Menendez jurors found gulfs too wide to bridge

January 30, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The gulf between the factions among the Menendez jurors was vast -- and no evidence, testimony or argument could draw them into common ground.

On one extreme was juror Sharyn S. Bishop, 42, who said: "I don't think Lyle is a threat to society. If he lived across the street from me, I wouldn't be afraid."

On the other end of the spectrum sat Jude Nelson, an unemployed marketing representative who called the evidence against Lyle Menendez "a classic first-degree murder case."

And then there were the jurors who spent half a year sitting in judgment of Erik Menendez, the other brother accused of murdering their parents -- that panel almost came to blows.

Those jurors, speaking for the first time since their dismissal, described a contentious and sometimes mean-spirited 19 days of deliberations. The split was so deep, so early, that some believed others arrived with their minds made up -- creating, juror Hazel Thornton said, "too much prejudice . . . to overcome."

"There was . . . not enough concentration on evidence and the law," said Ms. Thornton, 36, who voted for voluntary manslaughter -- one of the lesser charges -- for the younger of the two Beverly Hills brothers accused of murdering their parents. She specifically lamented that some jurors had a "bias against rich people and homosexuals."

Erik Menendez, 23, and Lyle Menendez, 26, were charged with (( first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, slayings of their wealthy parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez. Prosecutors said the brothers killed out of greed and hatred; the brothers testified they were sexually and mentally abused by their parents.

Erik Menendez's jurors deliberated for 106 hours over 19 days before they deadlocked Jan. 13. Lyle Menendez's jury rTC deliberated for 139 hours over 25 days before they deadlocked Friday.

Defense attorney Leslie Abramson portrayed the Erik Menendez jury as sharply divided along gender lines, with frequent verbal clashes and even "some threat of physicality."

Ms. Abramson spoke on the basis of extensive discussion with members of that panel.

"The biggest problem with Erik's jury was it was a mix of individuals who could not work together," she said.

By contrast, Lyle Menendez's panel, whose deliberations were interrupted by the Jan. 17 earthquake, was a relatively harmonious group in which gender did not play a role, said Mr. Nelson.

While sometimes jurors merely "tolerated one another," he said, they were generally able to discuss and consider each others' views.

The six-month trial revolved in large part around the two brothers' contention that they had been sexually abused by their father.

While prosecutors said the Menendezes were driven by greed, lawyers for the brothers said they had killed out of fear -- and the believability of that claim clearly became the most divisive issue in the jury room.

The women on Erik Menendez's jury were more likely to be swayed by the tales of abuse, many said, while more men saw the issue as either incredible or irrelevant.

"There's a possibility [of abuse], but I don't think that would rectify the fact that they did take the law into their hands to kill their parents," said juror Robert Rakestraw, 53, who voted for first-degree murder in the Erik Menendez case.

"I don't think that justifies their actions, if molestation did occur," he said.

Mr. Rakestraw, a full-time postal carrier, said he felt badly that decisions weren't reached in either case, and at least one juror on the other panel said she thought they would be roundly mocked for their inability to resolve the case once and for all.

"I gave it my all," said Ruth Slike, 60, who served on Lyle's jury. "I don't think the general public thinks the jury is any more than a bunch of idiots."

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