How the Menendez Brothers' Trial Changed America

They personified the crumbling of the American Dream – and helped create a reality TV nightmare

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How the Menendez Brothers' Trial Changed America
Lyle and Erik Menendez were convicted to life in prison for murdering their parents in 1989.

On August 20th, 1989, Joseph Lyle Menendez, 21, and his brother, Erik, 18, shot their parents Jose and Mary Louise "Kitty" Menendez multiple times with shotguns in the den of their $5 million Spanish-style Beverly Hills mansion. Jose was shot point-blank in the head as the couple lazed in front of the TV with ice cream and strawberries, and Kitty, after attempting to flee, was shot multiple times – to the point that she no longer resembled a person.

Not long after, the brothers made a tearful 911 call, claiming to have just come home from a night on the town. They avoided suspicion until March of 1990 – blaming the murders on the mob – but were arrested after it came to light that they had confessed their crimes to a therapist. Before that time, however, they managed to go on a stunning spending spree, blowing through an estimated $700,000 on cars, clothing and property.

The Menendez case, which played out in large part on TV screens across the country — and featured a cast of lively, almost garish characters — personified a shocking erosion of the American Dream to its enraptured audience. It turned real-life tragedy into live entertainment, and foreshadowed our current fascination with true-crime docuseries and reality TV.

Jose was an immigrant from Havana, Cuba, who moved to the U.S. as a teen and diligently worked his way through the ranks of the entertainment industry, his lovely wife by his side. His two handsome, athletic sons had every opportunity money could buy, yet in the end, they took their parents' lives in a spectacular display of brutality and greed. There was alleged incest and abuse, with millions at stake. It was the kind of story only Bret Easton Ellis could write – only it wasn't fiction.

The boys' motive was, to be certain, the most-discussed aspect of this case. What could push these two privileged boys to take their parents' life so forcefully? Were they simply that impatient to inherit his fortune? Or were they, as they later contended, the victims of sexual and emotional abuse?

The Los Angeles Times delved into the question of motive in a lengthy piece published in July of 1990 by John Johnson and Ronald L. Soble. They posited that the boys killed their parents because of the extraordinary control Jose Menendez held over their lives: he trained them to be tennis stars at an early age (a sport at which Erik excelled), to rival the Kennedys when it came to intellectual dinner conversations and he even intruded into their romantic lives. 

Yet when they were caught acting out, Jose intervened. When Lyle was suspended from Princeton his freshman year for plagiarism, Jose immediately flew to New Jersey to talk with the president of the university himself. And when the brothers were accused of a string of burglaries, Jose took care of it, hiring criminal defense lawyer Gerald Chaleff to represent them. 

Jose Menendez expected the best from his sons – and everyone else. He was an ambitious man, as was evident from his rapid rise in the business world. But this didn't necessarily make him popular. Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair followed the case for years, and wrote of Jose's strong hand in October of 1990, reporting that the businessman was not all that well-liked and that, perhaps, he was cheating on his wife. The media, it seems, was trying to make as much sense of the horror as they could by searching for a villain.

The brothers' first trial in 1993 made history, as it all played out live on television while America watched at home. The proceedings were broadcast on Court TV (now TruTV), which was launched in 1991 by lawyer and journalist Steven Brill, and provided viewers with live coverage of trials and commentary from experts.

"[The Menendez trial] probably had the effect, maybe good, maybe bad, of demonstrating that, even if you didn't have a celebrity, if the circumstances were dramatic enough, people will be captivated," Brill tells Rolling Stone. "We've had lots of trials like that since, but that was really the one that proved that people would be interested in watching big trials."

Reception to the idea of a televised courtroom was mixed, with some lawyers questioning its effects. "It's a bad idea," lawyer Roy Black told Entertainment Weekly in 1991. "Cameras in the courtroom add pressure to the proceedings and skew the court's ability to judge fairly. Members of the jury are supposed to be concentrating on the evidence, not worrying about how they look on TV."

Brill, of course, disagreed. "Study after study proves that videotaping trials has no adverse effect on the outcome," he said in the same EW article. "All it does is educate the public about how the court system works."

In a call with Rolling Stone, Brill asserted that the Menendez case proved a full-length trial could hold America's interest. "It could become something that really showed how the justice system worked – maybe in some instances show how the justice system didn't work – but really was a captivating drama. Court TV, in that sense, was reality television before there was reality television – the difference is that it was reality television that was real."

Jeremy Gerard, who at the time was a reporter on the New York Times' newly formed Media Business desk and covered the advent of Court TV, found the presence of cameras in the courtroom both a blessing and a curse. "It did, as victims' rights advocates argued, bring critical issues to the fore," he tells RS in an email. "But it also augured, in the pre-Internet age, the perception as old as TV itself that the medium would turn everything – war, violent crime, marital discord – into entertainment, another diversion option along with sitcoms [and] game shows."

"The live coverage of the Menendez brothers' trial confirmed those fears," he adds, comparing it to Joel Steinberg's trial, which was New York City's first televised murder trial in the late '80s, pre-Court TV. Criminal defense attorney Steinberg was accused of abusing and murdering his adopted six-year-old daughter.

