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For the past nine months I have been working as an investigator for the defense in a murder case in which a 22-year-old man (who, for the purposes of this piece, we’ll call Russell Benjamin) has been accused of bludgeoning both his parents to death. Because of my involvement, I am not at liberty to divulge any of the true names of the participants in the case. However, what I can state is that there is overwhelming evidence that Benjamin did, in fact, commit murder. Despite the preponderance of evidence, this is the second time the case is being tried. The first trial resulted in a hung-jury.
Oddly, this case has received little media attention. A couple of the TV tabloid shows grabbed it the first time around, but trial number two has been totally ignored by the media. I’m not quite sure why, though I firmly believe that had the incident taken place in Los Angeles or New York, instead of a small mid-Western province, it would have been a three-ring circus.
Before I go any further, I want to make my own prejudice clear; it is my firm belief that Benjamin is guilty of murder. Motive? Benjamin was furious that his parents did not approve of his (non-Jewish) girlfriend. On the day of their deaths, they had refused to let the girlfriend (who was arriving from another city) sleep with Benjamin– (who lived with his parents) in their house. My opinion is that Benjamin killed his parents in a fit of rage. The crime was premeditated, as the father was killed while he was asleep, and, the mother was either asleep or resting when she was attacked. Besides anger, motive number two is that Benjamin stands to inherit approximately $8 million (his allotment of the estate) if he is acquitted of the murder charges. Benjamin has what could be described, at best, as a very shaky alibi as to where he was at the time of the murders. Shortly after the crime occurred, police arrested Benjamin — who was holed up in a hotel room with the girlfriend — in a nearby town. (No charges were brought against the girlfriend.)
One of the reasons this case initially attracted my interest (before I was hired by the defense, I was following the case with the intention of writing a book) was because of similarities it has with three very famous murder cases: the O.J. Simpson case, the Menendez Brothers case, and (to some degree), the Jeffrey McDonald case (which prompted the best-selling book “Fatal Vision”), in which Dr. McDonald was convicted of bludgeoning his wife and children to death during a fit of rage. Like all four of these killers, Russell Benjamin is not amongst the downtrodden. Rather he is of the “privileged” class. Like the Menendez brothers, he is your prototypical spoiled rich kid, a young man who always had an unlimited supply of cash and credit cards.
The evidence that Russell Benjamin killed his mother and father is so overwhelming that literally everyone — including his own defense team — appeared to be completely shocked when that the first trial resulted in a hung jury. But you see, this is the ’90s, and a new ethic has prevailed in the land. This new moral climate has enabled defense attorneys to make use of a strategy in which a strange role-reversal takes place. To wit: the defense puts the victims (the parents) on trial, while the murderer is cast in the role of victim. Actually, sullying the reputation of a victim (the real one) is nothing new. What’s new (and most frightening) is that juries today are buying it.
If you recall the Menendez case, the– brothers claimed that they murdered their parents, Jose and Kitty, in “self-defense” after years of sexual abuse. Though Benjamin is maintaining his innocence, in this trial — much more so than in the first one — Benjamin’s attorneys are doing their level-best to portray the parents as “victimizers” and “abusers,” while Russell is being cast as the victim.
It’s not uncommon for defense attorneys to borrow strategies which have been successfully employed on previous occasions. Eric Mendenez’s attorney, Leslie Abramson, has successfully employed variations of the “abused child” defense both in a pre-Menendez case, as well as in the recent Jeremy Strohmeyer case (in which 20-year-old Strohmeyer was convicted of raping and murdering 7-year-old Sherrice Iversen). Though Strohmeyer admitted his guilt, he never truly accepted blame for his actions. In a speech that many say was crafted by Abramson, Strohmeyer blamed everyone and everything (an ex-girlfriend, his psychiatrist, a Los Angeles adoption agency, America Online, the owners of the casino where the murder took place, and his best friend David Cash (who was with him at the time of the murder) for his actions. Everybody was guilty except Strohmeyer. Interestingly, Strohmeyer — like the Menendez brothers before him — also claims– to have “blacked out” at the moment of committing the actual murder.
