The shooting that resulted in José and Mary “Kitty” Menendez’s deaths occurred in their home in Beverly Hills on August 20, 1989. After a process that lasted over seven years, three trials, and many thousands of hours of television coverage, their sons, Lyle and Erik Menendez, were found guilty of their parents’ murders and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for their crimes. A strong blend of family drama, Hollywood connections, dramatic testimony, and cable TV’s capacity to blanket the airwaves with coverage helped propel the Menendez murders to the status of one of the most renowned criminal cases of the late 20th century.
José was a Cuban immigrant who worked his way to the top
At least as measured against the criteria of the 1980s, the Menendez family appeared to represent the epitome of the American ideal. José was born in Cuba, and following the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, he immigrated to the United States, where he lived in the attic of a cousin’s home until he got a college scholarship for swimming. After he won the heart of Kitty, a beauty pageant queen, and married her, he worked his way up from washing dishes to becoming a successful young executive in the entertainment industry.
During the early 1980s, José served as the head of RCA Records. During his time there, he was instrumental in the band signings that included Duran Duran and The Eurythmics. The mansion in which José and Kitty were murdered was situated on one of the most prestigious streets in Beverly Hills. They had previously served as a residence for Michael Jackson and Elton John at various points in their careers. Just a few short years before the killings, José Menendez and his family had relocated to Los Angeles for him to pursue a career in the film industry.
Their sons Lyle and Erik, 21 and 18 years old, respectively, at the time of the killings, appeared to be the Platonic ideal of what the United States of America appeared to be during the Reagan period. Erik turned out to be even better at tennis, helped by his father’s obsessive intervention and ended up a nationally ranked player in his age bracket. Lyle was a star tennis player who attended Princeton and seemed destined for a career in business like the father he openly worshipped; Lyle’s father was a successful businessman. Lyle openly worshipped his father. Because José was renowned as a doggedly ambitious father who would push his children to their limits in all aspects of life, including athletics and other activities, they had no choice but to be successful.
According to a quote from their former swim team coach that was published in the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “It appeared like José was so competitive, he was doing everything he could to try to make him better.” However, since he was so domineering, it had the opposite effect. Because nothing Erik accomplished was ever up to par, his level of self-confidence was far lower than it had been.
After moving to California, Erik began associating with a group of juvenile offenders, which led to his getting into problems with a series of burglaries that he committed. Lyle attended Princeton University but was expelled after just one year for committing plagiarism, which was a portent of the challenging years to come.
The crime was shocking but the aftermath was even more shocking
The Menendez killings were a heinous and savage crime; José and Kitty were not so much slain as they were rendered practically unidentifiable by 15 shots from two 12-gauge shotguns. The Menendez murders were a particularly horrible crime. Because it was so horrific, the police initially believed that the killings were a mob hit. They concentrated their investigations on José’s business competitors and a porn executive who had a grudge against him.
The brothers told the police that on the night of the killings, they had gone out to attend a movie, but on the way there, they had to make a detour to fetch Erik’s identification. According to what they revealed in their interviews, that was the moment when they came across the mutilated bodies of their parents and called 911. Before entering the house where the crime had been committed, the police officers who responded to the 911 call found Erik sobbing on the grass.
In the months following the slayings, neither of the Menendez brothers exhibited the behavior of young men who had recently discovered that their parents had died in a terrible and gruesome murder scene. Instead, they carried themselves consistently with two men who had recently become millionaires. At the time of José’s passing, he had a net worth of $14 million, and it is estimated that his brothers had squandered almost $700,000 of his fortune in the preceding six months.
Lyle spent his money on a Rolex, a Porsche, a lot of clothing, and a restaurant in Princeton, where he had lived before the murders. On the other hand, Erik was more practical and opted for a Jeep Wrangler, a personal tennis coach that cost $50,000, and an investment in a rock concert that never took place that cost $40,000. They believed they had even more money coming to them, so they went on luxurious vacations worldwide. In addition, there was a life insurance policy on their father for $5 million, but due to some technicalities, they could not collect.
The brothers confessed to a therapist, whose own troubled personal life became part of the story
In 1988, Erik was sentenced to attend therapy sessions with a man named Dr. Jerome Oziel due to his involvement in a series of burglaries. The court ordered him to do so. Soon after the murders, the therapist contacted Erik and began meeting with the younger Menendez brother. Before long, Erik admitted to the therapist that he was responsible for his parent’s deaths. Oziel confided in his lover Judalon Smyth, who would ultimately play a significant role in investigating the crime.
