Erik and Lyle Menendez killed their parents in their Beverly Hills mansion back in 1989. In two separate trials, both brothers maintained that they killed Kitty and Jose Menendez in self-defense. They said their father was sexually abusive. They feared that he would kill them.
The jury didn‘t buy it. They were convicted in 1996 and are both serving life sentences for murder. But they‘ve also both met women and gotten married from behind bars. Erik‘s wife, Tammi Menendez, began a correspondence with him after watching his first trial on television. Eventually Erik got down on one knee in a prison visiting room with a ring and proposed.
Tammi and Erik have been married for seven years now, although they have never spent time with each other outside of a prison visiting area. They‘ve been hoping a federal appeals court would overturn the brothers’ sentences in September, giving them a new trial. The court has refused to do so.
On Wednesday, Erik Menendez‘s wife, Tammi Menendez, joined MSNBC’s Dan Abrams on ‘The Abrams Report.’ Tammi Menendez, who has recently written a new book about their relationship called ‘They Said We‘ve Never Make It,’ was also joined by her attorney, Chris Pixley.
To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the “Launch” button to the right.
DAN ABRAMS: All right, Tammi, we will get into the legal issues in a moment but first just take us through this for a moment. People are going to look at you and they‘re going to say there is an attractive young woman who is marrying a guy behind bars for life. Why?
TAMMI MENENDEZ, MARRIED TO CONVICTED KILLER ERIK MENENDEZ: Right. Right. Well, with Erik, I never expected it. You know I wrote one letter to him and he wrote back and I went to visit him in prison and our relationship developed. And I didn‘t set out to have a relationship with Erik, but it‘s something that happened. And you know, it‘s a very good relationship that I have with him.
ABRAMS: How do you develop a relationship -- you say develop a relationship. How does one develop a relationship with someone who is always behind bars? There are no conjugal visits. How do you do that?
MENENDEZ: It‘s very difficult. In fact, he was—in one of his letters that he wrote me he had written and said that he had a girlfriend he had for a couple of years. And I kind of said, you know it‘s so sad that he has a girl-- he thinks he has a girlfriend. So I understand where the public‘s view is coming from.
But I do get emotional support from Erik. He‘s my best friend. And within the pages of the book, I think that it really explains exactly where I‘m coming from. But it‘s really hard to say it in a few moments, but he‘s my best friend.
ABRAMS: But does it make you question yourself that you are married now for seven years to a guy with who you really can almost never touch?
MENENDEZ: Yes, it makes me question myself. Everybody questions me. You know is she crazy? Is she nuts? You know I get all that and so it has been a very emotional experience. The only one that supports me is my mother and his family is supportive. But other than that, it is very difficult...
ABRAMS: Does it bother you that he admittedly shot his parents? And we‘ll talk about the issues that come up on appeal as to why, but, there is no question, it seems, that he and his brother shot his parents. Does that in and of itself trouble you?
MENENDEZ: It troubles me, but I do know the person that Erik is and I know his heart, I know his soul, and I do know what happened that night. And I do understand. I believe that within everybody put in certain circumstances, you will, you know, be able to kill somebody. I mean I do believe that Erik is a very good person. And you know now we‘re speaking out to try to you know get that out in the public, so...
ABRAMS: You said that you had similar experiences with abuse?
MENENDEZ: I‘ve had—I haven‘t had any experiences with abuse, but I‘ve had abuse within my family. But I‘ve never been subjected to abuse myself.
ABRAMS: How did you get to know him? You write a letter. You write one letter to him and you say a relationship develops. I think most people are going to say, first of all why did you write a letter to him in the first place and second of all, even if you did, how does a relationship develop with a convicted murderer?
MENENDEZ: Well the murder—yes, you‘d be surprised how well you can get to know somebody through letters. We did get very close through letters and then you know the relationship moved forward when I did meet him. But it was the correspondence that he became a really good friend of mine and understood what I was going through and I understood what he was going through. And then after I met him things you know got more and more intense, so it‘s you know through letters, you know, your constraint to letter writing.
ABRAMS: Do you have special arrangements in terms of this marriage considering that he can‘t do anything and that he‘s behind bars and you‘re out in the real world? Do you have an arrangement with him as to what you can or can‘t do that might not be available in an ordinary marriage?
MENENDEZ: No, not really. I mean he would be upset if I, you know, started going out to dinner with somebody or something like that. I don‘t have really any male friends. I have female friends and you know, so yes, there are—he would be upset, just like any other marriage, you know. And the explanation, really, is in the book as to you know how we deal with things.
ABRAMS: What does your daughter think about all of it… How do you explain it to her?
MENENDEZ: I have contacted a psychologist to make sure that I‘m telling her the right things. I worry about it. It‘s not something that me and Erik take lightly. She loves Erik. She loves to go visit him. She never—she wants to see him every weekend. And he‘s very good to her and very kind and is very sweet to her.
ABRAMS: There are a lot of pictures we‘re seeing of the two of you, arm around each other, feeding each other—where are you able to do that?
MENENDEZ: That is within the visiting room. Some of the pictures are at new Folsom and there‘s a few that are in Pleasant Valley State Prison where that one was at the Pleasant Valley State Prison recently, where he‘s been transferred to.
ABRAMS: And they allow you to have physical contact but there‘s always someone watching, et cetera...
MENENDEZ: Holding hands and when you‘re taking pictures you can have physical contact. But during the visit there is no just holding hands and you can kiss when you come in to the visiting room and when you leave. And the pictures are something that you can pose for.
