Murder One

updated 04/01/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

SOME WOULD SAY—AS A MATTER OF fact many did say—that Lyle and Erik Menendez had made a mockery of justice. Two years ago, in a trial that was, until O.J. came along, unsurpassed for lurid testimony and a sideshow atmosphere, two separate juries deadlocked on verdicts in the 1989 shotgun murder of the brothers' parents—Jose, an entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez—at the family's Beverly Hills mansion. Earlier this month, as they awaited the verdict in their retrial, which began last October, Lyle tried to sound optimistic. "I like the jury," he told PEOPLE. "I thought it was a jury we could win with." Still, common sense wouldn't let him hope for another miracle. Asked if he ever fantasized about being acquitted, he laughed and said, "No, not really."

In the end, that was wise. Last week, a single jury in Van Nuys, Calif., convicted both Lyle and Erik of first-degree murder with special circumstances. When the penalty phase of the trial concludes, possibly within several months, they will face sentences of either life in prison without the possibility of parole, or death by lethal injection.

If the verdict this time around was different, so too was the whole course of the trial. In contrast to the gonzo aspects of the first—which featured bizarre digressions into such topics as the sex life of the boys' psychologist—the second was considerably more staid. For starters, presiding Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg, who no doubt had his eye on the endless and raucous O.J. trial as well as Menendez I, banned all television cameras from the courtroom. (In line with these more businesslike proceedings, the brothers changed their trademark crewneck sweaters for the shirt-and-tie look.) And perhaps most significant: There was only one jury deliberating this time, an arrangement that promised to favor the prosecution by reducing the opportunities for reasonable doubt to take root.

The jurors also heard radically different testimony. Two years ago Lyle mesmerized viewers with his emotional tales of alleged sexual abuse by his father. That abuse had supposedly made him fear that Jose would kill him to keep the secret and thus had prompted him and Erik to kill their parents first. This time, Lyle never took the stand. His attorney, public defender Charles Gessler, insisted that he wasn't called because there was "no need." A more plausible explanation is that he feared prosecutor David Conn would be able to shred Lyle on cross examination, thanks to a new piece of evidence. It was a letter, discovered last April, that Lyle had written in July 1991, asking a friend, Amir "Brian" Eslaminia, to fabricate a story that Lyle and Erik had come to him asking for a gun shortly before the killing. Conn argued that the brothers did not actually fear their father but just wanted to get their hands on his $6 million estate. "They wanted freedom, they wanted money," says Conn. "The only way to get it was to kill their father. They had to kill their mother because otherwise she would have inherited."

Nor did the Menendezes benefit from the raft of witnesses who testified on their behalf at the first trial. Judge Weisberg excluded more than 40 defense witnesses—experts, teachers, coaches and friends—who had previously woven a tale of a success-driven yet dysfunctional family that hid its alleged sexual abuse behind walled mansions in Princeton, N.J., and Beverly Hills. Weisberg ruled that such testimony was not germane and directed the defense to focus on the brothers' state of mind in the week before the killing.

The defense's biggest obstacle arose, though, on Feb. 16, when Judge Weisberg ruled that the jury would not even be allowed to consider the "imperfect self-defense" argument that formed the core of the brothers' legal strategy. (Imperfect self-defense, which is usually applied in domestic abuse killings, allows defendants to contend that they killed out of fear that their lives were in danger, a fear that might seem groundless to an ordinary person, but which seemed real to the defendants because of prolonged abuse.) Judge Weisberg, citing a 1994 California Supreme Court ruling that came after the first trial, maintained that the defense had not established any "provocation" on the part of Kitty Menendez—a necessary ingredient for employing the imperfect self-defense. Afterward, Erik's attorney, Leslie Abramson, denounced the judge with the bitter comment, "I'm surprised he doesn't just take out a gun and shoot them."

Despite those setbacks, nothing could shake the support shown by some of the brothers' relatives. From the outset, both Maria Menendez, 78, Jose's mother, and Joan Vander Molen, 63, Kitty's sister, decried the prosecution of Lyle and Erik, who spent their off-hours during the second trial the same way they have spent the past six years behind bars—killing time. As a rule, Erik spends much of the day reading, especially science fiction, and playing board games. Lyle likes to exercise—situps and pushups—and gab on the jail phone with friends. "I try to emotionally prepare myself for the bad roads," he says.

Now, there are sure to be plenty of those ahead. Should they evade the death penalty, "our No. 1 goal," said Lyle before the verdict was read, "is for Erik and I to stay together. Generally, they put brothers together." Wherever they end up, no one should expect any genuine expressions of remorse. Pam Bozanich, who prosecuted the brothers the first time around, argues that Lyle and Erik were not the innocent victims of sexual abuse, but ultimately the logical products of a chillingly amoral family. "To have two kids capable of murder, you've got to figure that there's something really bad going on in the family," she says. "I think they were raised that the ends justified the means—and they just learned the lesson a little too well."

BILL HEWITT
LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER and ROBERT RAND in Los Angeles

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