Some people saw them as spoiled Beverly Hills monsters that killed their parents for money. Others saw Erik and Lyle Menendez as good boys who acted out of fear of a powerful and abusive father.
The Menendez brothers' trial transfixed millions of Americans who tuned in to watch the riveting courtroom drama play out. For better or worse, the young and handsome brothers became celebrities.
Thousands of people wrote to Erik and Lyle in the Los Angeles County Jail. One of those people was a middle-class wife and mother from Minnesota who years later would shock everyone who'd ever known her by becoming Mrs. Erik Menendez.
From Mistrial to Conviction
On Aug. 20, 1989, 21-year-old Lyle and 18-year-old Erik burst into the family den and killed their father Jose, a successful Cuban-American business executive, and their mother, Kitty.They used shotguns they had bought days before the crime.
Prosecutors said the boys' motive was pure greed — Erik and Lyle simply wanted to get their hands on the family fortune.
But Erik told a rapt courtroom that he and his brother believed they were about to be murdered themselves, because their father would rather see them dead than have a shocking family secret revealed. The secret, according to the boys' testimony, was that their father had sexually abused them. Erik said he had been abused for many years.
The initial six-month trial of Lyle and Erik ended Jan. 13, 1994. Tammi said she recalls watching with her heart in her throat as the jury announced it was unable to reach a verdict. Half of the jurors believed, as Tammi did, that the boys should be convicted of manslaughter because of the abuse they had suffered. The others thought the boys had done it for the money and voted for first-degree murder.
Judge Stanley Weisberg declared a mistrial.
The second trial proceeded far differently from the first: No television cameras were permitted in the courtroom, Judge Weisberg reversed himself and excluded the testimony of dozens of defense witnesses, perhaps most importantly, he decided not to give jurors the choice to vote for a manslaughter conviction.
The two were convicted of first-degree murder on March 20, 1996, and sentenced to two consecutive life prison terms without the possibility of parole.
Erik Menendez said he felt "tremendous remorse" for the slayings in a 1996 interview with ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about what happened and wish I could take that moment back."
Erik never mentioned his nearly three-year correspondence with Tammi in that interview. In fact, though the marriage lasted only briefly, his brother Lyle was then just days away from marrying former model Anna Erickson. In that interview, Lyle had told Walters, "the exchange of love and sharing" kept him in touch with himself and kept him from becoming hardened by prison life.
Looking for Support
Ironically, on the day that Walters' 1996 interview with Erik and Lyle was broadcast, Tammi's husband of nine years died. It was several months before she wrote to Erik again. This time, she said, she was the one looking for support.
Though she had never met him, Tammi said she trusted him. "There was just something about him. Maybe it was because he was incarcerated and I knew that he … was my safety place. He was very safe for me," she said.
Tammi said she doesn't believe she falls into the category of women who, according to some psychologists, marry men who are in prison because they have been mistreated by men in their lives. She said her husband was never physically abusive, but she felt "mentally" abused. "He was just not there for me at all," she said.
Several months after her husband's death, Tammi began to date. But it was her pen pal, Erik, who made her feel special. The following summer, four years after she began writing to him, Tammi visited Erik in prison for the first time.
She had never been to a prison and she said she was scared. She met Erik in a large, bleak visitors' hall at the California State Prison at Sacramento. She was nervous.
"I was just thinking, I just am really attracted to this person. And it's not a good thing, because he's incarcerated." Still, she kept visiting, and, she said "things just kept getting more intense."
Drawn to a Sensitive Man
Finally, Tammi decided to pack up, drive across the country with her daughter, and begin a new life in California, where she knew no one and had no job.
Tammi said Erik's kindness and sensitivity had drawn her to him. "He's always there for me. He worries. … I never had that before," she said.
Erik does appear attentive. He makes Tammi handmade cards and drawings for every special occasion. Since the day they met, he has written to Tammi at least once a day. He writes her long letters filled with poetry and emotion. "All I really know anymore is that I love you more than I love myself," he wrote in one.