ABRAMS … Let me go to you for one more question, Tammi. You write in your book, it may sound strange, but my years with Erik have taught me that I can handle his incarceration. The real question is whether I‘m strong enough to have a loving relationship with a man who is free and capable of any number of other diversions.
Do you think that he‘s ultimately going to be free? And it sounds from this like you‘re a little nervous that he might get free.
MENENDEZ: Well with Erik I‘m not nervous if he was free because I realize that with Erik if he was out I would be very capable of having a relationship with him on the outside. Another man on the outside, I‘m not too sure. I‘m very leery about relationships on the outside …
ABRAMS: So you were looking for a prisoner?
MENENDEZ: No, not really. No, but I mean I just know Erik. I know his heart and I know that—I know the person he is. And I can‘t see myself with anybody else, so that‘s kind of where that excerpt came from, from the book.
ABRAMS: All right, Chris Pixley, let‘s talk law. I mean so far all the courts have rejected the appeals. Why are you still hopeful?
CHRIS PIXLEY, ATTORNEY FOR ERIK MENENDEZ: Well you know, Dan, the appeal has been based on I think very strong grounds. You know the Ninth Circuit while they ultimately denied the petition acknowledged those grounds. They accepted five issues on appeal, which is rather extraordinary. And those issues, in particular two of them, have unique federal questions that I think the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to take up.
So while certainly it‘s very difficult to get the U.S. Supreme Court to take a case, once we do, we‘ve got a much better chance that they will not be frightened away by the Menendez name. And we remain optimistic simply because the second trial was such an absolute train wreck at the hands of the same judge.
You have—you know the first trial and the second trial are night and day. And it‘s the same judge who makes the decision to gut the defense. And the only thing that changed in the intervening period of time was the political lay of the land. O.J. Simpson had been acquitted just six days before the second Menendez trial. And there was just a whole host of other factors that led to political pressure and led the judge to reverse himself… and he reversed himself time and again.
ABRAMS: Weren‘t some of the other factors, though, that both the prosecutors and defense had had a trial run in the first case and both sides came in with a slightly different strategy. The prosecutors decided you know what, we‘re going to try and gut the defense, as you put it, in a way that we didn‘t in the first trial?
PIXLEY: Yes, yes, and let‘s talk about how they gutted the defense. You know when the prosecutor is successful in excluding virtually all of the evidence of sexual abuse and then is allowed to stay up in his closing argument and tell the jury listen, they talk about sexual abuse, why didn‘t they give you any evidence? The reason is none exist. That is the kind of thing that causes people to absolutely lose faith in the system. It‘s gone...
ABRAMS: Didn‘t Erik testify?
b: He did testify. In fact, you know, he has a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and yet this judge says Erik, in order to lay the foundation, tells Erik and Lyle, if you are going to lay the foundation for expert testimony, you have got to get on the stand. Well, there is U.S. Supreme Court precedence that says you cannot do that.
You cannot force a defendant before the end of the presentation of their case to take the stand and waive their Fifth Amendment right. And yet this judge said in order to allow the experts on the stand to talk about the sexual abuse, the physical torture and the verbal terrorizing that went on in that home, you have got to testify first.
They waived their Fifth Amendment right. They did that and then the judge said sorry, I‘m not going to allow the expert testimony. I‘m not convinced. Well you know this is a judge who had already presided over the first trial. He had heard the testimony of the experts and he had heard the brothers‘ testimony.
So it was his opinion that after the brothers‘ testimony he wouldn‘t be convinced that experts should be allowed in. He didn‘t need to make them waive their Fifth Amendment right. This was—it was a travesty what went on and of course, again, in many cases, we have federal issues that the Supreme Court...
ABRAMS: Let‘s talk about why the—the basic argument as to why the abuse should have been allowed in was that the defense team believed they should be able to present what‘s called an imperfect self-defense in California. They should be able to say that the boys—that Erik was being abused and that they feared for their lives.
Whether it‘s reasonable or unreasonable doesn‘t matter under California law. Now here‘s what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on that very issue with regard to whether there was sort of imminent peril and that as a result, the court had said look, we don‘t think the abuse is relevant here because there‘s no indication that there was any imminence to what was going on.
Here‘s what the court said. Because Eric and Lyle ... left the house after the confrontation, went to the car, retrieved their shotguns, reloaded their guns with better ammunition, reentered the house, burst through the doors and began shooting their unarmed parents. The court concluded there was no substantial evidence of a belief in imminent peril. I mean that doesn‘t sound like such a wacky opinion.
PIXLEY: Yes, Dan, and as you read that portion of the opinion, the one thing that is missing throughout it is any reference to any legal precedent. The reason being that California doesn‘t have some strict standard as to what is imminent danger. What we do know in the course of the trial, what came out in the course of the first trial is that Kitty Menendez told Lyle that morning that what is about to happen—excuse me - - told Erik that morning what is about to happen is your fault.
What is about to happen, what is going to happen to this family is your fault. Of course, Erik had gone to Lyle, told him that the abuse was continuing and had asked him to intervene. Lyle had gone to his father and said if you don‘t stop, I‘m going to tell the world and that led to the series of events over the course of a few days.
And that evening they were told you are not allowed to go out tonight. It was a summer night. These are teenagers. One is in college and you‘re not allowed to go out tonight. Go up to your room. We‘ll be up to deal with you.
Now the question is, is there imminent harm when they are in separate rooms? And that issue of what is imminent has not been decided by California... So there is a very open question as to whether it‘s imminent and the fact that the Ninth Circuit... decided it wasn‘t does not mean the issue is dead.
Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.