Erik were charged in Los Angeles County Superior Court with two counts of first-degree murder while lying in wait and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. The prosecution sought the death penalty against both brothers. The trial court, Judge Stanley Weisberg, ordered that the brothers be tried together in a single proceeding with two separate juries. Trial commenced on July 20, 1993, in the Van Nuys division of the Superior Court.

The prosecution’s key witness was Dr. Oziel, who testified that the brothers had confessed to the killings and discussed with him their motivations for killing their parents. (Barred from the trial by the California Supreme Court was an audio tape recording of Oziel and the brothers in which they talk about the killings. The tape was later played for the juries during the defense case.)

A deputy coroner testified that Jose and Kitty both died of multiple gunshot wounds. Jose was shot six times. Kitty was hit 10 times. Each of them had a contact wound to the head, caused when the muzzle of a shotgun was held against the victim’s head and discharged. They each also had at least one leg wound in the knee area. The prosecution argued that the brothers directed shots at their parents’ left knees in order to make the killings look like a Mafia hit. There was no apparent damage on either victim’s kneecap itself.

The prosecution presented evidence supporting their theory that Lyle and Erik killed their parents out of greed. At the time of their deaths, Jose and Kitty’s assets included the family home in Beverly Hills, valued at between $3.5 million and $4 million with a net value of $1.5 million, and a second home in Calabasas, valued at $1.35 million. Jose also owned a stock in L.I.V.E. Entertainment, the company for which he served as chairman of the board, worth $5 million. Jose and Kitty originally prepared a will in 1981, naming their sons as the only beneficiaries. According to his brother-in-law, in June or July of 1989, Jose decided to take his sons out of the will because he was unhappy with their conduct. In particular, Jose was frustrated with their spendthrift habits, their lack of academic achievement, and certain incidents in which they had gotten into trouble. Jose made it known to the brothers that he was preparing to take them out of his will. It is unknown whether Jose actually prepared a new will before his death. In the absence of any new will, the terms of the 1981 will controlled, and Lyle and Erik were to inherit Jose and Kitty’s entire estate. In addition, the brothers each collected over $325,000 in life insurance proceeds after their parents’ deaths.

In the weeks and months following the homicides, both Lyle and Erik spent substantial sums of money. On August 24, four days after the shooting, the two brothers went shopping together at a jewelry store in Century City, purchasing three Rolex watches and two money clips totaling over $15,000. Within a few months, they both rented units at an upscale condominium complex in Marina Del Ray. Sometime in September or October, they hired a tennis coach, retaining his services for one year at $6,000 per month.

On his own, Lyle purchased a restaurant for $550,000 (using a $300,000 loan from the estate for down payment), and attempted to purchase two separate patio homes with down payments of $26,500 and $12,900 respectively, in Princeton, New Jersey; another Rolex watch; a Saab-900 Turbo as a Christmas present for his girlfriend; a $64,000 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet for himself; and many thousands of dollars worth of clothes. He also expended significant sums to cover the start-up costs of a commercial real estate investment company he created.

For his part, Erik purchased a customized Jeep Wrangler for approximately $21,000, paying in cash. Over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday, Erik went with a group of friends on a trip to Lake Tahoe and Reno, during which he gambled away somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000. Sometime in February of 1990, Erik paid the expenses for him and his coach to travel to Israel to participate in a tennis tournament. Also in February of 1990, Erik went shopping for homes and made an offer of $1.1 million on a house in Marina Del Rey. However, Erik was arrested on March 11, and the sale was never completed.

A computer consultant testified that Lyle hired him to locate certain computer files related to Jose’s will. Lyle’s former girlfriend testified that Lyle asked her to give false testimony.

In the weeks following the crime, both brothers espoused the theory that the killing of their parents was business-related or was arranged by the Mafia, according to witnesses. These statements, along with the nature of the gunshot wounds, led detectives to pursue the organized-crime theory for a time during the investigation.

The facts of the homicides were largely undisputed by the defense. Both brothers testified and conceded that they shot their parents to death on the night of August 20, 1989. The position of the defense was that Lyle and Erik lived in fear of their parents due to a lifelong pattern of abuse. Lyle testified that both of his parents were physically and psychologically abusive toward him throughout his life. He also testified that his father sexually molested him for approximately two years from the ages 6 to 8. Erik gave similar testimony regarding abusive conduct by his parents. However, his testimony regarding sexual abuse at the hands of his father was much more extensive. According to Erik’s testimony, his father regularly and severely molested him from the time he was six-years-old until the time of the killings when he was 18.

