Thursday, September 8, 2005
Menendez Brothers’ Habeas Corpus Appeal Is Rejected
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed a district judge’s denial of Lyle and Erik Menendez’s habeas corpus petitions.
Senior Judge Stephen S. Trott, writing for the panel, said U.S. District Judge Manuel Real was correct in ruling that there were no constitutional violations that would support overturning the brothers’ convictions and life-without-parole sentences for the murders of their parents.
Jose Menendez and his wife, Kitty, were killed Aug. 20, 1989, in their Beverly Hills home in a hail of shotgun blasts. Their sons were charged with murder about six months later.
In their first trial, two separate juries deadlocked on murder charges after the brothers contended they killed their parents out of fear after years of sexual and psychological abuse by their domineering father.
Prosecutors in the second trial said the brothers were spoiled youths intent on inheriting a $14 million fortune.
The appellate panel yesterday rejected the contention that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg “shattered the attorney-client privilege” when he permitted prosecutors to introduce statements the defendants made to Dr. Jerome Oziel, a psychotherapist hired by the defense.
Trott noted that the admission of the tape of the therapy session had been upheld by the state Court of Appeal, which rejected claims of attorney-client and psychotherapist-patient privilege. Federal habeas corpus relief, he said, could only be granted if a federal constitutional violation occurred.
The appellate jurist concluded that there was no such violation because the session was clearly for purposes of therapy, not to aid in a mental health defense.
“We note that neither Erik’s nor Lyle’s sanity at the time of the offense was ever seriously contemplated to be a part of the defense or a significant factor at trial, Trott wrote. “In fact, no question of sanity or diminished capacity was ever argued to the state trial courts. Moreover, neither Petitioners nor [defense attorney Gerald] Chaleff ever hired Dr. Oziel to provide any assistance whatsoever on these or any other issues. Dr. Oziel’s role at the time of the disputed December 11, 1989 tape was to continue with ongoing therapy.”
Trott similarly rejected the contention that the trial court committed constitutional error when by declining to give an instruction at the second trial that would have allowed the jury to find the defendants guilty of manslaughter, rather than murder, on the theory of imperfect self-defense—a sincere, but unreasonable, belief that they were in imminent danger of having serious bodily harm inflicted upon them by the victims.
The imperfect self-defense doctrine, Trott explained, is a matter of state law. The denial of a requested instruction on such an issue, the appellate jurist added, violates federal due process only if it renders the trial fundamentally unfair.
There was no such unfairness here, Trott said, because the trial judge correctly reasoned that there was a lack of substantial evidence of the imminence of any threat to the defendants.
“At most, the evidence illustrated that Erik and Lyle7 feared that their parents had the capacity to and might, at some point, harm them,” Trott reasoned. “Erik’s testimony about his general fear in the days leading up to the murder does not provide any evidence that, at the moment he shotgunned his parents to death, he feared he was in imminent peril.”
The case is Menendez v. Terhune, 03-55863.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company