Bozelko column: Menendez brothers deserve a second chance
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Thirty years ago this week — March 12, 1990 — the People of the State of California arraigned Erik and Lyle Menendez on murder charges. They became subjects of collective contempt as Rolexes, Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Alfa Romeos decorated the news coverage of their prosecution for shotgunning their parents in their Beverly Hills den. It would be six years and multiple trials before each was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life without parole.
It was revealed during trial that their father, Jose Menendez, had severely sexually abused both of his sons, an open family secret that grieving family members confirmed in testimony.
It’s time to give the Menendez brothers another chance. The Menendez story is, at its root, not one of sociopathic entitlement; it’s one of domestic violence and molestation and laws don’t — and shouldn’t — throw victims away.
The case for releasing them is easy to make. Lyle was 21 at the time of the crime and Erik was 18. Since their convictions, neurologists have determined that the brain doesn’t develop fully until someone’s in their mid-20s. It wasn’t conventional psychology back when we were that age. Since then, courts as high as the U.S. Supreme Court have decided that young people — in a variety of different circumstances — shouldn’t be exposed to sentences so extreme that they eclipse the chance at redemption.
The cases apply to people younger than 18 — Erik would have just missed the cutoff — but many experts argue that sentencing anyone younger than 21 to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. California is now considering Senate Bill 889, which seeks to prevent any defendant younger than 21 from being tried as an adult. It joins other states attempting to do the same thing. Some bills want defendants younger than 25 to get a “second look” at their long sentences simply because of their age at the time of the crime. Under that code, neither Erik nor Lyle would be serving life sentences now.
That’s to say nothing about the mitigation in their cases. Post traumatic stress disorder as a formal diagnosis was only 10 years old when the brothers were arraigned; collective understanding of trauma has advanced remarkably in the last three decades and the role of childhood sexual abuse in crime is taken much more seriously.
Their first trials — each sibling had his own jury — were loaded with expert testimony about the effect of their abuse and ended in mistrials. But when Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg excluded any corroboration or expert testimony in their second trials about the molestation they endured, both brothers were convicted.
Neither one of those judgments has budged throughout years of appeals and post-conviction review. It’s hard to imagine that such a ruling would survive appellate scrutiny today, much less the social media flogging the judge and prosecutors would face for not heeding #BelieveVictims.
The Golden State’s understanding of abuse and how it drives people to unthinkable crime is close to the gold standard. In 2002, California became the first state in the nation to permit abused women convicted of killing their batterers to challenge their original conviction, provided they were sentenced before 1992.
Ten years later, the so-called Sin by Silence laws sought to build on that by allowing inmates who suffered abuse and whose judges excluded expert testimony at trial to file habeas corpus petitions to have another, modified sentence imposed. Because the Menendezes’ convictions for first degree murder with a special circumstance subject them to a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole, this relief — which seems tailored to situations like theirs — wasn’t available to them.
The only option now is clemency. The brothers should apply and Gov. Gavin Newsom should grant their petitions. Freeing the brothers wouldn’t be out of line with the governor’s other interventions. In September he commuted the sentences of 21 prisoners; 15 of them were younger than 26 at the time of their crimes and nine were convicted of murder.
The only thing that makes the Menendezes different from, say, Cyntoia Brown or Chrystul Kizer — two young women whose charges for killing their abusers caught national attention and sympathy that freed one and is working for the other — is their past wealth and the celebrity of the case.
If the Menendez boys were black, poor or female, they might be home today, their release from “the other death penalty” of a life sentence championed by the likes of Kim Kardashian West or Meek Mill.
But to dismiss them as “inheritance killers” and say the maladjusted materiality that raised the Menendez brothers was somehow a lucky break, even though it was marred by molestation, passively permits their abuse.
The facts of People v. Menendez, combined with our evolution on trauma and accountability, don’t call for the severe sentences they’re serving. It’s time to align the case with our current values and understanding of abuse and give the brothers’ release serious consideration.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.