The brothers also testified that events in the days leading up to the shooting caused them to fear for their lives. On August 15, 1989 – a Tuesday – Erik told Lyle that he was being sexually abused by their father. On Thursday, August 17, Lyle confronted his father about the sexual abuse of Erik, threatening to report it if Jose did not stop. As a result of this confrontation, Lyle and Erik felt that their lives were in danger. Both brothers testified that their parents had threatened to kill them at various points in their lives, and both thought that their parents were capable of carrying out such threats. Erik, in particular, testified that, on one occasion when he refused to engage in sex with his father, Jose threatened Erik’s life by hold a knife to his throat. Furthermore, both brothers testified that Jose threatened to kill them if they ever revealed the sexual abuse of Erik. Accordingly, Lyle and Erik believed that, after Lyle’s confrontation with his father on August 17, Jose and Kitty formulated a plan to kill their sons before they could report the sexual abuse. Lyle and Erik also knew that their parents owned firearms. Thus, the brothers felt that they needed some way to defend themselves and so, on Friday the 18th, they tried to purchase guns at several different stores, the first in Los Angeles. After learning that handguns could not be purchased immediately, they drove from Los Angeles to San Diego, where they bought two shotguns using false identification.

Matters came to a head on Sunday, August 20. Lyle and Erik thought that their parents were making arrangements to kill them that day. In the evening, there was a family argument about the brothers’ plan to go out for the evening. Jose told Erik to go to his room. Erik believed this meant that he was going to be killed, and that his father wanted to have sex with him first. Lyle again confronted his father about the sexual abuse of Erik. At the end of the argument, Jose and Kitty ordered Lyle and Erik to stay in the house instead of going out and then went into the den and closed the doors. At that point, the brothers testified, they believed that they were in imminent danger of being killed by their parents. In a burst of panic and fear, they both retrieved the shotguns they had purchased, burst through the doors to the den and, in sheer panic, emptied their shotguns.

The brothers testified that they felt sure someone must have heard the noise and called the police. But when no one came, they decided to gather up the shotgun shells, fearing that fingerprints on the shells might be detectable. The brothers then drove to a movie theater to buy tickets for the purpose of establishing an alibi. Following that, they set about finding a place to dispose of the murder weapons, ultimately depositing them in a secluded, wooded area near Mulholland Drive. Later, they stopped at a gas station to discard other incriminating evidence, throwing the shotgun shells and blood-spattered clothes into a garbage dumpster.

Eventually, they returned home and made preparations to call the authorities. They agreed to tell the police that they were at the movies at the time of the killings and discussed the details to ensure their respective stories corresponded. Lyle then placed a call to the police, and they went outside to wait. When a patrol car arrived, the brothers ran up to the officers screaming and acting hysterically. When the brothers were questioned that night, they led the interviewing detective to believe they had nothing to do with the killings.

In addition to the brothers’ testimony, the defense called a parade of relatives, neighbors, and former teachers and coaches of Lyle and Erik who testified that Jose and Kitty were abusive parents. The defense also called several mental health and psychiatric expert witnesses who explained what effect the abuse had on Lyle and Erik. The defense further called witnesses to attack the credibility of Dr. Oziel.

After the close of evidence, Judge Weisberg ruled that the brothers were not entitled to an outright acquittal based on self-defense because, given the facts, they could not have reasonably believed that their lives were in imminent danger. Judge Weisberg did give the juries defense requested instructions on both voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter as to both victims based on imperfect self-defense and heat of passion. The defense argued in closing arguments that the brothers’ fear of being killed, while unreasonable, was held in good faith and asked the juries to convict the brothers of an offense no greater than involuntary manslaughter.

The jury in Lyle’s case began its deliberation on the afternoon of December 10, 1993. The jury for Erik began deliberating on the afternoon of December 15, 1993. On January 13, 1994, after deliberating for 106 hours, Erik’s jury reported that it was hopelessly deadlocked, and Judge Weisberg declared a mistrial in the case against Erik. On January 28, after deliberating for 139 hours, the jury in Lyle’s case also reported being deadlocked, and Judge Weisberg declared a mistrial with respect to Lyle as well.

