Lyle Menendez has been locked away for murder for the past 27 years, and for nearly half of that time — 13 years to be exact — he has spent nearly every Saturday and Sunday sitting in the visiting room at California’s Mule Creek State Prison quietly talking with his wife, Rebecca.
“Our interaction tends to be very free of distractions and we probably have more intimate conversations than most married spouses do, who are distracted by life’s events,” Lyle tells PEOPLE in a rare prison interview.
“We try and talk on the phone every day, sometimes several times a day,” Lyle says. “I have a very steady, involved marriage and that helps sustain me and brings a lot of peace and joy. It’s a counter to the unpredictable, very stressful environment here.”
What Lyle calls “very stressful” is the prison system where he will spend the rest of his life: He and his younger brother, Erik, were convicted in 1996 of the brutal first-degree murders of their wealthy parents in August 1989.
Both brothers — Lyle was 21 and Erik was 18 at the time of the slayings — testified that they were armed with 12-gauge shotguns when they burst into the den of their home in Beverly Hills, California, while their parents watched TV.
By the time it was all over, the pair had shot their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez, a reported 15 times.
The murders, their attorneys claimed, were done in self-defense after years of sexual abuse by their father — abuse they insisted was ignored by their mom.
Prosecutors dismissed that, arguing the brothers’ motive was purely financial and their claims of abuse were concocted to avoid the death penalty.
The high-profile case transfixed and repulsed the nation. After a jury deadlock and a retrial, the brothers were eventually sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
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Months after their convictions, Lyle got married to his first wife, but he divorced her five years later. He married Rebecca in 2003, and she lives nearby and works as an attorney.
“Tammi’s love was a major step in my choosing life,” he said. “Having someone who loves you unconditionally, who you can be completely open with, is good for anybody — to know that this person loves me as I am.”
While Lyle says his marriage has helped him cope with prison (California doesn’t allow conjugal visits for those serving life sentences), he admits he “feels guilty” about what Rebecca has to endure as his wife.
“People are judgmental, and she has to put up with a lot,” Lyle says. “But she has the courage to deal with the obstacles. It would be easier to leave, but I’m profoundly grateful that she doesn’t.”