The therapy sessions continued, and eventually, Oziel successfully got Erik and Lyle to confess their roles in the murders on camera. Lyle made it abundantly evident that the two of them were complicit in the murder, even though Erik claimed they did it to “put their mother out of her agony.”
Smyth and Oziel’s relationship was tumultuous; she claimed that he was abusive and domineering, and after he allegedly beat her, Smyth contacted the Beverly Police Department to report that the Menendez brothers had confessed to killing their parents. She even had an audiotape in her possession that contained the confessions.
Soon after that, Lyle was taken into custody. At the time, Erik was in Israel. He went to Miami and Los Angeles, where he turned himself into the authorities.
It took two full years, during which time the prosecution and the Menendez family’s legal team filed numerous lawsuits and appeals against each other to determine whether or not the tapes containing the confessions were protected by the doctor-patient privilege or could be used as evidence in court. In the end, the Supreme Court of California ruled that two of the three cassettes could be presented as evidence in the trial. Among the tapes that could be used was the one that featured Lyle’s confession of guilt.
The trials were national sensations with very sordid details
Court TV was a new cable network dedicated to turning the judicial system into a hybrid of entertainment and sporting event when the trial first began in 1993. The trial was televised on this relatively new network. This case had all the elements of a great primetime soap opera: a wealthy family torn apart by scandal, two handsome and mysterious young men, a gruesome crime, and plenty of psychodramas. The network carried not only the trial but also endless hours of coverage before and after each day’s proceedings, which helped fuel a national obsession with the case.
“Even if you didn’t have a celebrity, if the circumstances were dramatic enough, people will be captivated,” Steve Brill, the founder of Court TV, told Rolling Stone in 2017. “[The Menendez trial] probably had the effect, maybe good, maybe bad, of demonstrating that, even if you didn’t have a celebrity, if the circumstances were dramatic enough, people will be captivated.” “We’ve had dozens of trials like that since then, but that was really the one that established that people would be interested in watching huge trials,” the judge said. “We’ve had hundreds of trials like that since then.”
Incapable of claiming their innocence, Lyle and Erik asserted that their father’s reign of terror extended far beyond the emotional torture they suffered and the pressure they felt to meet their father’s lofty expectations. They said that José had sexually abused them as children and as adults, and they provided explicit details to back up their allegations, which stunned the nation and caused rifts among friends and family members.
Their attorney, Leslie Abramson, who became a sensation during the trial, argued that the two acted in self-defense after growing up in such a violent and traumatic household. She argued that the two acted in self-defense after growing up in such a violent and traumatic environment. Lyle provided a very detailed testimony. Many years later, a relative of his told ABC News that she accepted his account because he had told her similar things when he was a child. She based her belief on the fact that he had told her similar things. In addition, the defense cast Kitty in a negative light, portraying her as an empty shell of a woman who was an alcoholic, a drug addict, a shattered wife, and an ineffective mother who was saddened by José’s repeated extramarital affairs.
During the first trial, which lasted for four and a half months, there were two separate jurors — one for each brother — who could not reach a verdict because they could not decide whether the defendants were guilty of murder or were acting in their own self-defense. The decision to retry them was made public immediately after it was made.
The second trial was held in 1995 and was significantly less dramatic than the first one because the judge did not permit television cameras into the courthouse. People still interested in learning what happened to the Menendez Brothers had no choice but to wait for printed news coverage of the occurrences. Oddly enough, Judalon Smyth testified this time for the defense, alleging that Dr. Oziel had coerced the brothers into confessing the crime. Both Lyle and Erik were found guilty of murder in the first degree in 1996, despite the efforts of everyone involved. They received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. They were separated and sent to different prisons until 2018 when they were brought back together and permitted to serve their terms in the same institution.
Each brother tied the knot with a woman from the outside while they were inside. Lyle has found two women willing to marry him: the first was Anna Eriksson, a former model who divorced him after a year when she found out he had been writing to other women, and the second was Rebecca Sneed, a journalist whom he married in 2003. Erik married his pen pal, Tammi Saccoman, in 1999. Lyle has found two women willing to marry him.
Even now, thirty years after the murders were committed for the first time, the crime committed by the brothers continues to captivate and baffle people. The murders have been the subject of some movies, miniseries, and documentaries that have been broadcast on television, and they have also been parodied throughout many years. The trial ended a decade of self-centered business practices and ushered in a new era of real crime hype, which is more potent than ever.
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