Thereafter, the court began preparing for a retrial of both brothers. Judge Weisberg again ordered that the brothers be tried together in a single proceeding, however that in the second trial there would be a single jury for both brothers. The retrial began on October 11, 1995, again in the Van Nuys courthouse.

During the second trial, the prosecution did not call Dr. Oziel. Instead they played the audio tape recording early in their case. The prosecution did not call the deputy coroner who performed the autopsies and testified during the first trial, instead calling a private pathologist who testified that Jose suffered four separate wounds and Kitty suffered nine. They also presented a new computer-generated reconstruction of the killings, and again introduced evidence of the brothers’ post-crime spending spree. The prosecution further presented evidence of so-called “escape plans” found in Lyle’s cell, as well as witnesses who testified that they had been asked by Lyle to fabricate evidence.

Also, a family friend who was an attorney testified that on August 21, the day after the shooting, the brothers went to his home to seek his assistance in locating and probating their parents’ will. They seemed particularly concerned about accessing their father’s computer to find out if it contained a new or amended version of the will. When the attorney suggested that perhaps the will was kept in the family safe, the brothers returned home, retrieved the safe, and immediately brought it back to the attorney’s house. They also went to a bank with family members to check the contents of a safe-deposit box in their father’s name. In each instance when either the safe or the safe-deposit box was opened, the brothers asked anyone else who was present to leave the room so that the brothers could open the repository in privacy. No revised will was ever found. Therefore, the terms of the 1981 will controlled, and Lyle and Erik were to inherit Jose and Kitty’s entire estate.

The defense again took the position that Lyle and Erik killed their parents out of fear for their own lives. Lyle did not testify on his own behalf during the retrial. However, Erik did take the stand and again testified that his parents subjected him to severe physical and psychological abuse and that his father regularly molested him from the time he was six-years-old. He also testified that, in the days leading up to the shooting, he and his brother came to believe that their parents were plotting to kill them in order to keep the brothers from revealing the sexual abuse of Erik.

In response to prosecution objections, Judge Weisberg put sharp limits on the defense, in part by restricting testimony about the brothers’ childhood and scaling back expert testimony. The parade of teachers, coaches, relatives and friends whose testimony took weeks in the first trial was largely excluded as irrelevant.

After the close of evidence, Judge Weisberg ruled that there was insufficient evidence that the brothers were in imminent danger when they shot their parents and that the imperfect self-defense jury instruction that the defense had sought would not be read to the jury. Judge Weisberg further ruled that he would allow the jury to consider a voluntary manslaughter verdict in the killing of Jose based on the theory of heat of passion, but ruled out that option in the killing of Kitty, finding that there was insufficient evidence of provocation on her part. Accordingly, Judge Weisberg refused to give instructions on manslaughter as to Kitty. In closing arguments, the defense asked the jury to acquit both brothers in the killing of Kitty, and to convict them of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Jose.

The case was given to the jury on March 1, 1996. On March 14, Judge Weisberg replaced two jurors due to medical reasons, and ordered the jury to begin its deliberations anew. On March 20, 1996, after four days of deliberation, the jury returned its verdicts, finding both brothers guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. The jury also found true the special circumstance allegations that the brothers committed multiple murders and committed the murders while lying in wait.

The penalty phase of the trial began on March 27, 1996, and on April 12 the jury began its deliberations regarding punishment. On April 17, 1996, the jury returned its verdicts, fixing the penalty for both brothers at life imprisonment without parole. On July 2, 1996, pursuant to the jury’s verdicts, Judge Weisberg sentenced each brother to two consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole.

Following sentencing, the brothers jointly appealed to the California Court of Appeal. On February 27,1998, the state appellate court issued its opinion affirming the judgments of conviction. Both filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court, which was denied on May 27, 1998. Thereafter both brothers filed habeas petitions with the California Supreme Court which were denied in 1999. Having exhausted their appeal remedies in state court, the brothers filed separate petitions for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court. On March 4, 2003 a magistrate judge recommended that the petitions be denied. The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation. Subsequently they appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. On September 7, 2005, a three-judge panel issued their ruling affirming the denial of both brothers’ petitions for writ of habeas corpus.