Leon Worden

Menendez outcome wrong, juror says

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, April 24, 1996

he sentences came in last week. Barring a successful appeal, Lyle and Erik Menendez, convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances in the 1989 shotgun slayings of their high-society parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez, will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Betty Burke isn't too thrilled. She understands why the jury did what it did, but she doesn't like it.

Betty was an alternate on the first Erik Menendez jury two years ago, when the brothers were tried together but had separate juries. Betty decided the killing wasn't first-degree murder.

Betty lives in Canyon Country. If you're involved in this community, you probably know her. She's on the board of several local charitable organizations and was the 1993 Santa Clarita Valley Woman of the Year.

"The second trial was completely different from the first," Betty said late last week. "With the testimony they heard, (the new jurors) came to the right decision. But it wasn't the same trial I heard."

The difference, Betty says, was Judge Stanley Weisberg's exclusion of evidence this time and his different instructions to the jury.

Weisberg had told the first jury to consider "imperfect self-defense." Did the defendants truly fear for their lives when they committed the crime — no matter how unreasonable that fear might seem? If so, Weisberg instructed, then they committed voluntary manslaughter, not first-degree murder.

Weisberg disallowed the imperfect self-defense theory in the retrial.

"We were presented with enough corroborating evidence to believe the fear level was that high," Betty says. "The second jury never heard it."

Betty says Jose sexually molested Erik from age six and never stopped. Kitty was a drug abuser and alcoholic who was prone to violent rages and to locking her children in the closet. The brothers viewed their parents as a team.

Days before the killing, Erik, then 18, confided in Lyle — also abused as a child — that he was still being molested. Lyle issued his father an ultimatum: knock it off or I'll tell the world you're molesting my kid brother.

Immediately Lyle knew he had blown it. Jose was a powerful man who often threatened his sons with his supposed mob connections.

"Lyle and Erik really thought Jose was a god, all powerful, all knowing," Betty says. "They didn't know how to reason. They talked of leaving and came to the conclusion that there was nowhere to go, no way to escape Jose's reach. It wasn't that big a stretch for us to believe they truly feared for their lives."

The second jury was allowed to consider only whether Lyle and Erik's lives were in immediate danger at the moment of the killing (self-defense) — not their general, if irrational, fear for their lives (imperfect self-defense).

Betty thinks it is reasonable for another juror to view the same evidence and reach a different conclusion. But she is bothered by misstatements in the press and by people who express opinions without knowing what they're talking about.

For starters, the female jurors in the first trial didn't vote to acquit. They voted "voluntary manslaughter," consistent with imperfect self-defense.

"No one on our jury would have let them walk," Betty insists.

Nor was there ever any "abuse excuse." "It was never a case of the abuse justifying the killing. Abuse was only brought into it to understand (the defendants') mind-set."

Also, Erik didn't reload his shotgun and re-enter the room to kill his mother — who, by the way, was not eating berries and ice cream or filling out Erik's UCLA application at the time, Betty says. Nor did Erik partake in Lyle's shopping spree afterward.

And no witness in the first trial ever suggested that the brothers killed to inherit their father's millions. Jose had already told Erik he had cut him out of his will, "so there would be no point," Betty says.

"People say the women voted emotionally. Actually, it was the men who followed their own agenda.

"They didn't particularly like (defense attorney) Leslie Abramson. They would throw their notebooks on the floor and sit with their arms crossed when they didn't like what they heard.

"During deliberations, it was difficult for them to believe a successful man like Jose Menendez would have molested his sons. They figured Erik was homosexual, and that he made up the stories, even though there was never any testimony to that effect."

Since the trial, Betty Burke has participated in various forums with legal scholars.

"Many law professors say Judge Weisberg usurped the second jury's role by limiting evidence," Betty says. "It's obvious he wanted a conviction. He should have left much more up to the jury. Then if the jury wanted to throw out evidence, fine."

"The crux of the matter is that the prosecution did not prove first-degree murder in the first trial. They took it for granted and didn't adequately prepare. They presented a lot more testimony this time," says Betty, who observed several sessions of the second trial.

Knowing what she knows, which is most of what the second jury heard and a great deal more, Betty still thinks the brothers acted in imperfect self-defense.

    Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident.

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