Menendez brothers serving life for parents' shotgun slayings aim for new chance at freedom

Two Los Angeles brothers convicted of plotting the gangland-style execution of their parents before going on lavish spending sprees could soon leave prison if they succeed in their quest for sentence reductions in the massacre. 

Joseph Menendez, who goes by his middle name, Lyle, and his brother, Erik, burst into their parents' Beverly Hills home in 1989 and blasted them to death with shotguns.

They had accused their father, Jose Menendez, of sexual and physical abuse. They fired so many shells that one of them had to get another from his car before he came back to deliver a kill shot to their mother, Mary "Kitty" Menendez. 

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The brothers claimed they were afraid their father would kill them after they warned him they would expose him for his deviant behavior. After their parents' slayings, they began spending lavishly on luxury items and investments, but investigators zeroed in on them after Erik confessed to his therapist.

Lyle, left, is now 56 years old, according to California prison records. Erik, right, is now 53. (California Department of Corrections) (FOX 11)

They were both convicted and ordered to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole, but they recently appealed their convictions and are seeking reduced sentences under a new California law that gives district attorneys the authority to make resentencing recommendations.

And they have the support of more than two dozen family members, who signed a letter to the judge asking him to resentence them.

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The brothers' attorneys have argued they should have been convicted of manslaughter, not murder. If they had been, they likely would already have been released from prison.

With the help of Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, they may become parole eligible soon, according to current and former members of his office who have spoken out on their own behalf.

Gascon's office did not immediately respond to questions about the Menendez brothers' case or the hiring of former public defenders as prosecutors.

During Gascon's controversial run as the county DA, numerous members of his office have pushed back at what they describe as pro-criminal policies, some of which they argue are illegal in nearly two dozen whistleblower retaliation lawsuits filed against Los Angeles County.

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The district attorney has been a vocal critic of both the death penalty and sentences of life without parole, although he lifted his own policy against seeking the latter under some circumstances, including for killers of police, serial killers and people who murder for financial gain.

But he has also hired former public defenders to come in and argue on behalf of the state during resentencing hearings. His office even replaced a career prosecutor who blew the whistle about his resentencing policies with a longtime public defender, according to her retaliation lawsuit.

"Within 24 hours of speaking up, I was retaliated against and sent to handle misdemeanors after being in the office for 20-something years," said Mindy Paige, who later left the DA's office and has a pending retaliation lawsuit. "After I was retaliated against, I was actually replaced by a public defender."

If there's an ideological motive behind her replacement it can result in lawyers for both sides "arguing the same thing," she said.

"The public defender and the quote ‘DA’ who used to be a public defender, and there's no one there to advocate for the victims in these cases," she said.

In another incident, a deputy in Gascon's office who spent years as a public defender referred to himself as "the defense," according to a transcript of the proceedings viewed by Fox News Digital.

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"It was one of the most shocking things I've ever seen," said John Colello, another deputy district attorney who was in the courtroom. Speaking on his own behalf, he said some of the former public defenders on these cases are "deputy district attorneys in name only."

"We have taxpayers that are footing these bills; they’re paying the salaries of these alleged prosecutors, but they’re really defense attorneys, and they’re going into court trying to get violent offenders released early from prison," he said. "It's mind-blowing."

The former defender-turned-prosecutor, Dan Kuperberg, was arguing for a sentence reduction for Stephen Cole, a 73-year-old convicted murderer.

Cole received a death sentence for the brutal killing of Mary Ann Mahoney in 1988. He covered her with gasoline and lit her on fire while she was in bed. Although California no longer executes people on death row, Gascon's office requested a sentence reduction to life without parole.

At trial, Cole showed no remorse and testified that he told Mahoney, "You f---ing b----, I hope you burn in hell," and watched her run away while engulfed in flames.

She spent 11 days in agony and died. Four years later, he told the jury that he still hated her. 

Even some of Cole's relatives supported the death penalty, the judge said, and he had a history of domestic violence before the murder.

"The facts of this case are barbaric to the extreme," the judge said.

He denied the resentencing request, and his denial was upheld upon appeal, Colello said.

There are a number of ways an inmate can go free after receiving a sentence reduction.

In a case like Cole's, a reduction from the death penalty to life without parole can be a step toward an additional reduction in the future. 

"The first step is they try to reduce it to LWOP," Colello said, using the acronym for life without parole. "The second step is they try to change the life without parole to some indeterminate life term, say 58 to life, so they can go on TV and say they have these lengthy sentences still."

But due to California laws regarding compassionate release, elder parole and similar rules, even a sentence that looks hefty on paper can leave an inmate immediately eligible for parole.

"Once you change a sentence from LWOP to any other term, you have all these other mechanisms in play," he said. "For example, you have elderly parole: If someone served 20 years, and they're now the age of 50 or older, they're eligible for parole. If they were a youthful offender, meaning they were under the age of 26 … at the time of the offense, they're now eligible for parole, at the latest, 25 years into their sentence."

Someone on death row or serving life without parole would not be eligible for compassionate release on medical grounds. But someone serving 100 years to life would be, he said.

The Menendez brothers are now both in their 50s. They were 21 and 18 at the time of the murders.

The brothers are not the only people who accused their father of abuse.

Roy Rossello, a former member of the boy band Menudo, alleged last year that Jose Menendez, then an executive at RCA records, molested him in the early 1980s.

Fox News' Christina Coulter and Laura Carrione contributed to this report.

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