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Did the Menendez Brothers kill their parents in self-defence or cold blood?

Lyle Menendez (Left) and Erik Menendez (Right) leave the courtroom
Image: Lyle Menendez (Left) and Erik Menendez (Right) leave the courtroom in Santa Monica, California | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The Menendez family were a well-known presence in Beverly Hills, California, with Jose serving as a corporate executive at International Video Entertainment, later known as Life Entertainment. He and his wife, Mary Louise, also known as Kitty, had two sons, Joseph Lyle, who went by his middle name, and Erik Galen. Benefiting from the fruits of Jose’s demanding yet lucrative career, the family enjoyed a life of luxury in their lavish $4 million Mediterranean-style residence nestled on Elm Drive.

Those who knew the Menendez family said that they had a strong familial bond. They said that Erik shared an exceptionally close relationship with his mother, whereas Lyle held his father in high regard. Lyle often bored friends with tales of his father's relentless work ethic and dedication, recounting how he had risen from being a Cuban immigrant to attaining a prestigious executive position in a multi-million-dollar corporation. Within the family dynamic, Jose was perceived as the authoritative figure, while Kitty was regarded as a supportive presence.

On the evening of 20th August 1989, the Los Angeles police received a distressing 911 call from Lyle Menendez, whose voice quivered with emotion as he uttered the words, ‘They shot and killed by parents.’ The 911 operator swiftly dispatched officers to the Menendez family's residence. Detective Les Zoeller was among the first to arrive and was guided into the home by Erik and Lyle. He recollected, ‘It was eerily quiet when I went into the den/library, the first thing I noticed was Jose Menendez seated on the couch.’

Jose was discovered seated on the left side of the couch, his head tilted and his white t-shirt and black shorts visibly stained with blood. The right-hand side of his face had been blown off by a shotgun blast. Adjacent to her husband, Kitty lay on the floor in a foetal position, her white trousers saturated with blood. Like Jose, she had taken a shotgun blast to the face and several to the knee. Prosecutor Pamela Bozanich said of the scene, ‘There was a contact wound on Kitty Menendez’s face, it blew out her eye.’

As crime scene investigators arrived at the family’s home, detectives initiated questioning with 21-year-old Lyle and 18-year-old Erik. The brothers asserted that they had spent the evening watching Batman at a nearby movie theatre and subsequently attended a food festival at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Their initial plans included meeting a friend, but Erik needed his identification card, which prompted the visit back to their home. According to their account, they were shocked to stumble upon the gruesome scene.

Evidence from the crime scene indicated that Jose and Kitty had been caught off guard while watching television together. It seemed that Jose had been the first to be shot and although Kitty attempted to flee, her efforts were futile. Detectives also noted that the assailant, or assailants, did not seem to be in a hurry. After the killings, they had taken the time to collect the shell casings before departing the scene.

The investigation into the double murder commenced promptly, initially being categorized as a ‘gangland-style killing’. Detectives considered this hypothesis alongside another possible motive, one centred on Jose's professional endeavours. Described as a domineering and assertive executive who was not averse to firing people, cutting corners and prioritising personal gains over others' well-being, Jose's aggressive managerial style raised suspicions. Robbin Ahrold, who worked with José for some time at RCA Records in New York, commentated, ‘If you took a poll, a lot of people whose oxes were gored by Jose would have to tell you they didn’t like him.’

As the investigation unfolded, Erik and Lyle appeared to swiftly move past the tragic event. In the event of their parents' simultaneous deaths, they became the sole beneficiaries of their $14 million estate. Over the following months, Lyle engaged in extravagant spending, splurging thousands of dollars on clothing and indulging in the luxury of a rented limousine and bodyguard. He proceeded to acquire a special edition Porsche Carrera and lavishly frequented high-end restaurants and stores.

Not content with these indulgences, he even made the significant purchase of Chuck's Spring Street Café, a restaurant located in Princeton, New Jersey. Erik, on the other hand, turned into a professional tennis player after hiring an expensive coach. Subsequently, the brothers relocated from their family home in Beverly Hills to adjoining condos in Marina del Rey. They embarked on numerous international trips, including destinations such as the Caribbean and London. Within the span of merely seven months, the duo managed to squander a staggering $700,000.

