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Menendez brothers await a decision they hope will free them

The Menendez Brothers’ Fight for Freedom
The Menendez Brothers’ Fight for Freedom 41:51

Lyle and Erik Menendez have been behind bars in California for more than three decades for the 1989 killing of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez. They were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in the notorious case that captured the nation's attention. Now, the brothers are hoping that new evidence will reopen their case and set them free.

"48 Hours" contributor Natalie Morales speaks to Lyle Menendez from prison as he awaits a judge's decision in "The Menendez Brothers' Fight for Freedom,"  streaming now on Paramount +.

Menendez brothers hope new evidence will help reopen infamous murder case 04:11

The Menendez brothers admit that they killed their parents. Instead, the focus of the case has long been on why they did it. They insist that they killed out of fear and in self-defense after a lifetime of physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered at the hands of their parents. 

One of their lawyers, Cliff Gardner, tells "48 Hours" that new evidence corroborates those longstanding claims and lessens their culpability. Gardner argues that Lyle and Erik Menendez should have been convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, and that if they had been, they would have received a much shorter sentence and been out of prison a long time ago.

New Menendez  brothers case evidence
New evidence in the case includes this letter written by Erik Menendez to his cousin Andy Cano in December 1988. Superior Court of the State of California, Los Angeles County

The new evidence includes a letter that Gardner says was written by Erik Menendez to Erik's cousin, Andy Cano, in December 1988, about eight months before the crime. The letter reads, in part, "I've been trying to avoid dad. It's still happening, Andy, but it's worse for me now. … Every night I stay up thinking he might come in. … I'm afraid. … He's crazy. He's warned me a hundred times about telling anyone, especially Lyle."

Andy Cano did testify at the brothers' trials. He said that Erik Menendez at age 13, years before the killings, told him that his father was touching him inappropriately. Prosecutors at trial suggested that Cano was lying.

The brothers were tried twice. Their first trial ended in a mistrial when two juries, one for each brother, couldn't reach a unanimous decision as to whether Lyle and Erik Menendez were guilty of manslaughter or murder. When they were tried a second time, prosecutors attacked the abuse allegations more aggressively. They referred to the allegations as "the abuse excuse." That trial resulted in the brothers' convictions for first-degree murder.

Gardner says this letter is proof that the abuse allegations were not made up. He says the letter was never presented at either trial, and that it was discovered in storage within the last few years by Andy Cano's mother. Andy Cano died in 2003.

The letter isn't the only piece of evidence that has surfaced. Roy Rossello, a former member of the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, has come forward claiming that he was also sexually abused by Jose Menendez, back in the early 80s, when Rossello was a minor and a member of the band. At the time, Jose Menendez was working as an executive at RCA Records, and RCA signed Menudo to a recording contract.

Jose Menendez, Edgardo Diaz and Menudo members
Jose Menendez, top row, second from left, is pictured with former members of Menudo in 1983, including Roy Rossello, bottom right.  Sony Music/RCA Records

Rossello is now 54 years old. He says in a sworn affidavit filed in 2023 that he went to Jose Menendez's home in the fall of 1983 or 1984. Rossello would have been between 14 and 15 years old at the time. He says he drank "a glass of wine," then felt like he had "no control" over his body. He says Jose Menendez took him to a room and raped him. Rossello also states in the affidavit that he was sexually abused by Jose Menendez on two other occasions, right before and right after a performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

"When I first heard about it … I cried," Lyle Menendez told Morales. "For me, it was very meaningful to just have things come out that caused people to really realize, OK … at least this part of what it's about is true."

The Menendez brothers' attorney, Cliff Gardner, filed a habeas petition in May 2023 citing the letter and Rossello's affidavit as new evidence that proves his clients' convictions should be vacated.

"The boys were abused as children. They were abused their whole life. … And this is a manslaughter case, not a murder case. It's just that simple," Gardner said to "48 Hours" about the Menendez brothers. "My hope in the case is that the judge will realize that this new evidence is indeed credible and persuasive, and he'll vacate the convictions."

If that happens, it would be up to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office whether to retry the case. In a statement, the district attorney's office told "48 Hours" it is investigating the claims made in the habeas petition. It is unclear when a judge will rule in the case. 

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