The book “Children Who Kill” tells us that most parricides are frequently carried out in brutal, calculating manner. The murders typically occur when the parent is in his least defensible position. The circumstances of the killing often suggest an ambush, with the parent is sleeping, watching TV, or has their back turned to their assailant.
A particularly disturbing characteristic of this type of homicide is what police refer to as the “overkill factor.” Rarely is the parent killed with a clean shot or a single blow. Most often the child will shoot, club or stab the parent numerous times. In the Benjamin case, Benjamin’s father appears to have had his skull bashed in with a “baseball bat-like object” (the murder weapon has not been found) while sleeping. The mother, whose battered body was found on a chair in the den) bore no defense wounds — indicating that she probably knew her attacker. The coroner has stated that both parents were probably killed with the first blow; however, their attacker continued to beat them to the point where their faces were literally unrecognizable.
We all know that defendants are scripted to some degree; yet I can recall, while watching the Menendez trial, the feeling that we were seeing not simply a script, but an artfully crafted melodrama — complete down to the most infinitesimal detail. I remember at the time being baffled by this … that is, until I came to learn of an unseen member of the Menendez defense team — a man named Paul Mones.
An attorney, Mones is the author of the best-selling book, “When A Child Kills: Abused Children Who Kill Their Parents.” The book puts forth the theory that abused children are akin to victims of battered women’s syndrome. In some states, battered women’s syndrome has been afforded the status of a legal defense to murder.
According to its proponents — most of them from the feminist community —- victims of battered women’s/battered children’s syndrome have been so badly damaged that they can no longer distinguish reality from fantasy. Thus their perception of “imminent danger” — which is necessary in order to plead self-defense — may be skewed. (In essence, it’s a kind of watered-down insanity defense). Victims of the “syndrome” (the use of the term syndrome is itself an– attempt by its adherents to elevate this condition to the status of a biological disease) are said to suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), the same condition that affects Vietnam vets and concentration camp victims. Oftentimes, they also suffer from multiple-personality disorder (another highly-fashionable diagnosis these days).
Interestingly, Mones’ practice consists entirely of hiring himself out as a consultant on parricide cases. He’s even has come up with what he describes as “a comprehensive manual that guides other lawyers in preparing and trying their cases.” Among other things the packet includes “a protocol for identifying witnesses and readying them for testimony; suggestions for uncovering hidden clues of abuse; a ‘how to’ on picking the jury, and sample opening and closing arguments.” Given the current popularity of what some have termed “the cult of abuse and victimization,” Mones’ vocation has made him a highly sought after commodity. He says he has more cases than he can handle. (Mones is not on the Benjamin defense team. My guess is that’s due to the fact that Benjamin has continued to maintain his innocence). However, the defense in the second trial has clearly crafted their case using many of the strategies which Mones’ has popularized.
Mones’ book — in which he often sounds more like an amateur therapist than an attorney — is kind of a combination true-crime/self-help book. The hopelessly muddled work epitomizes the worst of both genres. Replete with gory details of assorted murders, the 359-page tome is rife with opinion masked as fact, psychological double-speak, plus a massive amount of cheesy sermonizing by the author.
Throughout the book, Mones portrays himself as a sort of Lone Ranger — a hero whose research has forced him to walk though “some of the most grotesque and dismal quarters of the human landscape” in the effort to rescue victimized children from the hideous misdeeds of their evil parents. Thus, in Mones’ view, the murdered parent is responsible for his own death. “The murder is not a choice,” Mones informs us, “but is something forced upon the child.”
Mones’ condescending attitude toward abusive parents (what actually constitutes abuse is something he never bothers to define) is revealed most when he states, “my first reaction to the dead parent is most often disdain and hatred. But as the facts unfold … my– anger diminishes and is replaced by pity.”
