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Law and Crime

Could New Evidence Help Free the Menendez Brothers?

Letter and rape allegations may corroborate their claims of abuse and PTSD.

Key points

  • Erik Menendez's letter to his cousin reveals his sexual abuse by his father and the PTSD it caused him.
  • Former Menudo band member alleges Jose Menendez drugged and raped him multiple times.
  • The trauma of enduring years of sexual abuse as alleged by the Menendez brothers can lead to PTSD.
  • PTSD can be used in criminal cases as a claim for self-defense.
Source: Vector Contributor/Stellarstock
Crime scene.
Source: Vector Contributor/Stellarstock

Erik and Lyle Menendez have asked the courts to vacate their 1996 murder convictions. They filed their petition For Writ Of Habeas Corpus on May 3, 2023, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the day after a documentary aired with new sexual abuse allegations levied against their father by a member of the musical group Menudo. Their lawyers claim that new evidence corroborating their allegations of sexual abuse and resulting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been uncovered, warranting a re-opening of the case, in which the convictions could be vacated or a new evidentiary hearing allowed.

Facts of the Menendez Case

On Aug. 20, 1989, Erik and Lyle Menendez murdered their parents in their Beverly Hills home. Jose Menendez, a top executive at RCA Records, was struck five times in the back of the head. Mary Louise "Kitty" Menendez was hit with one bullet as the brothers re-loaded and fatally shot her.

The motive of these murders was assumed to be money and greed. However, the brothers testified that they murdered their parents in self-defense, acting under the affliction of PTSD due to years of sexual abuse by their father and the constant fear he would kill them. Both brothers alleged that their father began molesting them at age six, and Lyle contended that his father raped him and forcibly tried to perform oral sex regularly. The brothers have insisted that they feared for their lives and couldn't escape the sexual abuse. Their first trial in 1993 ended in a mistrial. When prosecutors re-tried the case, the judge excluded any evidence of sexual abuse, and the brothers were convicted of double murder in March 1996. They were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, their lawyers now allege that new evidence supports their defense of years of abuse and the PTSD this caused them.

New Evidence

1. Letter

A 1988 letter written by Erik Menendez to his cousin Andres (Andy) Cano was recently uncovered and may be corroborating evidence that his father was sexually molesting him. Specifically, in the letter, Erik tells Andres, "I've been trying to avoid Dad. It's still happening, Andy, but it's worse for me now. I never know when it will happen, and it’s driving me crazy. Every night, I stay up thinking he might come in."

This letter was only discovered in 2018 by Jose Menendez's younger sister and, therefore, was not offered as evidence at either trial. In court papers, the brothers' attorneys argue that the new evidence indicates that "Jose Menendez was a violent and brutal man who would sexually abuse his children and was still molesting Erik Mendez right before the murders."

During the 1993 trial, Andres Cano testified that 13-year-old Erik told him that Jose Menendez was massaging his genitals and asked Andres if his father did the same. In conjunction with his cousin's testimony, this letter corroborates Erik's claim that his father had sexually abused him for years. Further, his words in the letter may reveal PTSD symptomology caused by the abuse, including fear, hypervigilance, and anxiety.

2. New Rape Allegations

Ex-Menudo member Roy Rossello has come forward in a Peacock documentary that aired on May 2, 2023, alleging that Jose Mendez drugged and raped him three times when he was 14 years old. At that time, Menendez represented Menudo at RCA. Roy states in this documentary about Jose Menendez's sexual abuse of him, "I know what he did to me in his house."

3. Sexual Abuse and PTSD

Erik and Lyle Menendez have always maintained that they killed their parents because they were physically and sexually abused for years and feared being murdered by their father's brutality. They allege they had PTSD and killed their parents in self-defense.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who suffer sexual or physical abuse, particularly as children. It includes symptoms like being easily startled, tense, or on edge; difficulty concentrating; and irritable or angry outbursts. The courts acknowledge that PTSD can be a valid defense for insanity, unconsciousness, and self-defense in criminal proceedings. However, this wasn't the case in either of the Menendez trials.

However, there is precedent for introducing this information at a later time. In State v. Kelly (1984), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that expert testimony regarding the battered spouse syndrome was found to have been erroneously excluded by the trial court. Thus, the conviction of manslaughter for Ms. Kelly for the murder of her husband was overturned. In Rogers v. State, a 1993 Florida Court of Appeal case held that testimony regarding PTSD should have been considered by the lower court as it carries weight in Florida courts. In State v. Hines, a 1997 Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division reversed and remanded the defendant's conviction of manslaughter when the lower court was held to have improperly excluded her expert testimony regarding PTSD caused by being sexually abused by her father since childhood.

According to Berger, McNiel, and Binder, "In cases that are successful using PTSD as a self-defense claim, expert testimony focuses on the phenomena of hyperarousal symptoms, increased impulsivity, experiencing psychological distress when confronted with an abuser or reminders of past traumas, and the overestimation of danger."

Conclusion

In contrast to the era in which the Menendez brothers were tried, courts today often recognize expert testimony about PTSD as a valid basis for self-defense. If the evidence of Erik's letter and Rossello's allegations of being raped by Jose Menendez were admitted, the brothers may be convicted of the lesser offense of manslaughter. After 33 years behind bars, they could be released for time served.

References

Berger, O., McNiel, D., Binder, R. (2012). PTSD as a Criminal Defense: A Review of Case Law. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 40(4) 509-521.

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