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Menendez Killings: Greed or Self-Defense?

June 12, 1993 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Was it greed or self-defense against child abuse that motivated two brothers to kill their multimillionaire parents?

Jurors face the question in the case of Erik and Lyle Menendez, charged with murder in the slayings of their parents nearly four years ago at their Beverly Hills mansion.

Selection of separate juries for the brothers - Erik, 22, and Lyle, 25 - was scheduled to begin Monday. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the trial expected to last more than four months.

Prosecutors were expected to present evidence that the brothers spent their parents’ money lavishly after their deaths.

Defense lawyers were to argue that the two were victims of child abuse so hideous and long-lasting that it forced them to kill in self-defense.

Attorney Leslie Abramson, who represents Erik Menendez, has spoken during pretrial hearings of sexual and psychological abuse and made it clear that the brothers would argue they killed their parents because they feared their parents would kill them.

Under California law, a defendant must prove a reasonable fear of imminent danger to justify a killing as self-defense.

Jose Menendez, 45, and Kitty Menendez, 47, were watching TV when they were attacked from behind.

″The danger does not have to be real,″ said Ms. Abramson. ″You don’t have to prove you would have been killed. ... You have to show a reasonable fear.″

Last April, the Washington Supreme Court accepted the ″battered child syndrome″ as admissible evidence in a parent-killing case. A few states have enacted battered children laws, but California is not among them.

Prosecutors will give jurors a grim description of the murder scene in which Jose Menendez, shot at point blank range, had his head blown apart with a shotgun. His wife was shot repeatedly as she tried to run.

Deputy District Attorneys Pamela Bozanich and Lester Kuriyama wouldn’t comment on the self-defense claims.

″We’re alleging first-degree murder,″ said district attorney’s spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.

Prosecutors have suggested the brothers feared being written out of their father’s will, but a grand jury that indicted the brothers did not charge them with murder for financial gain.

The prosecution likely will present as evidence a screenplay Erik Menendez wrote after the slayings about a rich kid killing his parents for money.

Attorney Jill Lansing, representing Lyle Menendez, and Ms. Abramson were expected to paint an unflattering picture of their parents.

Jose Menendez was a Cuban emigre who worked his way through college washing dishes and married a campus beauty queen before becoming chief executive of video and music distributor Live Entertainment Inc.

His charm and hard driving work habits were legendary and he demanded from his family the same dedication to success.

The sons were said to have idolized him, which made their defense all the more difficult, Ms. Lansing said.

Ms. Lansing and Ms. Abramson said the trial, with its inside look at lives of the rich and famous, will serve a higher purpose than mere voyeurism.

Said Ms. Abramson: ″We hope it will be an education in child abuse and in parenting.″

The brothers were arrested nearly a year after the Aug. 20, 1989, slayings and they have been in jail ever since.

Police at first suspected a possible mob killing, but arrested the sons after learning of potentially incriminating audiotapes made by their psychotherapist.

The admissibility of the tapes and of the testimony of the therapist, Jerome Oziel, was challenged by the defense. The California Supreme Court ruled that portions of the material obtained from Oziel could be used by prosecutors.