By Paul Lambis
Thirty-two years ago, two brothers shot and killed their parents in their own home and then staged it to look like a mafia killing. Seven years after that fateful night, including three trials and many thousands of hours of television coverage later, Lyle and Erik Menendez were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, as of this year, the convicted brothers have a new generation of defenders on social media, campaigning for their freedom.
At times, the human mind defies any kind of belief or rationalisation. When murder is committed, it is already shocking; the taking of any life is not only a crime, it also goes against any kind of moral and ethical code. So what happens when a family member kills another family member? What impulse or thought process could lead someone to cold-bloodedly take someone else’s life who they are supposed to love?
That is exactly what happened in 1989, when the two brothers methodically, and with quite a single-minded focus, shot and killed their parents in their own home. After shooting their parents, Lyle and Erik Menendez went on to live a life of luxury, partying, gambling and indulging in pricey shopping sprees until their arrest one year later.
The first trial resulted in two hung juries – one for each brother – unable to agree on whether they were guilty of murder or acting in their own self-defence. The endless hours of television coverage helped fuel a national obsession since the case had all the elements of a primetime soap opera. The second trial, however, was far less sensational. The judge barred television cameras from the courthouse, and those interested in the fate of the Menendez brothers had to rely on written news accounts of the events.
As the story unfolded, the brothers’ lawyer painted an unfavourable image of a dysfunctional family – unlike the public’s perception of a perfect model of the American dream. Their father, José, was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States after the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s. From living in the attic of his cousin’s home, José Menendez rose through the ranks ending up as head of a renowned record label, signing up bands such as Duran Duran and The Eurythmics. Kitty, their mother, was a beauty pageant queen who went from washing dishes to becoming a successful young entertainment executive. At the time of the murders, the family was living in a house on one of the most exclusive blocks in Beverly Hills, which at different times served as a former residence for Michael Jackson and Elton John.
A few weeks before her murder, Kitty described her sons as narcissistic sociopaths and felt the need to keep a weapon in her bedside table out of her fear of them. According to the brothers, Kitty was an alcoholic, addicted to drugs – a useless mother and a broken wife who was devastated by her husband’s many affairs. José, on the other hand, was a hard-driving father who would work his children to the bone in athletics and everything else.
What emerged at the trial is that both sons were a huge disappointment to their parents, especially their father. Neither, it seemed, inherited either parent’s academic ability, and both were spectacular liars, with Lyle even expelled at one point for plagiarism after paying someone to write his assignments for him. The brothers were also arrested for stealing after breaking into the houses of their affluent neighbours. Lyle and Erik also claimed that both parents had abused them mentally and physically for many years and that Erik especially, was the victim of his father’s sexual abuse. According to their testimony, the brothers confronted their parents, with the result that their father had threatened to kill them if the sordid details of their abuse were ever exposed. It was then that the brothers realised that if they did not kill their father first, he would take their own lives to prevent such a scandal. Their reasoning for their mother’s death is that they decided Kitty would not be able to handle life without their father, despite her knowledge of his infidelity.
Having spent more than half their lives in different prisons, the brothers were reunited in 2018 after prison officials allowed them to spend an hour together in a room. The last time the brothers laid eyes on each other was back in 1996 after their conviction.
Decades later, the brothers have garnered the support of true crime crusaders on social media who believe Lyle and Erik Menendez were wrongfully sentenced, and acted in self-defence. Others argue that the brothers should remain behind bars; however, the case should have been a resolution of manslaughter and not murder. Either way you look at it, the Menendez brothers went from being an old tale of true crime to a viral media sensation. Admittedly, the brothers’ crime continues to fascinate and perplex. The question remains, are Lyle and Erik narcissistic sociopaths, or victims of mental and physical abuse.