"The Steinberg coverage was solemn and comported by comparison with the bread-and-circuses atmosphere of the Menendez trial and others that followed," Gerard says. "With the inevitable rise of babbling bobble-heads commenting on the proceedings and turning it all into a John McEnroe tennis match."

Brill disagrees; he found the mood in the courtroom to be very solemn indeed – or at least not out of the ordinary. "Trials were always very public spectacles and very often the audience gallery was hundreds and hundreds of people and they'd cheer and yell and scream at people," he says. "That was a circus. But having a tiny camera in a courtroom that doesn't make any noise – that's not a circus."

Still, to put it crudely, the Menendez case undoubtedly made for good TV. Jess Cagle of EW penned a first-person essay in 1993: "I now find myself not only obsessed with the impending verdict but caught up in the theater of the trial itself." Cagle also detailed how the televised case ensnared the attention of the American public, writing that the LA district attorney's office was getting fifty calls per day from citizens opining how best to prosecute the boys – a move eerily similar to the kind of participation inherent in shows like American Idol

As Brill notes, Court TV was a precursor to reality TV – but it was real. In many ways, the Menendez trial was not all that dissimilar from recent sensations like Netflix's Making a Murderer or HBO's The Jinx. Aside from the cost, of course. Court TV was far less pricey than today's mini series sensations.

And, of course, the case had two handsome brothers and tons of drama. Dominick Dunne detailed their glamour during a 1990 arraignment: attired to the nines in designer clothes, "they walked like colts," he wrote. Furthermore, the boys asserted that they had been sexually and mentally abused by their parents by way of a motive, and Erik's defense attorney, Leslie Abramson, did her best to stoke the spectacle. Dunne detailed how she flipped off a TV cameramen and repeatedly called the brothers adorable. "The first trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez was a soap opera wrapped within a psychodrama," wrote The Los Angeles Times' Ann O'Neill. In the end, however, the two juries (each considering one of the brothers) were deadlocked, unsure whether the crime was first degree murder or manslaughter. Judge Stanley Weisberg declared a mistrial in January of 1994.

Despite the sensation caused by the trial, Sandi Gibbons, a public-information officer for the L.A. district attorney's office, told Cagle at the time: "The only people that count are the two juries hearing the case (one for each brother). The juries are not hearing as much about the case as the public is." Translation: Although the trial was a media sensation, it did not seem as though it being televised swayed the jury's favor one way or another — as we would soon find out when the brothers went to trial again, this time in a camera-free courtroom that was decidedly less of a spectacle sans constant updates on Court TV.

Moreover, O.J. Simpson had been arrested in June of 1994 for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and usurped the macabre spotlight. Most people, Dunne pointed out, weren't even aware that another trial was taking place – perhaps because of the lack of TV presence or perhaps because the public had simply tired of the Menendezes' plight and were far more intrigued by the grisly allegations leveled at a famous football star. Mark Feldstein, professor of broadcast journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, asserts that the Menendez case stoked the raging fire that was interest in the O.J. trial.

"[The Menendez trial] led other television networks to devote extensive airtime to live coverage of criminal trials," he says. "Two years after the Menendez trial, when I was working there as a correspondent, CNN turned over its airwaves to O.J. Simpson, covering the case gavel-to-gavel and beyond, even when the court wasn't in session. I remember how frustrated I felt because it was impossible to get any other news stories on the air then."

The brothers' verdict came with far less fanfare than Simpson's, however – and it was much less positive for them. They were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

"It was heartbreakingly sad," Dunne wrote. "I wanted to get out of that courtroom." According to Dunne, the jury wasn't as quick to believe the brothers' lurid descriptions of sexual abuse, and Abramson's dramatics were wearing thin. Moreover, during the penalty phase of the trial, it was revealed that she had advised a witness to deceive the jury.

In many respects, the Menendez brothers were the reality stars of their day – swaggering real-life Patrick Batemans of the small screen, the predecessors to characters like Robert Durst. They were the godfathers of Adnan Syed, who listeners rooted for while he sat in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, a story that played out in captivating detail on the podcast Serial. And they have persisted in capturing the public's imagination, popping up in 1996's The Cable Guy (Jim Carrey's titular cable guy knocks out the TV signal in an entire town just as the Menendez verdict is to be revealed) and countless TV shows, like Gilmore Girls. Erik's wife Tammi also penned a self-published book about her marriage to the incarcerated murderer, and scored her own A&E documentary in 2010, Mrs. Menendez. Lyle, for his part, released his own book in 1995.

Most recently, the brothers are returning to TV sets via a two-hour ABC special on January 5th: Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers – American Sons, American Murderers. Lyle reportedly speaks openly in the upcoming documentary, recently telling ABC News: "I am the kid that did kill his parents, and no river of tears has changed that and no amount of regret has changed it. I accept that. You are often defined by a few moments of your life, but that’s not who you are in your life, you know. Your life is your totality of it… You can’t change it. You just, you’re stuck with the decisions you made."

He is, apparently, still sticking the 27-year-old abuse defense, telling ABC: "I found that my own childhood prepared me surprisingly well for the chaos of prison life" and hinting at still more skeletons in the family closet.