Mones accuses opponents of his point-of-view of living in “feudal times,” of being “unenlightened,” and of employing “sanitized language.” “Abuse is too nice a word,” he scoffs. “The proper word is “torture.” Thus Mones imbues his abused children with the status of Holocaust victims, a theme he reinforces whenever possible. The Holocaust-as-metaphor for (fill in your favorite cause) has always been a popular tactic with liberals.
As do many authors of self-help books, Mones makes such flagrant use of hyperbole and psychological gobbledygook that the work would be laughable if not for the fact that it’s become the bible for defense attorneys with clients who’ve killed their parents. A few samples:
Battering parents look just like anyone else. There could be one on your block.
A mother who tells her child, “I hate you, I wish you had never been born,” is as guilty of soul pummeling and murder as the mother who beats her children.
It is likely that the (battered child syndrome) will be found to be a more frequent cause of death than such well recognized diseases as leukemia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy.–
Yes, these kids have taken their parents’ lives, often in a ruthless, seemingly pre-meditated fashion. But, my mind says, was theirs the only finger on the trigger?– Are the parents not responsible … for their own demise?
Mones’ book includes absolutely no information as to how many of these youthful killers lie about the fact of their abuse (statistics indicate a high percentage of the tales are invented). Nor does Mones ever mention that in nine out of 10 cases, the killers come up with elaborately designed cover-ups for the murders (one would think that if the killing had such a cathartic purpose, they’d readily admit their act).– Nor does Mones ever bother to mention the “survivors” of the parental “Holocaust” — the many children of abusive parents who don’t kill their parents, but whose natural survival and coping mechanisms enable them to lead perfectly normal lives.
Let’s not forget that during the Simpson trial (though, like Benjamin, Simpson continued — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — to maintain his innocence,– how O.J. repeatedly stated that Nicole had “battered” and “abused” him. Similarly, in the Jeffrey McDonald case (McDonald also pled not-guilty), during his time on the stand, McDonald portrayed himself as the “victim” of an abusive, drugged-out wife.
According to proponents of the victim mentality, the act of murder can actually be considered– a “healthy” reaction to living in a “toxic” environment. In fact, according to Paul Mones, murdering a parent can often have a “strangely positive and therapeutic effect on the child.” Moreover, the murder serves as a “catalyst to return safety, balance and rationality to the family process.” Often, Mones notes cheerily, “after the killings, these kids can go back to lead healthy, normal lives.”
I’m sure you recall how, during the Menendez case, the defense successfully managed to put the dead parents on trial. The same tactic is being taken in Benjamin’s trial, with the defense dragging in– witnesses to testify as to the “suffering” that was inflicted upon Russell by his– “abusive” parents. Oddly, neither Russell’s younger brother or sister were victims of this alleged abuse. Moreover, (most of) the family members (who at this point are still — somewhat reluctantly, it appears — backing Benjamin) have portrayed the parents as caring, loving people.
Surely no one who watched the Menendez case will be able to forget the performance put on by the constantly demagoguing Leslie Abramson, who portrayed Jose Menendez as a tyrannical, sadistic deviant who used his sons as sex slaves, torturing them with toothbrushes, pins, needles and Rambo knives.
Likewise, in the Simpson case, the defense team managed to extract virtually every skeleton in Nicole Simpson’s closet, including her sexual promiscuity and drug abuse. Yet can any of these things, true or not, possibly be considered a rationale for murder? In a morally relativistic society, the answer is yes.
Whenever the defense employs this tactic, their goal — in painting the real victims in as horrific a fashion as possible — is that the jury will ignore the letter of the law and in effect say, “They were such horrible people, they deserved to die.” This time-honored legal tactic is known as “jury nullification.”
The exact same methodology is being employed in the Benjamin case. Though Mones himself was not called as an expert witness (maybe his price was too high), the defense has introduced a slew of “experts”– psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers (how do these people sleep at night?) — all of whom are doing their level-best to bolster the notion that somehow Benjamin’s parents deserved to die.
