What It Was Like to Cover the Menendez Murder Trial: Reporter's Notebook

ABC's Terry Moran covered the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez for CourtTV.

ByABC News
January 4, 2017, 4:21 PM

— -- It's been more than two decades since I covered the trial of the Menendez brothers for Court TV. And after all these years, the case still haunts me.

The tragedy of it. The violence. The raw pain in that courtroom. The way the catastrophe of the Menendez family emerged gradually, day after day, in the testimony and evidence in the trial, the monstrous portrait of a family's secrets, lies, and broken dreams slowly coming into horrible focus. It was hard to watch.

Few stories I've ever covered have been so emotional. And I think it was because this was primarily a family story. And families are the crucible of our lives and of our melodramas, the place where our most intense connections are forged--and broken.

The Menendez family disintegrated. Literally. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to have compassion for all of them--Jose, Kitty, Lyle and Eric; the parents and their children, the victims and their killers.

But some of that human, emotional reality was lost in all the coverage back then. I was still a relatively new TV reporter, and I'd never seen anything like the Menendez trial. It was my first media circus.

Reporters and crews from around the world came to the courthouse in Van Nuys, CA, to bring this family's disaster to all the folks back home.

But something happened with all that media coverage, and it reached a critical mass when Lyle and Erik Menendez took the witness stand to tell their stories.

They were transformed. So were their parents. Their family tragedy became a kind of national game-show or cartoon--unreal, drained of the pain that flowed through the courtroom every day.

On cable news, where commentators in studios across the country gleefully opined on their story; on Saturday Night Live, where John Malkovich and Rob Schneider got big laughs mocking the brothers' tears on the witness stand; to the stages of countless comedy clubs--they were a joke. It was all a joke.

I learned a valuable lesson from all that: Ignore the hype. Remember--always remember--that no matter how big a story gets, it's always about real people, real life, in the first instance. As soon as a reporter loses that connection--that empathy--cynicism creeps in. And cynicism kills real journalism.

It's my belief and my hope that the ABC documentary "Truth and Lies" can help to scrape off the hype and cynicism from this old case, and restore us to the human reality of what happened to this American family, to the truth of their lives. They deserve it. All of them.

Terry Moran is the chief foreign correspondent for ABC News. Watch the two-hour special, "Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers," on Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.