Detectives became increasingly attentive to Erik and Lyle's conspicuous spending habits. As their suspicions deepened, they received information suggesting that Lyle had abruptly returned home and tampered with something on the family computer. It was later revealed to be a newly drafted will that Jose had prepared before his death, intending to allocate the family estate among various members not just Erik and Lyle.

The turning point for detectives occurred when they received crucial information from Judalon Smyth, the former mistress of psychologist, Dr. Jerome Oziel. Dr. Oziel had been in contact with Erik and Lyle following their parents' murder. Smyth disclosed that the brothers had confessed to killing their parents to the psychologist. Subsequently, Dr. Oziel provided the detectives with recorded tapes of his sessions with the brothers, revealing that they perceived their actions as executing the ‘perfect crime’.

This new evidence led to the arrests of Erik and Lyle in March 1990. According to detectives, the brothers were motivated to commit the murders out of greed. District Attorney Ira Reiner announced, ‘We are alleging as a motive financial gain. I don’t know what your experience is, but it’s been out experience in the District Attorney’s Office that $14 million provides ample motive for somebody to kill somebody.’

Erik and Lyle entered pleas of not guilty to the charges and the murder trial officially commenced on 20th July 1993. The defence team claimed that the brothers had reached a breaking point after enduring years of mistreatment and abuse, particularly at the hands of their father, including alleged instances of sexual abuse. Defence attorney Leslie Abramson said that they killed in ‘pure terror, pure panic’.

She stated to the jury, ‘The parents were going to kill them because they were going to go public with the molestation. It was what the parents had feared most: scandal. They had spent their lives seeking social status.’ She went on to say that Erik and Lyle had been whipped with belts and were subjected to screaming tirades from their mother since when they were just toddlers. According to Abramson, Kitty knew that Erik and Lyle were being sexually abused by their father, but she allowed it. She stated: ‘He set the program and she was the enforcer.’

In contrast, prosecutors maintained that Erik and Lyle were driven by hatred and greed. According to Deputy District Attorney Pamela Bozanich, ‘Lyle Menendez said the brothers made such a good plan to kill their father they had to kill their mother, too. Their plan was too perfect to alter.’ Bozanich further alleged that the brothers had acquired the shotguns using a friend's identification, committed the murders and then invested two hours crafting an alibi. Subsequently, they returned home and contacted 911, fabricating a story that they had just stumbled upon the crime scene.

She questioned the self-defence argument that Erik and Lyle now put forward and claimed that when they confessed to Dr. Oziel, they said they committed the murders out of hatred of their father and a desire to be rid of his dominance. The prosecutor stated, ‘They did not tell him they killed in self-defence or because of abuse.’

The prosecution rested their case on 16th August, after calling a handful of witnesses, including Dr. Oziel. The following day, the defence began presenting their case. They called on Andy Cano, the brothers’ cousin, who testified that Erik had confided in him when he was around 12 years old that his father was sexually abusing him. Cano testified, ‘He asked if my dad ever gave me massages.’ According to Cano, Erik then told him that his father ‘was massaging his penis’.

Another cousin, Diane Vander, testified next and told the jury that when Lyle was eight years old, he told her that his father touched him ‘down there’. She testified that she told Kitty about what Lyle had said, but Kitty didn’t believe her. The jury then got to see a photograph that Jose had taken of Lyle and Erik’s genitalia when they were children, insinuating that he was a paedophile.

Erik also testified on his own behalf and maintained that his father had threatened to kill the brothers if they ever disclosed the abuse to anybody. He recalled how after an argument on 20th August 1989, he went upstairs to his brother. ‘I ran upstairs to my tell my brother it was happening now. This was it. They were going to kill us.’ He said that he and Lyle went outside to load their shotguns, before returning to the library where their mother and father were watching television. He recollected, ‘We just burst through the doors and I just started firing.’

Following the conclusion of the murder trial, two separate juries failed to reach a unanimous decision, leading to the decision for the brothers to face trial once more. Eventually, both Erik and Lyle Menendez were found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Subsequently, they received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Despite their efforts to appeal the convictions over the subsequent years, all appeals were ultimately denied.

In May 2023, however, they filed a motion seeking a new hearing based on new evidence that had come to light. They alleged that their father had molested Ray Rossello, a Puerto Rican pop and gospel singer. In an episode of the Today Show, Rossello claimed that he had been drugged and raped by Jose when he visited their home when he was 14 years old.