On Tuesdays this Fall, Law & Order fans can enjoy the special version of the series in Law & Order True Crime – The Menendez Murders. This eight-episode series is helmed by Law & Order franchise giant Dick Wolf (can you even see his name without hearing the famous “dun dun dun” chimes of the theme song?). While Law & Order has experienced many spinoffs and rebirths during its three decades on air, this is the first “true crime” effort from Wolf and his team. It’s no surprise that the series decided to try its hand at investigating a real-life case, following the success of shows such as American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, Making a Murderer, the countless JonBenet specials this year, and even HBO’s The Jinx. It seems American viewers love getting a new take on an old crime. This story, centered on two American brothers who killed their parents and were convicted in 1996, takes on the topics of criminal justice, child abuse, white privilege, and family wealth throughout a look at the case.
The show, while not perfect, does its best to make the story as interesting as possible for the viewers. With drama (and overt dramatization) at every turn, this show is as close to a true-crime Lifetime miniseries as anything on NBC can get. Viewers are in for some juicy twists and turns and the acting is not half-bad. However, the overly dramatic storytelling makes more of a soggy, soppy mess. The truth is, the facts of this case are so interesting, they should’ve just let it be. If Law & Order had stuck to its more procedural roots, this show would be way better. They didn’t have to put lipstick on this pig…people want to see it for what it is. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the most important aspects of the case, without all the fluff.
15. Police messed with the crime scene
The Menendez family home was a sprawling mansion in Beverly Hills, California. Police received notice of the a crime at the home when Lyle Menendez called 9-1-1 and screamed that his parents had been killed. Police arrived on the scene shortly after the call and were shocked by what they saw: two adults, brutally murdered, and two grown men grieving, one of them in the fetal position. The police on the scene did not take into consideration that these grieving men could be the possible aggressors, instead treating Lyle and Erik as victims. The brothers’ acting meant they did not get checked for gunshot residue and the police compromised the investigation due to their ignorance to the brothers’ true motives.
14. Lavish spending raised suspicion
The brothers had always been wealthy and lived a very lavish lifestyle. Known for being athletic ladies’ men, the brothers often splurged on expensive items, dinners, and more. In short, these guys knew how to spend lots and lots of money. While police continued to survey the brothers following the murder, they noticed the brothers seemed to be particularly enjoying their money. The brothers had moved into beautiful condos (separately, but in the same complex) in Marina Del Rey. Other expenses included a new car, a $40,000 rock concert investment, and a $50,000/year tennis coach for Erik.
13. There was a foreshadowing screenplay
Erik, arguably the more interesting suspect here, wrote a screenplay about a son who kills his wealthy parents. Erik really seemed to be the mastermind behind this whole idea, and the screenplay supports that theory. Erik was better looking, more ambitious, more athletic, and more conniving. He is the one in almost all of the photos regarding the case and seemed to attract a lot of attention throughout the case. With tennis partner and friend, Craig Cignarelli, Erik went to a private cabin and wrote a 66-page screenplay called Friends. In the screenplay, the son of a wealthy couple kills five people, the first two being his parents. There are rumors that Erik wrote a second screenplay with more gruesome details of the upcoming murder, but it hasn’t been confirmed.
12. The father was a perfectionist and self-made millionaire
José Menendez was a self-made millionaire. Working hard his entire life, José had high standards for his family. He expected his boys to do well in school, attend a prestigious college, and work hard just as he did for their money. The brothers, however, did not always meet these expectations. Erik, for example, didn’t fulfill his father’s wish for him attending UCLA, instead pursuing a passion for tennis as a hopeful professional. During the case, it became clear that the brothers did not have the same affinity for working hard that their father had tried to instil in them. Instead, they felt entitled to their father’s money, an attitude that ultimately caused the family riff that ended the parents’ lives.
11. The case raised awareness of battered child syndrome
There’s no doubt in most people’s minds that Erik and Lyle’s parents were overprotective, perfectionistic, and demanding. However, is that reason enough to kill them? Battered Child Syndrome can be used to investigate the dynamics that often take place between abusive parents and children. The defense for the Menendez brothers argued that the brothers acted in a kind of self-defense, following years of abuse which included verbal abuse, but also being punched and belt-whipped. Additionally, both brothers testified that their parents had sexually molested them for twelve years, including during their teens. None of these accusations could be proved or formally substantiated, but this case raised significant awareness for battered child syndrome.
10. The case resulted in two trials before the final verdict
Once police had gathered enough evidence to pursue Erik and Lyle as suspects, more and more evidence seemed to appear. From the counselor confession, to the lavish spending, to the screenplay and corroboration from Erik’s tennis partner, there seemed to be enough to convict the two. However, the confession tapes were obtained illegally (no one can record someone unknowingly in a therapist’s office without being told to do so by law enforcement), making them unusable as evidence at first. While the attorneys argued over whether or not the tapes could be used against the Menendez brothers, Lyle and Erik spent two years in Los Angeles County Jail. Once the trail started, the entire thing was televised. The first two juries (both brothers had separate trials) were both hung, necessitating a retrial. The second trial resulted in a guilty verdict and was not televised.
