Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Erik and Lyle Menendez murdered their parents with the blasts of two shotguns. The media went into a frenzy, first believing the murders were part of a mob hit, but after the brothers used battered child syndrome as their defense, the media could not be stopped in its incessant coverage. The transformation of a murder trial into media spectacle and entertainment raised questions about the impact of increasing media coverage on the justice system in the United States. The brothers were finally convicted in a second trial, but this time without cameras inside the courtroom.

Summary of Event

On the evening of August 20, 1989, Kitty and Jose Menendez were relaxing in their Beverly Hills home. Kitty was reviewing her son Erik’s application to the University of California, Los Angeles, and Jose was having a snack while watching television. Later in the evening, Erik, age eighteen, and his brother Lyle, age twenty-one, each carrying a shotgun, entered the room where both parents were sitting and shot them to death. Before they called police to report the murders, the brothers concocted an elaborate cover-up. They told police that they had been out for the evening and found their parents’ bodies when they got home. [kw]Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents (Mar., 1990) [kw]Murdering Their Parents, Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for (Mar., 1990) Menendez, Erik Menendez, Lyle Menendez, Jose Menendez, Kitty Distillers Company Menendez, Erik Menendez, Lyle Menendez, Jose Menendez, Kitty Distillers Company [g]United States;Mar., 1990: Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents[02470] [c]Communications and media;Mar., 1990: Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents[02470] [c]Publishing and journalism;Mar., 1990: Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents[02470] [c]Law and the courts;Mar., 1990: Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents[02470] [c]Murder and suicide;Mar., 1990: Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents[02470] [c]Public morals;Mar., 1990: Menendez Brothers Are Arrested for Murdering Their Parents[02470]

Officials might never have discovered the truth if Lyle Menendez had not confessed the killings to his therapist, Jerome Oziel, in October, 1989. Oziel said that the brothers threatened to kill him and his family if he ever told of the confession. Out of fear, he taped their sessions. California law permits therapists to report to officials confidential material obtained from patients if that patient threatens violence against him- or herself or another person. Oziel felt justified in reporting the confession and providing the tapes to law enforcement. In March of 1990, the brothers were arrested and charged with the murders of their parents. Lyle was arrested close to his home on March 8 and Erik, arriving from a trip to Israel, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on March 11. They were indicted on December 8, 1992.

Lyle Menendez, left, and brother Erik Menendez in a Santa Monica, California, court on August 6, 1990.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

A Cuban refugee, Jose Menendez arrived in the United States at the age of sixteen and stayed with friends of his family until he married Kitty at the age of nineteen. After earning a degree in accounting from Queens College in Flushing, New York, he worked as an accountant in Manhattan and as a controller for a shipping company in Chicago before taking a position with Live Entertainment in California. He was a driven person, a hard worker who expected excellence from himself and his family. The police, believing his murder could have been a mob hit, did not immediately consider the brothers as suspects, even though the two had gone on a spending spree after the death of their parents and did not exhibit normal signs of mourning.

Several circumstances, however, soon pointed to the brothers as suspects: Lyle and Erik were the sole beneficiaries of the family’s fourteen-million-dollar estate and had been using the money after the deaths of their mother and father to buy expensive items. Also, Erik had written a screenplay with a plot that was similar to the murders, and a shotgun shell was found in a pocket of a jacket owned by Lyle. The brothers remained in jail for almost three years before their trial began, while the courts debated, among other things, the admissibility of the testimony of the brothers’ therapist and the therapist’s taped sessions. The media covered every possible angle of the case to keep the trial in the public view, interviewing anyone even remotely involved with the Menendez family.

The trial itself was unusual. To save money for the state, the brothers were tried together but each had his own jury. Each time testimony or evidence was presented regarding one brother only, the jury of the brother not under discussion had to leave the courtroom. At trial, the Menendez brothers did not deny murdering their parents, but they alleged they shot them because they feared for their lives. The basis for their defense was battered child syndrome. Erik and Lyle told horror stories of emotional and sexual abuse that included forced oral sex, sodomy with a toothbrush, and even rape Rape;of Menendez brothers[Menendez brothers] by both parents. Their parents were overly demanding, impossible to please, and forceful, even to the point that Lyle was ordered to wear a wig to hide his appearing baldness. The brothers said that they thought their parents had planned to kill them on the day before the murders, when the family had gone shark fishing.

Impact

The Menendez brothers’ murder trials were two in a long line of high-profile cases that saw an increase in sensational media coverage, especially coverage using video cameras. What became scandalous in this case were not the murders but the behavior of the media and those working to transform the trials into entertainment.

The press obsessively followed the case from beginning to end, making it one of the most media-saturated trials in American history. Court TV, a new cable network series, covered the trial live. Attorneys and witnesses made dramatic statements outside the courtroom, knowing they would appear on national television. News reports and tabloid stories ranged from slightly factual to outright fantastical. Because of the widespread coverage, the court had to screen more than eleven hundred prospective jurors before the case opened. Most of the prospective jurors had heard at least something about the murders, and some even admitted they had formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the brothers.

The scandalous behavior of the media included physical disagreements over the twelve seats in the courtroom allotted for the press. Fights broke out over who would be sitting in those seats. Outside the courtroom the media gathered in a circus-like atmosphere, focusing on everyone even remotely associated with the proceedings. Even vendors pitched their products outside the court building. Agents made book deals and spoke about possible films. As the trial progressed, media pundits discussed the case in the hope of making their own book deals.

The chaos continued through the trial, which ended with hung juries and a declared mistrial. The brothers were tried again beginning in October, 1995, but this time, with one jury and in a courtroom without cameras; they were found guilty of first-degree murder on March 20, 1996. Each was sentenced to two consecutive life terms without parole. Partly because of the Menendez case, the courts began to increasingly enforce a ban on cameras and limit the number of reporters authorized to cover cases from the courtroom. Menendez, Erik Menendez, Lyle Menendez, Jose Menendez, Kitty Distillers Company

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clehane, Diane, and Nancy Grace. Objection! How High-Priced Defense Attorneys, Celebrity Defendants, and a 24/7 Media Have Hijacked Our Criminal Justice System. New York: Hyperion Books, 2005. Examines the effect of media sensationalism and instant celebrity—of defendants, attorneys, and others—on the American justice system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Richard L., Robert W. van Sickel, and Thomas L. Steiger. Tabloid Justice: Criminal Justice in an Age of Media Frenzy. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2007. Compares public opinion with several high-profile trials. Contains tables outlining changes in media coverage over time. Includes results of an extensive survey on media practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Runyon, William. “Bad Press.” Los Angeles Magazine, November, 1993. The author discusses the offensive and scandalous behavior of the media covering the Menendez brothers trials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Gini Graham. “When Rich Kids Kill.” In Homicide by the Rich and Famous: A Century of Prominent Killers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. A look at acts of murder by the children of the rich and famous. Rich kids are an understudied demographic, especially in crime literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, Hazel. Hung Jury. The Diary of a Menendez Juror. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. A juror from the first trial discusses the case. Includes a time line. A unique look at the case from a person not affiliated with the media.

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