'Abuse excuse' killers keep the court show rolling

Edward Helmore in Los Angeles looks at the next legal blockbuster to grip the US

As the trial of OJ Simpson begins to wind down, the Los Angeles courts are bracing themselves for a rerun of another headline-grabbing case, the retrial of Erik and Lyle Menendez for the murder of their millionaire parents.

Jury selection begins today but, unlike the first trial, which ended in two hung juries, this time the proceedings will not be televised.

The original trial set the standards for both the OJ-style gavel-to-gavel television coverage and for what has become known as the abuse excuse. The two brothers, now aged 24 and 27, will again present the defence that they shot their wealthy parents in August 1989 after years of sexual abuse during which they feared for their lives.

They testified that on the night of the murders they believed their parents were about to kill them rather than allow the dark secret out.

So they killed them first, as the couple watched television in the family's Beverly Hills mansion.

The prosecution, which is now better prepared for this line of defence, will contend that the defendants' claims of sexual abuse are just the manipulative machinations of two cynical killers who acted out of hatred and greed.

For the retrial, Judge Stanley Weisberg has said that he intends sharply to limit the defence case and does not intend to hear the same parade of teachers, coaches and friends of the defendants who portrayed the Menendez house as a grim place where hugs and smiles were rare.

In spite of the limitations imposed by the judge, the defence, which will again be presented by the lawyer Leslie Abramson, will turn on the question that Lyle Menendez himself asked in a letter to his brother from jail: To what extent are admitted killers responsible for their actions?

The strategy, according to Mr Abramson, is "absolutely authentic and appropriate and legal and real."

The prosecution has that said it will follow a broad theme that it did not stress in the first trial: even if the brothers were abused, was it necessary to kill their parents?

"Any juror would have to wonder how the defendants would claim it was necessary to kill their parents under these circumstances," said deputy district attorney David Conn.

The prosecution will not call the therapist, L Jerome Oziel, to whom the brothers admitted the killings: in the original trial his credibility as a chief prosecution witness suffered after details of his extramarital affairs were made public.

Instead, the prosecution will present an audiotape which was made by Mr Oziel in which the brothers say that they killed their mother to "put her out of her misery" and that their father deserved to die because of his infidelity.

Despite the ruling that the abuse excuse may be used, the trial of the Menendez brothers appears unlikely to deteriorate into the protracted legal wrangling that has characterised the Simpson case.

The Menendez brothers are now broke and are being defended principally by public defenders.

There is one other difference: instead of favouring yellow sweaters to make themselves look warmer and younger, the brothers have elected to wear shirts and ties.

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