After more than 30 years behind bars, is there any chance Lyle and Erik Menendez will walk out of state prison?
Convicted of the 1989 slaying of their parents, Jose and Kitty, the brothers riveted America with the story of their Beverly Hills family tragedy. Observers diverge in their opinions, with some seeing them as either avaricious killers and others, as victims of a pedophiliac father.
Now, advocates for their release see momentum building with a robust social media campaign on platforms like TikTok, introducing their case to a younger generation who may not have heard about it before. It includes a letter-writing initiative asking California Governor Gavin Newsom to free the siblings.
“The streets of California are not safer because Erik and Lyle Menendez are locked up in prison,” journalist Robert Rand tells A&E True Crime.
“It’s not definite,” but the author of The Menendez Murders anticipates that in 2023 lawyers “are going to file a writ of habeas corpus, and they’re going to ask for a new trial,” Rand says.
“The threshold for filing is you have to have new evidence that was not available at the time of the trial, and they do have new evidence,” he notes, referring to a 1988 letter Erik wrote about his father’s molestation. That letter could instigate a reprieve for the brothers at a time when society is more empathetic toward male victims of sexual abuse, Rand says.
Several legal experts, however, think freeing Lyle and Erik, now in their 50s, is a heavy lift even with cultural shifts.
“There’s always the possibility of a retrial. The likelihood is questionable,” veteran Los Angeles defense attorney and law professor Stanley Goldman tells A&E True Crime.
A Newsom spokeswoman tells A&E True Crime in an email that “information regarding commutation applications is confidential. The governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system and all applications receive a thorough and careful review.”
‘He Would Kill Us’
Both brothers say Jose Menendez, a millionaire entertainment executive, sexually abused them for years.
In court, Erik testified the molestation began when he was 6. At age 17, he resisted and Jose Menendez “threw me on the bed and went to get a knife and put it at my throat.”
Erik hoped attending the University of California Los Angeles in the fall of 1989 would provide an escape. But Jose Menendez’s edict that his youngest son return home several nights each week confounded the 18-year-old, who confided in his 21-year-old brother, Lyle.
When Lyle demanded the abuse stop and threatened to tell authorities, Jose replied: “‘We all make choices in our lives. Erik made his. You made yours,'” he testified.
“I thought we were in danger,” Lyle said. “He would kill us. Because I was going to ruin him.”
Kitty Menendez, whose sons described her as mentally unstable, told Erik on August 19, 1989, “‘If I’d kept my mouth shut, things would have worked out in the family,'” he recounted.
The next evening, the brothers burst into the family room armed with shotguns and began firing. Jose Menendez suffered multiple wounds, including several bullets to the head. Kitty Menendez didn’t die immediately, leading Lyle to frantically reload and aim at her face.
Initially, detectives investigated whether the murders were an organized crime hit. But extravagant purchases by Lyle and Erik—including a Porsche, a restaurant and professional tennis coaching—made police wonder if the $14 million estate had motivated the slayings.
Distraught by the tragedy, Erik sought counseling and confessed to a psychologist, whose mistress later revealed the secret to police.
The siblings were arrested in March 1990 and tried separately. The dramatic litigation drew a huge audience with myriad witnesses who offered troubling accounts of Jose Menendez. The brothers became celebrities, and prosecutors charged that they lied to distract from their greed-inspired rampage.
Both proceedings ended in mistrials with juries divided on whether to convict for manslaughter or murder. But a 1996 joint trial resulted in murder convictions and life sentences without parole.
Prison Life for Erik and Lyle Menendez in 2022
After being incarcerated separately for years, Lyle Menendez was reunited with Erik in 2018 at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. The prison came under scrutiny in 2021 for high levels of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Rand, who interviewed the brothers two months after the murders and keeps in touch with the family, visited Lyle Menendez in May 2022 and describes both brothers as well.
“In general, Lyle is doing well and he looks great,” Rand says. “What’s really important about Lyle and Erik in 2022 is that they are both contributing quite a bit to their prison community. Lyle is very involved in prison reform activism; both brothers are working together on a large mural being painted on the gray concrete walls at the prison.
“Erik leads several self-help groups every week at Donovan, including a mindful meditation group, and has started a hospice group at Donovan,” Rand says, adding that the brothers counsel other prisoners who are sexual abuse victims.
A New Wave of Menendez Advocates
Brittany Outlaw of Indiana and her sister Renee Ochs of Rhode Island help run the Menendez Brothers & Survivors Facebook page that numbers about 1,800 people. It serves as a platform for abuse survivors to communicate and advocate for the Lyle and Eric.
Ochs, 21, watched a TikTok video about the case in 2020 that resonated, she tells A&E True Crime.
“I was really intrigued just because I have a history of similar abuse to them.
“I have no doubt in my mind that they would not be serving the sentence they’re currently serving if [the crimes were] done today. We have more empathy now, we understand boys are the same as girls, they go through [sexual abuse] as well,” she explains.
Outlaw, 35, tells A&E True Crime it’s a misconception just teens and 20-year-olds believe in Lyle and Erik. She learned about the case in her childhood. “I believed them and felt so bad for them,” Outlaw says. “They were not only fighting for their lives—prosecutors were going for the death penalty—they were fighting to be believed, and people made fun of them.”
Mother’s Murder Pivotal
Despite the advocacy, significant obstacles exist to releasing Lyle and Erik Menendez, Loyola Marymount University law professor Laurie Levenson tells A&E True Crime.
Given their sentences, “it’s unclear to me how they would get a parole hearing because they are not elderly,” says Levenson, co-founder of the Loyola Project for the Innocent, which works to overturn wrongful convictions. “And I don’t know of any other laws that would lead to their re-sentencing.
With this case, “it’s not as simple as walking in and saying ‘we were victims of abuse’ because that came up in the trial—that’s not a new factor here. It was front and center in their case.”
As for appealing directly to Newsom, “I think they’re probably not likely to be successful. High-profile cases make it less likely you’re going to get relief.”
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg presided over all three Menendez trials. In the second, he clamped down on courtroom cameras, rejected 30 previous defense witnesses and tightened the rules for a manslaughter verdict.
“There was a dramatic difference in the way the first trial and the second trial were tried,” says Goldman. “I always suspected that during the second trial, the judge had been embarrassed by the fact that the case had gotten so out of hand with each jury coming back divided 6-6 between manslaughter and murder.”
But are different trial rules sufficient to change the sentences?
For Goldman, reloading a shotgun to deliver the fatal shot to Kitty Menendez likely sealed the brothers’ fate. “That one murder alone would be enough to get them life without possibility of parole.”