Almost 30 years ago, brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez shot to death their wealthy parents in the den of their Beverly Hills home in a crime that stunned and gripped the nation.
Seven months after the August 20, 1989 murders—and after Lyle, then 21, and Erik, 18, had spent lavishly on Rolex watches, a $64,000 Porsche Carrera, a tennis coach, investment in a rock concert and more—the siblings were arrested in the deaths of Jose and Kitty Menendez.
Prosecutors suggested a number of motives, from a greedy grab for their parents’ $14 million fortune to an unhappy home life; some defenders said the boys suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of Jose and acted in self-defense. After two trials, the brothers were convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison.
Observing the story from the beginning was journalist Robert Rand, who reported on the story for multiple outlets, covered the trials and interviewed the brothers both before their arrests and since, even talking to Lyle as recently as a few weeks ago. Now out with a new book, The Menendez Murders: The Shocking Untold Story of the Menendez Family and the Killings that Stunned the Nation, Rand spoke with A&E Real Crime about what really spurred the killings, how the brothers live now and why he thinks they should be released from prison.
What is the biggest new revelation in your book?
A letter that was written by Erik Menendez to his cousin Andy Cano in December 1988. I found this with Jose’s sister, Marta Cano, in March 2018 in a [box of Andy’s possessions.] (Andy passed away in 2003.)
In the letter, Erik Menendez talks to Andy about the ongoing molestation by his father, that he’s afraid every night because his father is going to come down the hall. Erik would have been 17, Andy would have been 15.
What if it had been discovered earlier?
I believe it would have had a significant impact on the juries at the first trial. Several of the men who voted for murder told me after the trials if there had been any type of hard evidence about the molestation, they would have reconsidered their position.
Some people don’t believe the brothers’ claim of sexual abuse.
I’ve had extensive contact with their relatives. The Andersen (Kitty’s family) and Menendez families all had pieces of the puzzle but no one sat them all down and put them together. I believe them because of 29 years of talking to the immediate family members.
Very few abuse victims kill their tormentors. What pushed Lyle and Erik over the edge?
The public incorrectly thought the defense was, ‘We were molested so we killed our parents.’ The defense was that they were in fear for their lives after a series of confrontations in the days leading up to the murders after the brothers threatened to reveal the molestation to relatives and the police.
Do you think they will ever get a new trial?
It’s a long shot. If the trial was held today, I believe they would have gotten manslaughter instead of murder, and that’s what I believe it should have been. People don’t understand. They think if they had been convicted of manslaughter, they wouldn’t get prison time. But in L.A. you get 22 to 25 years for manslaughter.
Why do you think Erik and Lyle should be released from prison?
They suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse and there were eyewitness to physical, emotional and verbal abuse. Nothing ever gives you a free pass to kill Mom and Dad, but there were mitigating circumstances.
I believe there should be a review of the case. They should be granted an appeal. There is a new sensitivity now to the social issues [of the case], with the #MeToo and #MenToo movements.
They’ve served 28 years and 8 months. Are the streets of California safer tonight because Erik and Lyle are in prison? I believe they have served their time.
Both wed while behind bars. What is marriage like for them?
They are both grateful to have supportive wives. I haven’t spoken to Erik in 15 years so I can’t describe his marriage. The first time I visited Lyle in November 2016, his wife (Rebecca Sneed) was there. I can see they have a very close relationship. They were hugging a lot. They talk to each other sometimes three hours a day, Rebecca told me. They probably do more talking to their wives than anybody I know.
But they’ve never had sex with their wives?
They don’t get conjugal visits. You are allowed to kiss when you come in and when you leave. You are in a room with 60 or 70 other prisoners and there are guards around the room.
The brothers were in separate California prisons for more than 20 years but stayed in contact by letter. Then this year, Lyle was moved to Erik’s facility. What was that reunion like?
Extremely emotional. Lyle told me when he walked in the room and saw Erik they just hugged each other for several minutes. The first word Lyle said was, ‘finally.’ Both brothers are just exhilarated to be together again. They see each other all day, every day. They are not in the same cell but they’re in the same pod.
What would the public be surprised to learn about Lyle and Erik?
Both became productive citizens in their prison communities. Lyle was head of the prison government and he’s been an activist for prison reform in California. Erik created a hospice program in the previous prison he was in and the one he’s in now. Erik leads a weekly mindful-mediation group.
Why are people still so captivated by this case?
Because people aren’t sure of the truth. There [are] a lot of people who never felt they had the complete story…
Lyle and O.J. Simpson were in the same jail for a time. Did O.J. reveal anything?
Lyle talked to O.J. and said he should consider taking a manslaughter plea and admit he was responsible for the murders. O.J.’s reply was, ‘I can’t do that. My reputation will be ruined and I’ll never work again.’
Lyle believed O.J. was clearly communicating that he was responsible for the murders. O.J. didn’t come out and say, ‘I killed Nicole and Ron.’ But the fact that they were discussing a plea deal, Lyle’s belief was that O.J. was admitting responsibility.