JosÃ© and Mary "Kitty" Menendez were murdered in their Beverly Hills home on August 20, 1989. Lyle and Erik Menendez, their sons, were found guilty of their murders and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after nearly seven years, three trials, and thousands of hours of television coverage. In the interim, the Menendez murders became one of the most well-known criminal cases of the late twentieth century, thanks to a potent combination of family drama, Hollywood connections, dramatic testimony, and the ability of cable TV to blanket the airwaves with coverage.
JosÃ© was a Cuban immigrant who rose through the ranks.
By 1980s standards, the Menendez family appeared to be the epitome of the American dream. JosÃ© was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States following the 1950s Cuban Revolution, living in the attic of a cousin's house until he earned a college swimming scholarship. He wooed and married Kitty, a beauty pageant queen, and rose from dishwasher to successful young entertainment executive.
JosÃ© was the head of RCA Records in the early 1980s and was involved in the signing of bands such as Duran Duran and The Eurythmics. The house where JosÃ© and Kitty were murdered was on one of Beverly Hills' most exclusive blocks and had previously been occupied by Michael Jackson and Elton John. The Menendezes had relocated to Los Angeles just a few years before the murders so that JosÃ© could pursue a career in the film industry.
Their sons, Lyle and Erik, who were 21 and 18 at the time of the killings, appeared to be the prototypical Reagan-era American. Lyle was a star tennis player who went to Princeton and seemed destined for a business career like his father, whom he openly idolized; Erik turned out to be even better at tennis, aided by his father's obsessive intervention, and wound up as a nationally ranked player in his age bracket. In some ways, they had no choice but to succeed; JosÃ© was known as a hard-working father who pushed his children to their limits in athletics and everything else.
In 1990, their former swim team coach told the Los Angeles Times, "It seemed like JosÃ© was so competitive, he was doing everything he could to try to make him better." "But because he was so domineering, it had the opposite effect." Erik lacked self-confidence because nothing he did was ever good enough."
Erik began to run with some teenage delinquents after they moved to California, getting himself in trouble for a string of burglaries. Lyle enrolled at Princeton University but was suspended for a year for plagiarism, foreshadowing a difficult future.
The crime itself was shocking, but the aftermath was even more so.
The Menendez murders were a heinous, barbaric crime in which JosÃ© and Kitty were rendered nearly unidentifiable by 15 rounds fired from two 12-gauge shotguns. The killings were so brutal that police suspected a mob hit, and early investigations focused on business rivals and a porn executive who had a beef with JosÃ©.
The brothers told police the night of the murders that they had gone out to see a movie but had to stop to retrieve Erik's ID. According to their interviews, that's when they discovered their parents' decimated bodies and dialed 911. Before entering the crime scene, the officers who responded to the 911 call found Erik sobbing on the lawn.
In the months following the murders, neither Menendez brother acted like young men who had just discovered both of their parents dead in a brutal, bloody murder scene. Instead, they pretended to be two lucky lottery winners. JosÃ© was worth $14 million at the time of his death, and the brothers spent an estimated $700,000 of his fortune within six months.
Lyle bought a Rolex, a Porsche, a lot of clothes, and a restaurant in Princeton, where he had been living before the murders, whereas Erik went for a Jeep Wrangler, a $50,000 personal tennis coach, and a $40,000 investment in a rock concert that never happened. They, too, went on exotic vacations, believing they would receive even more money. There was also a $5 million life insurance policy on their father, but they were unable to collect due to technicalities.
The brothers confessed to a therapist, whose own troubled personal life was woven into the narrative.
Erik was ordered by the court to see a therapist named Dr. Jerome Oziel in 1988 after being caught in a series of burglaries. Soon after the murders, Erik's therapist reached out to him and began meeting with the younger Menendez brother, and Erik confessed to killing his parents. Oziel confided in his mistress, Judalon Smyth, who would eventually play an important role in the case.
The therapy sessions continued, and Oziel eventually got both Erik and Lyle to confess to the murders on tape. Erik stated that they did it to "put their mother out of her misery," while Lyle stated that they were both complicit in the crime.
Smyth and Oziel had a rocky relationship â€” she accused him of being controlling and abusive â€” and after he allegedly assaulted her, Smyth contacted Beverly Police to reveal that the Menendez brothers confessed to their parents' murder. She even had a recording of the confessions.
Soon after, Lyle was arrested. Erik, who was in Israel at the time, flew to Miami and then to Los Angeles, where he surrendered to police.
It took two years to figure out whether the tapes with the confessions were protected by doctor-patient privilege or admissible as evidence in court, with lawsuits and appeals flying back and forth between the prosecution and Menendez's lawyers. Finally, the California Supreme Court ruled that two of the three tapes could be used in the trial, including one containing Lyle's admission of guilt.
The trials were a national sensation, complete with heinous details.
The trial began in 1993 and was broadcast on Court TV, a relatively new cable network dedicated to transforming the legal system into a hybrid of entertainment and sporting event. The network aired not only the trial, but also hours of coverage before and after each day's proceedings, fueling a national obsession with a case that had all the elements of a great primetime soap opera: a wealthy family torn apart by scandal, two handsome and mysterious young men, a grisly crime, and plenty of psychodrama.
"[The Menendez trial] probably had the effect, for better or worse, of demonstrating that, even if you don't have a celebrity, if the circumstances are dramatic enough, people will be captivated," Court TV founder Steve Brill told Rolling Stone in 2017. "We've had many trials like that since, but that was the one that really proved that people would be interested in watching big trials."
Lyle and Erik, unable to claim innocence, claimed that their father's reign of terror extended far beyond emotional abuse and the pressure of high expectations. JosÃ©, they claimed, had molested them since childhood, a claim that shocked the nation and divided friends and family members.
Leslie Abramson, their lawyer who rose to prominence during the trial, argued that the two were acting in self-defense after growing up in such a violent and traumatizing home. Lyle provided graphic evidence. Years later, a cousin told ABC News that she believed his story because he had told her similar stories as a child. The defense also portrayed Kitty as a husk of a woman, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a broken wife, and an ineffective mother who had been devastated by JosÃ©'s numerous affairs.
The first trial lasted four and a half months and resulted in two hung juries â€” one for each brother â€” who couldn't decide whether they were guilty of murder or acting in self-defense. It was immediately announced that they would be retried.
The second trial, which took place in 1995, was far less sensational because the judge refused to allow TV cameras into the courtroom. People who were still interested in the fate of the Menendez Brothers had to wait for written news accounts of the events. Oddly, this time, Judalon Smyth testified for the defense, claiming Dr. Oziel had duped the brothers into confessing. Both Lyle and Erik were convicted of first-degree murder in 1996, despite their best efforts. They were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. They were separated and imprisoned in separate facilities until 2018, when they were reunited and allowed to serve their sentences at the same facility.
Each brother has married outside women while incarcerated. Erik married his pen pal, Tammi Saccoman, in 1999, while Lyle has married two women: Anna Eriksson, a former model who divorced him after a year when she discovered he was writing to other women, and Rebecca Sneed, a journalist, whom he married in 2003.
Even now, more than 30 years after the murders, the brothers' crime continues to fascinate and perplex. There have been numerous TV movies, miniseries, and documentaries about the murders, and it has also been spoof over the years. The case marked the end of a decade of me-first capitalism and heralded a new era of true crime mania, which is stronger than ever.