9. Elton John has an odd connection
Much of the crime scene photos and investigation centered upon the Menendez home. Kitty and José Menendez had purchased the beautiful Beverly Hills mansion in a prestigious area of Los Angeles. The mansion, surrounded by old trees and gorgeous, lush landscaping was well-kept by the family. The house was something out of a movie set. That is part of the reason that the crime scene photos, in which the parents are covered in blood, slouching over, are in such stark contrast to the beautiful white mansion in all of the photos. While no one may want to live in it now, the mansion has famous roots: Elton John owned the property and home before the Menendez family.
8. The murders were gruesome
We’ve all heard (unfortunately) about children who harm their parents. The story of the Menendez brothers is unique in several ways, but one of them being just how horrific they decided to make the crime. With lots of cash to blow through, the brothers certainly could’ve purchased a substance to kill their parents, or even a hitman. However, the brothers were known to have a rebellious streak and decided to take revenge on their parents in a gruesome way. When crime scene photos were shown in court, there was an audible gasp from everyone in attendance. The photos showed the facts: José and Kitty were both shot multiple times at close range with a shotgun, leaving them unrecognizable.
7. This was the first highly publicized trial, before O.J. Simpson
It’s hard to believe there was a time when high-profile court cases weren’t televised. Actually, if they weren’t televised, were they high-profile? The Menendez murder trials might be the answer to that questions. Before O.J. Simpson, there were the Menendez brothers. Two white, privileged, attractive young men being accused of brutally murdering their own parents. Protected with the “abuse excuse,” the brothers found their own fandom as the case was televised. Some people felt strongly that these boys, even if guilty, were simply victims of years of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Others saw the boys as evil, maniacal criminals who should stay imprisoned for years. This was the first time that a case was in the national spotlight, garnering fans and critics alike.
6. A counselor knew the truth
As their lives continued to unravel in the wake of the parents’ murders, Erik struggled to wrestle with grief and guilt. Erik confessed to his tennis partner, Craig Cignarelli, that he and brother Lyle killed their parents together. Thinking he was protected by confidentiality, in October 1989, he went on to confess to yet another therapist, L. Jerome Oziel. When Lyle found out about Erik’s confession, he threatened to kill Oziel if he reported them. Juicy, right? This story gets even juicier. Oziel had his mistress in the waiting room and that woman, Judalon Smith, recorded the conversations between the Menendez brothers and Oziel, including the confession.
5. Money was the motive
So, we know that the brothers were possibly victims of lifelong abuse. That alone might make them want to kill their parents, but was that the only reason? Not according to the jury, who found the brothers were primarily motivated by money. Hoping to get their parents’ millions of dollars, estate, life insurance, and more, the brothers thought making their deaths come sooner would expedite the process. Even more telling of their motivation was that, following some particularly troublesome behavior from the brothers (like burglarizing their neighbor’s house), José had changed his will. José’s updated will left the brothers with only a percentage of what they were previously promised. Upon hearing this news, one of the brothers went and deleted the file of the will completely off of his father’s computer. This was later used as evidence against the brothers in court.
4. The brothers were not the initial suspects
Lyle Menendez frantically called 9-1-1 from the scene of the crime, shouting at the operator that someone had killed his parents. When first responders arrived, both brothers were visibly distraught, crying, shaking, even laying in the fetal position on the floor. The police said the brothers were absolutely devastated and beside themselves. It was this dramatic behavior that made police turn their attention toward other suspects, leaving Erik and Lyle out of the investigation. Immediately following the murders, investigators said Erik and Lyle’s grief was completely believable, they didn’t become suspects until the confessions, lavish spending, and other evidence emerged. Someone hand these guys Oscars!
3. Both brothers married in prison
What’s not to love about a man in uniform? We kid, we kid. Before the murders, Lyle and Erik were known ladies’ men. Why should that change after the murders? Both brothers were approached by numerous women, in the form of pen pals, while they were in prison. As can happen, the brothers fell for women, continued writing them, and eventually married. The women who wrote Lyle and Erik had all heard about the case thanks to the televised trial. Feeling that Lyle and Erik were wrongly convicted and seeing them as victims of abuse, the women sympathized with them and forged relationships.
2. Both brothers were given life sentences with no parole
The jury spared them the death sentence, but both brothers were given life sentences with no option for parole. Now 49 and 51, the Menendez brothers remain in prison. While they have moved around somewhat, both men currently reside in California state penitentiary. They have been the subjects of numerous interviews, a documentary, and a memorable Barbara Walters interview since being incarcerated. They continue to find fame in Lifetime movies, a recent episode of Snapped, and several true-crime podcasts. It seems they are making the most of life in prison, with Lyle marrying not once, but twice since becoming incarcerated.
1. Erik started a hospice program in his state prison
While serving their life sentences, the Menendez brothers have seemed to make the most of their situation. Recent interviews have shown that the brothers have done pretty well in prison, and continue to enjoy communicating with people through letters. Not only did the letters and pen pals lead to love and marriage for Erik and Lyle, but they also enjoy playing chess via the mail. Lyle has said that he feels more at peace in prison and thinks that the chaos of his childhood prepared him to adjust well to life behind bars. Erik is devoted to contributing to his prison community and even started a hospice program there.
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