The Menendez Brothers Run Out Of Excuses

IN THE LEGAL HANGOVER AFTER 10 months of O.J., the retrial of Erik and Lyle Menendez in Los Angeles was barely a blip. No television coverage, no book deals, no national obsessing. It was a far cry from their first trial, which made defense lawyer Leslie Abramson a media star and ended in 1994 with jurors deadlocked. This round, except for some relatives and talk-show hosts, nobody out there much seemed to care--proving again that in fin de siecle America if it isn't on TV it didn't happen. There was no dispute that these two brothers, 18 and 21 at the time, savagely blasted their millionaire parents to death with a pair of shotguns on the night of Aug. 20, 1989. But was it a crime or self-defense?

Cold-blooded murder, said 12 jurors last week. After four days of deliberations, they ruled the brothers were guilty with "special circumstances"--California legalese meaning that Erik and Lyle are now eligible for the death penalty. "The justice system lost some of its luster after Rodney King and O. J. Simpson," says law professor Stephen Gillers of New York University. "The first trial was alarming because it suggested even parricide might be excusable -- in southern California. This verdict will go some way toward restoring confidence in juries." It also may help Los Angeles D.A. Gil Garcetti win re-election this week, since his office finally has a verdict to brag about, not explain away.

The brothers claimed they were victims of parental abuse, both emotional and sexual. Why had they slaughtered their parents, Jose and Kitty, as they watched TV in their Beverly Hills mansion? The brothers feared for their lives. In the first trial, that defense worked well enough to produce a hung jury--and nationwide outrage over the "abuse excuse." This time, Judge Stanley Weisberg found insufficient evidence of self-defense--he kept the claim from the jury--and excluded most testimony about abuse. That gave the prosecution a far easier case to make, one the chief prosecutor described as "premeditation, fabrication and spending." The brothers had gone on a spree after the killings--a Porsche for Lyle, a private tennis coach for Erik--and initially claimed alibis. It was only after Erik confessed to his therapist, who notified authorities, that they were arrested.

The penalty phase of the trial begins this week. The eight-man, four-woman jury will have to choose between life imprisonment without parole and execution by injection. The Menendez brothers will have more leeway in this phase to present evidence of abuse and other mitigating factors. Typically, the penalty phase lasts a week, but the defense may call as many as 60 witnesses. It could be Memorial Day before Lyle and Erik learn their fate.

They're apparently not too upbeat. On the night of his conviction, Erik called one of the alternate jurors from the first trial, who was sympathetic to him and who has visited him in jail. (She favored manslaughter.) "Erik was expecting a guilty verdict, but not this one," Betty Burke told NEWSWEEK. "He was stunned. That was the word he used." Now he'll have to ask for mercy, but not because he's an orphan.