In the cosmology of the self-help movement, all human failure stems from our lack of ability to love ourselves; the worst thing a person can have is a bad case of self-esteem. In the Menendez family, where approval by their perfectionist father was rarely forthcoming, self-esteem was difficult to maintain. In the end, however, the brothers stated that they would have finally gotten the approval they’d sought all their lives. Lyle Menendez (who, only days after he’d blown his parents to smithereens gave a moving, 30-minute eulogy testifying to what a great man his father was) stated in court, “I think my father would have been proud of me (for murdering him).”
When the stupefied prosecutor asked the elder Menendez brother if he really meant that, Lyle answered unblinkingly that he believed his father would have admired the fact that he had finally “stood up to him,” in such a convincing fashion.
But the most dumbfounding testimony during the brothers’ two weeks on the witness stand came from Erik, who had confessed the murders to his therapist, and later to his best friend. When asked why he’d confessed, Erik replied, “I needed someone to tell me that I was really a good person.”
If guilt is indeed a healthy mechanism — a response to our God-given knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil — this statement is, perhaps, the most repugnant of all. The young man who’d just blown away his parents needed an ego massage. He wanted to be told, in effect … I’m OK, you’re OK.
Self-help authors like Mones, M. Scott Peck, and John Bradshaw have all profited handsomely from the “victims” they purport to assist;– thus it’s to their benefit to continually expand the boundaries of what constitutes abuse and victimization. In doing so, these– people trivialize the experiences of actual victims … people who have suffered starvation, torture, rape … people who have been murdered while they slept. But according to the self-help/abuse gurus, there are no degrees of suffering. Virtually anyone can wear the crown of thorns.
Ultimately, both the Menendez brothers and Jeffrey McDonald were convicted of murder. O.J. Simpson, of course, prevailed in the criminal trial, but lost the civil case brought against him.
Russell Benjamin has already had one hung jury. The consensus of opinion is that he will be found guilty this time around; the defense’s tactic of dragging the parents across the coals (which they did not do in the first trial), along with constant discussions re a plea-bargain (which they refused to do during the first trial), would seem to indicate that they are preparing for a guilty verdict. But one never knows. The prosecuting DA has already stated that if there is a second hung jury, he will not re-file the case.
And what if Benjamin (like O.J. Simpson) is found innocent? In that instance, double-jeopardy will enable him to wear his crown of thorns forever. Moreover, he will do so as a rich man.
Something odd has happened to me in working the Benjamin case. Though I am sure Russell Benjamin killed his parents, I find my anger has become focused on the witnesses and hired guns who’ve come forth to promote the “abused victim” theory. To me, these people are as guilty of villainy as the murderer himself.
The ’90s is indeed a “New Age.” Our values have been turned topsy turvey. We now live in a world where morality is dictated by therapists rather than God, where evil is discounted as myth, where feeling good is the end all and be all. Given this as an operative modality, murdering an “abusive” parent is not only permissible — it’s healthy.— Not only does the “abused victim” philosophy absolve murderers of guilt, it actually applauds the killer for his deed. “I firmly believe that victims of child abuse are entitled to do anything necessary to free themselves from their tyranny,” says Paul Mones.
Increasingly, this cut-price nihilism pervades the moral climate of modern America — its schoolrooms, law offices, television studios, welfare offices, mainline liberal churches and temples, and wherever two or more PhDs are gathered together in Freud’s name. We have known for some time now that this climate produced ghetto kids who would kill for a sneaker; now we know that– it also gives birth to rich kids who will kill to get rid of “pesky” parents (while inheriting the estate in the process).
For believers in this cheap, ersatz ethical system, remorse has been replaced by self-pity and self-righteousness, truth has been traded for moral relativism, and the only thing one can ever be guilty of is bad judgment. Of all the ugliness we’ve had to witness as a result of the cancerous moral relativism that has crept into our belief, our societal, and our legal system, this particular perversion of truth (which puts the true victims of crime on trial and sets killers free) is perhaps the most shameful fact of all.