On June 3, 1999, Erik and Tammi were married on visiting day at the prison. Erik's grandmother came — along with two aunts, one from each side of his family. The couple exchanged vows in a tiny cinderblock conference room next to the visiting hall. There were no flowers or gifts. For their wedding cake, they had Twinkies from the prison vending machines.
They were allowed to kiss after the ceremony.
The couple cannot consummate their marriage. They are allowed to hold hands during Tammi's visits, and they can hug and kiss at the end of their visits. Tammi said the prison's prohibition of conjugal visits is not a problem for her and she's never had a desire to be unfaithful to Erik. For her, she said, "the holding of the hands during the visit is everything."
Tammi bought a house just a few miles form the prison so she can visit Erik at every opportunity. Inmates are allowed visitors four days a week. Erik works as a janitor in the prison at night so he can be available for Tammi's visits during the day. Tammi arrives early in the morning and stays until well after noon. "There's never a dull moment, I never get bored," Tammi said.
After more than three years into her marriage with Erik, Tammi says she's very happy. But she gave up a lot for Menendez. She felt scorn from family, friends and colleagues. She lost many friends. She was even fired from a volunteer job she dearly loved, working with animals. Until now, she has tried to keep her vows a virtual secret from nearly everyone in her life.
She's speaking now, because she wants people to know the man she fell in love with, and help him in his effort to gain a new trial.
‘I Needed to Face Consequences’
Thirteen years after the murders, Erik Menendez says he still feels remorse. "I'll punish myself for the rest of my life. I hate myself. I wish to God I could throw myself down on my knees and beg that we could go back in time, that I could change what I did. I killed them and I love them," he said.
Erik says he saw his parents as "the same person" when he and Lyle killed them. He said he feared both his mother and father equally at the time of the crime. Erik said his mother told him that she was aware of the abuse but that it was not her responsibility. He said he had tried to run away when he was 13 years old, but his father had caught him and threatened him.
Erik said he doesn't regret confessing to the murders. "I needed to have gotten caught. I needed to have been punished. … I needed to face consequences."
Hope for a New Trial?
Erik and his brother now feel, however, that those consequences are too severe. Both Erik and Lyle are now challenging their convictions in federal court, hoping to win new trials.
Erik said crucial testimony from dozens of his family members who witnessed the emotional and physical abuse he says he and his brother endured was excluded from the second trial. Weisberg, in the second trial, had ruled that these family members' testimony was irrelevant because it did not pertain specifically to sexual abuse.
"Most people know that it's rare that someone actually witnesses sexual abuse," said Dr. Stuart Hart, who, along with Erik's family members, was excluded from the defense's witness list in the second trial. Hart said he came to believe the brothers' story of incest after he interviewed more than 100 teachers, friends and relatives of the Menendez family.
Erik claims that Hart's exclusion from the second trial gutted his defense. Although the California appellate courts have rejected his arguments, some prominent legal experts agree with him. "Erik Menendez has a very strong claim the second jury never heard the relevant law and the relevant evidence," said California appellate attorney Dennis Riordan. Riordan does not now, nor has he in the past, represented either Erik or Lyle Menendez.
Although admitting he cannot know what was in the judge's mind, Riordan suggests that the judge may have felt pressure to bring in a guilty verdict in the case, because the second trial started just one week after the O.J. Simpson verdict had shocked and enraged much of the country. Riordan said the boys would have faced a severe penalty even if they had been convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Erik, he said, probably would have faced a minimum of 30 years in prison.
Erik can't really say whether he's been punished enough for his crime. He says he'll punish himself for the rest of his life. But he says he is not a danger to the community, and would never harm anyone. "It would change my life," he said, "if I could just hear my mother say, 'It's alright, I love you.'"
Tammi says she does not condone what Erik did, but she believes he deserves a new trial. She's now selling her house in order to raise money for his federal court challenge. She says she knows Erik's quest for freedom is a long shot, but she says she is sticking by her man.
She knows that her story is probably difficult for many people to understand. But, she says, "I am happy. I love my life right now."