It’s been more than 20 years since the Menendez brothers made headlines when they were convicted in 1996 of killing both their parents in 1989. It was one of those stories that captivated the country — like the Manson murders, the OJ Simpson trial or Casey Anthony — and we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the TV.
It was a salacious trial — the defense team argued that the brothers, Erik and Lyle, had been abused by their parents from an early age. Plus, there were rumors that Erik was gay and claims that the brothers threatened to kill their therapist.
There were also allegations that the brothers’ attorney altered evidence, leaving their star defense lawyer sidelined during closing arguments.
After two trials — the first one ended with a hung jury — the Menendez brothers were sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole.
Then the story died down for two decades. The media got bored, the viewers were over it, whatever. Erik and Lyle, ages 18 and 21 when the crime was committed, were left to start a new life behind bars.
The brothers were separated when they first went to prison. Erik was sent to Folsom State Prison — yes, the same Folsom Prison of Johnny Cash fame — while Lyle went to Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. Eventually, Erik was moved to R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
Incarceration is hard, but it’s even harder in places like the R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility, known for violent outbreaks and the tiny cells guards call temporary holding tanks. Prisoners are only allowed outside 15 hours each week. And when they’re not outside, prisoners are stuffed in pairs into tiny, 6-by-4-foot cells with concrete walls.
One time, a prisoner died at the Donovan Correctional Facility, and no one even noticed for two days. Not until the smell got so bad they had to check on him.
This isn’t to say that the prisoners don’t deserve their punishment. But it just makes what happened next for Erik to be that much more incredible.
God Behind Bars
During his time in prison, Erik started reading about and researching God. It wasn’t easy, though.
“I didn’t talk to God because I couldn’t bear to face God,” Erik said of the yearsimmediately after his conviction. Instead, he focused on asking his mother for forgiveness and meditating on his life’s purpose.
Then Erik started finding out about God thanks to a very unusual thing — a James Dean poster hanging in his cell.
“One day, I was standing (and) looking out of my cell, when I felt a terrible chill throughout my body,” Erik said. “I felt an evil presence all around me. I was terrified. I almost had a heart attack. I shut my eyes and whispered a prayer my Aunt Marta had taught me: ‘Satan, in the name of the Lord (Jesus) Christ, I command you to go where He sends you.’ At that moment, this poster filled with red fell to the ground. This frightening spirit left my body. And I knew then that God existed.”
For the next 14 years, Erik studied harder to figure out who God was and what He wanted for Erik’s life.
Marta Cano, Erik and Lyle’s aunt, is a longtime Christian and a big supporter of her nephews. She found out about Erik’s conversion when he reached out to her for some reading material so he could teach the other inmates about God.
“He was really making sure that the prisoners knew that there is a God that loves us,” Marta said.
There are chapels at the prison where Erik lives, but they accommodate every religion from Christianity to Odinisim, a religion based on Norse mythology. Norse is popular among the white supremacist groups — not exactly a community for Erik, whose father was a Cuban immigrant.
There hasn’t been much written about Lyle since his incarceration, but that could change soon. Recently, Lyle transferred to the same prison as Erik, making it the first time the brothers have seen each other in years.
Being Alone Together
Through the years, Erik hasn’t been alone. During his first trial, a woman named Tammi wrote him letters. The correspondence went on for years. Then, after Tammi’s husband committed suicide when it came to light that he had been molesting their daughter, Talia, Erik and Tammi entered into a romantic relationship.
“I believe in God and that nothing happens by chance,” Erik told People in 2005. “I saw Tammi’s letter, and I felt something. I received thousands of letters, but I set this one aside. I got a feeling.”
The two got married in 1999 and became their own version of a family. Erik said both Tammi and Talia push him to be a better man.
“I want to be the most compassionate person I can be,” Erik said. “At some point, life began to change for me. More than anything else, I wanted to be a kind person.”
Jailhouse conversions are a murky topic. On the one hand, any person coming to know Christ at any point in their life is something to be celebrated. On the other hand, skeptics argue that prisoners use faith to get early release dates. The latter is a moot point for Erik since he doesn’t have even the possibility for parole. Others, like Tex Watson and David Berkowitz, have also found hope in Jesus, even though there’s no hope of ever regaining their freedom.
But that’s between the inmates and Jesus. We’re just here to tell the story and let the world know this: Forgiveness is possible.