A jury in the retrial of Erik and Lyle Menendez today found the brothers guilty of first-degree murder, rejecting their claim that years of sexual and emotional abuse led them to shoot their parents in 1989 after a confrontation in their Beverly Hills mansion.
The Menendez brothers could face the death penalty for their crimes because the Van Nuys Superior Court jury found them guilty of special circumstances of lying in wait and multiple murder.
Hearings in the penalty phase will begin Monday. The two face a minimum punishment of life in prison without parole.
Erik, 25, and Lyle, 28, sat stone-faced as a clerk read the verdicts to a courtroom packed with the defendants' family and friends, journalists and spectators. After the jurors announced their verdict, Erik Menendez looked at his grandmother, seated in the spectator section, and mouthed the words, "I'll be all right," and then, "I love you."
He then sighed heavily as he was led away. His brother made no eye contact with anyone.
Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg immediately issued an order barring discussion of the case by lawyers, jurors, witnesses and family members until the sentencing is decided.
The verdict was a stunning turnaround from the first trial, which ended in mistrial when two separate juries deadlocked over whether the two brothers had murdered their parents, Jose Menendez, a Cuban-born film studio executive, and his wife, Kitty, on Aug. 20, 1989. The parents were found dead, in the family room, of multiple shotgun wounds.
Erik and Lyle Menendez initially told police their parents must have been murdered by the Mafia but had tearfully testified at their first trial that years of abuse made them fear for their lives and for that reason they purchased a shotgun and pumped 12 bullets into their parents.
The sensational case of parricide in a wealthy Hollywood family riveted millions of Americans who watched the first trial on live television, and sparked a national debate over the defense tactic of painting the defendants as victims, what became known at the trial as "the abuse excuse."
At this trial, Weisberg rejected the defense's argument of "imperfect self-defense," a theory that argues the defendants had a real but unreasonable belief that they were in imminent danger. Weisberg said that was not the case in the death of Kitty Menendez, because there was no evidence that she had abused her children or done anything to provoke their murderous rage. That left the jury to choose only between murder and acquittal in her death. Jurors were allowed the option of finding first- or second-degree murder, manslaughter or acquittal in Jose Menendez's death.
Weisberg also severely restricted the number of experts the defense was able to call as character witnesses, saying they were irrelevant to the brothers' state of mind at the time of the killings. He also barred television cameras from the courtroom, an apparent reaction to the O.J. Simpson murder trail that ended last October as this trial was beginning.
Defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who represented Erik Menendez, criticized the judge for limiting her to what she complained was a "Reader's Digest" version of the defense she wanted to present. She said his decision to eliminate manslaughter as a possible verdict for Kitty Menendez "cut the heart" out of her argument. Instead, in closing statements, Abramson argued that Erik suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and could not have premeditated the crime. Lyle's attorneys, Terri Towery and Charles Gessler, made similar arguments.
During the six-month trial, Deputy District Attorney David Conn charged that Erik and Lyle Menendez baldly concocted the stories of abuse to get themselves off the hook, accusing them of committing the murders in order to inherit their parents' $14 million fortune.
Several prosecution witnesses testified that the brothers went on a $300,000 spending spree with the payout from their parents' life insurance, buying a restaurant, Rolex watches and sports cars.
In 15 days on the witness stand, Erik Menendez testified that his father molested him from the age of 6 until 19, when he killed his parents. Erik Menendez also testified that Lyle said he too was molested by their father between the ages of 6 and 8. Lyle Menendez, whose dramatic tales of parental abuse mesmerized national television audiences two years ago, did not testify at the retrial. It had come out before this trial that Lyle Menendez, in jail, had asked friends to lie on the stand for him. Special correspondent Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report. CAPTION: Erik Menendez, left, with lawyer Leslie Abramson, reacts to guilty verdict in retrial on California murder charges. CAPTION: Lyle Menendez bites his lip as he listens to verdict.