Erik Menendez Explains Why He Smirked During His Murder Trial: 'It Was a Defense Mechanism'

"Behind the scenes, I couldn't stop crying," the infamous murderer tells A&E

In the early 1990s, the American public was riveted by the prosecution of Erik and Lyle Menendez. Millions of people observed every move of the rich young brothers accused of their parents’ brutal shotgun slayings in 1989.

At his arraignment, Erik entered the courtroom with a smirk on his face, leading observers to believe that he wasn’t taking things seriously. Throughout the trial, too, he sometimes had a smirk or a smile on his face — a sign, some critics said, that he was the callous and spoiled killer described by prosecutors.

But Erik now says that his behavior was misunderstood. Speaking out in a new episode of the A&E documentary special The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All, airing Thursday night and exclusively previewed above, he says he “was in shock.”

“I was being portrayed as a monster — someone who would kill for money,” Erik, now 47, tells the show.

“When I first came to the arraignment, I was so nervous,” he explains. “I walked out there and [defense attorney] Leslie [Abramson] made a joke. It was so nerve-wracking that I smiled and it was this defense mechanism that came out. But on the cameras from then to the rest of eternity, [they] have me smiling as if I think the whole thing is a joke.

“Ironically, that was exactly the opposite of how I felt.”

For the docuseries, Erik talked to Menendez Murders executive producer Nancy Saslow in a series of 12-minute prison phone calls over several months.

“It was incredible access,” Saslow tells PEOPLE. “He talked about many things he has never spoken publicly about.”

In the series, Erik details his version of the night he and Lyle murdered their parents. He discusses the bond that he had with his older brother, and the media circus that ensued after their arrests.

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While the brothers seemed very relaxed during trial, Erik insists that he was privately falling apart.

“Behind the scenes, I can’t stop crying,” he says. “I’m on massive doses of antidepressants, and I just want to die. Instead, what’s portrayed is this arrogant kid who thinks this is all a joke. But it was exactly the opposite.”

Prosecutors said the murders of the brothers’ parents, José and Kitty Menendez, were part of a larger scheme to get their $14-million estate. But the brothers claimed, in detail, that they acted in self-defense after years of abuse.

Jurors were unconvinced and Erik and Lyle were convicted of first-degree murder in 1996, after which they were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All airs Thursday (10 p.m. ET) on A&E.

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