LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- With Lyle and Erik Menendez testifying for their lives, let's go to the phones over at Court TV.
You're on, Jane in Georgia: "Lyle is a phony, cold-blooded killer. I hope there's zero chance for acquittal." Debbie from Mississippi, a counterpoint, please: "I believe that Lyle is telling the truth." And Dorothy from Texas: "When Lyle purchased three Rolexes, who was the third one for?"
Now let's swing out to the scene, where Regena Woods has camped out overnight, on the front steps of the Van Nuys Superior Court, to catch Erik Menendez testify. "I just think they're both so cute," the 24-year-old says, adding that she hopes they won't be convicted of murder. But if they go to prison, she says, she wants to visit, "to be a friend."
It's Menendez mania! "A collaboration of Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins and Truman Capote would not have concocted a soap opera to rival this saga," A.R. offers on the Prodigy electronic bulletin board.
Of course, it's not a fictional soap opera. It's a deadly serious criminal trial, with Erik and Lyle Menendez facing first-degree murder charges in the shotgun slayings of their parents. The brothers' testimony, 19 days of it, left prosecutors seemingly confident they will get some conviction, but defense lawyers optimistic, as well -- that they have at least saved their clients from the gas chamber.
While jurors will not have their say for at least another month, several sources provide loud evidence of what other spectators are thinking.
From the call-in lines, computer bulletin boards and even that most unscientific of barometers, "The Tonight Show" monologue, it's clear that most of the public is not buying the brothers' claim that they had to kill because their parents were about to murder them. But their teary tales of horrifying sexual abuse seem to have generated sympathy from a healthy minority, especially women.
From the start, it was a case that had it all, the saga of two brothers who went from the gates of Beverly Hills to the bars of the Los Angeles County Jail, all broadcast live on cable %o nationwide, on Court TV, with the high points splashed again on the evening news.
Witnesses have talked of sex, incest, violence, big money, pills, booze, fancy cars, society figures, a domineering father, a suicidal mother, vulgar language, rage, passion, fear and disappearing wills. And the fact that the killers very nearly got away with it.
One thing the trial is not is a whodunit. Both brothers admit they killed their parents on Aug. 20, 1989, with shotgun blasts in the TV room of the family's $4 million Beverly Hills mansion.
That has left one fundamental issue: what led Lyle Menendez, 25, and Erik, 22, to blast away at their father, Jose Menendez, 45, a wealthy entertainment executive, and mother, Kitty Menendez, 47. Jose Menendez was hit six times. Kitty Menendez was hit 10 times.
Prosecutors contend the motive was hatred and greed, alleging the brothers were impatient for the $14 million family estate. The defense contends the brothers lashed out in fear after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
This has all been Page One fodder in Southern California for weeks. Then, in the past month, as first Lyle and then Erik Menendez took the stand, it grabbed a nationwide audience.
With the brothers on the witness stand -- Erik Menendez is due to step off it after a brief appearance today -- the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office has been getting 50 calls a day from people offering tips that they hope will lead to conviction, said one of the prosecutors on the case, Deputy District Attorney Pamela Bozanich. "I've never seen anything like it," Ms. Bozanich said.
Lyle Menendez, in turn, has been receiving 20 to 40 letters a day, many from groupies expounding their love and others from sympathetic victims of child abuse wanting to relate their own painful histories, said his lawyer, Jill Lansing.
Court TV, which usually averages about 200 calls per week on its recorded comment line, zoomed up to about 1,000 while the brothers were on the stand, said Merrill Brown, its senior vice-president for corporate and program development.
In the meantime, this just in on the Court TV lines, from Suzanne in Oklahoma: "Please give us Menendez all day long until it's finished."