All eyes on LA's millionaire trial: Brothers accused of murdering wealthy parents

(First Edition)

THE citizens of Los Angeles have long had an unusually salacious interest in the villainy or misfortunes of the wealthy. The curious can take a tour by hearse to explore the scenes of its most famous killings, and peer at the spots where Marilyn Monroe and Janis Joplin breathed their last. So the city is looking forward to this summer's bill of fare with considerable anticipation.

The trial of the rich, young Menendez brothers combines almost every element of vintage Hollywood intrigue. It is about murder (alleged), greed and extravagance, intense ambition and the (again alleged) abuse of children by a domineering, self-made parent. All eyes are fixed on the outcome.

Jose Menendez, the multi-millionaire chief executive of a music and video distribution firm, and his wife Kitty, a former beauty queen, were found dead in their eight-bedroom dollars 5m (pounds 3.5m) mansion in August 1989. Their injuries - 15 shotgun wounds - were so severe that they were barely recognisable.

The killings sent a shiver of horror through Beverly Hills, not least because Mr Menendez was a respected figure, an associate of the film star Sylvester Stallone and the singers Barry Manilow and Kenny Rogers.

At first, there were suspicions of a mob hit. But the police soon turned their attentions to the couple's sons, Lyle and Erik, then aged 18 and 21, who inherited their parents' dollars 14m estate. The brothers initially claimed to have been out at the time of the killings, but detectives were unconvinced.

In the months afterwards Lyle, an aspiring tennis professional, spent more than dollars 500,000 in a shopping spree which included a new Porsche, a gold Rolex and dollars 40,000-worth of new clothes.

Investigators also found that a computer file containing references to Jose Menendez's will had been mysteriously erased. The alleged murder weapons - two shotguns - had been purchased using the driving licence of a former room-mate of Lyle's.

In proper Hollywood tradition, Erik had penned a screenplay (which his mother helped to type) in which the protagonist murders his parents in order to inherit their fortune.

In an unexpected turn, the brothers recently altered their defence. They now claim that the killings were carried out in self-defence as they were abused by their father, a Cuban emigre who started out as a dishwasher and battled his way up the social ladder.

Jury selection in the case is now under way, beginning a trial that is expected to last for five months. A further twist is contained in an audio-tape made by a psychotherapist in which Erik Menendez allegedly confessed. California's supreme court has ruled that the tape is admissible evidence on the grounds that the privilege of confidentiality has been violated by threats to the therapist's life. As a result, the case will be heard by two juries as Erik's confession cannot be used against his brother.

As the lawyers prepare to begin the case, Hollywood and Beverly Hills look on in rapt fascination, knowing that if the brothers are found guilty they could go to the gas chamber.