*The double murder case of Lyle and Erik Menendez fatally shooting their wealthy parents inside the family’s Beverly Hills home in 1989 captivated a nation.
During the brothers’ high-profile trial in 1994, they claimed that the murders stemmed from years of sexual and psychological abuse that they had suffered at the hands of their parents. The trial ended with two deadlocked juries, but in their retrials, the juries rejected the defense’s abuse claims and the brothers were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Now, nearly 30 years later “Law & Order’s” Dick Wolf has adapted the story into an anthology series starring Edie Falco as defense attorney Leslie Abramson with Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper and as Lyle and Erik.
EUR/Electronic Urban Report correspondent Ny MaGee caught up with the cast, Mr. Wolf and Showrunner/Executive Producer Rene Balcer during 2017 Summer TCA to dish about the creative process behind “Law & Order True Time: The Menendez Murders.”
“I said to Rene, who I think is the best procedural writer in the business, I said, “Is there enough here for eight hours of compelling television?” And it was immediate. He said, “Oh, yeah. That’s not a problem.” And the research revealed things that none of us knew, and that’s one of the things that I think is most impactful about the eight hours,” Dick explains.
“I don’t care what attitude you go in. Your mind is going to receive information that I think will change a lot of people’s attitudes. And we are not this is unique for me, after 27 years of “Law & Order.” This is taken from the headlines. We’ve made some great shows from the headlines. This is on a different level,” he adds.
“It’s also the only time that we’ve had sort of a collective agenda, which is this is one of the crimes of the century. It’s absolutely horrible, but when you see the information, I think people are going to realize, well, yeah, they did it, but it wasn’t first-degree murder, with no possibility of parole. They probably should have been out 8 or 10 years ago, because they should have been convicted of first-degree manslaughter, which is a different punishment than first-degree murder. So, yes, this is a show that has an agenda to it.”
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When asked if he had any “pause” about using the “Law & Order” brand name, even with “True Crime” added to it, Dick replied, “Look, in this universe that has come to be the new normal with 450 scripted projects on television last year, if I thought it would help, I’d run naked through the streets, which nobody would want to see.”
Continuing, “And to turn away from “Law & Order” when we could literally change the name to “Law & Order True Crime,” the same way “SVU,” it depends it’s sort of schizophrenic, as was referred to by most people as “SVU.” It’s listed as “Law & Order,” maybe sometimes “SVU,” it is part of the television landscape, in a positive way. So, yes, I would use anything I can to get an audience that does not lower the level of the brand.”
Lyle and Erik’s claim that their father molested them is pivotal to Wolf’s narrative.
“Yeah, we are going there,” Renee states, adding, “Both boys were molested by their father. Both boys were molested by their mother, according to their testimony, which is corroborated by testimony from relatives, some photographs that were found. And, in fact, according to the testimony, the younger brother, who was 18 at the time of the murder, the last time his father molested him was two weeks before the murders. So this was a very dysfunctional family. So that’s part of the story. The other part of the story that is probably not well-known is the degree of implicit political collusion between the judge and the district attorney’s office in the second trial to assure a conviction, and so that’s one new facet to the case that the series sort of highlights.”
Director Lesli Linka Glatter believes that the Menendez brothers’ “privilege” both helped and hurt them throughout the criminal investigation.
“In the beginning, privilege helped the boys. They didn’t do a gun residue test the night of. If this would have been poor kids, that would have been done immediately, game over,” she explains. “So it protected them in the beginning, but in the end, it hurt them. So the celebrity, the money, killing your parents for the money became the headlines. So it’s, again, looking deeper underneath that.”
Halper, who plays Erik, revealed during TCA that he never heard of the notorious brothers until he was sent information about the audition for the role.
“I personally wasn’t aware of it at all,” he shares. “So I actually feel like that was a benefit, approaching the character because we didn’t have to break through all these preconceptions of them. But I think a lot of people had because of the media frenzy about the case. So that was actually kind of nice. I’m grateful that I didn’t know anything about it. I had to approach it with a fresh set of eyes.”
Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne, who investigated the case, wrote in his 1993 report that defense attorney Leslie Abramson’s courtroom performance would define “for all future actresses how the role of the tough lady defense attorney should be played.” Dunne noted that her “scene-stealing performance, which at times infuriates Judge Weisberg, as it infuriates the prosecution, has all eyes focused on her every moment. And that’s exactly where she wants all eyes to be. There is never an instant when she is not performing. And she knows how to play to the Court TV camera as well as Barbra Streisand knows how to play to a movie camera.”
Edie Falco, who’s tackling the role of Abramson, says of the character, “Leslie Abramson is interesting to me. The fact that she is during this period of time as passionate as she was about her job, in general. But, specifically, this case. That she was not popular, and that was of less interest to her than it might be to other people. She was really about doing a good job, getting the best defense for her clients. I’m always interested by that. Her job came first; that justice was really what this was about for her. I’m always moved by that and compelled by it.”
Due to the “mitigating circumstances” surrounding the Menendez murder case, Wolf believes the brothers should never have been convicted for murder but instead for manslaughter.
“There were major mitigating circumstances which, when Leslie Abramson hung the first trial, the molestation evidence was allowed in by (Judge) Weisberg. In the final trial, it was kept out completely. And if it had been admitted, there’s no way they would have been convicted of first-degree murder. It’s mitigation. It’s not justified, but it’s a mitigating factor,” Wolf explains.
Renee adds, “The lack of understanding of the psychology of abuse victims and issues such as hypervigilance and how they perceive their parents to be a threat to their lives. And so, under theory of imperfect self-defense, the defense argued that the boys had an unreasonable but sincere belief that their lives were in imminent danger from their parents because the secret was about to come out that the father had been molesting them. And so, under that theory of imperfect self-defense, anything from a second-degree conviction to first-degree manslaughter is allowed.”
Continuing, “But this was 25 years ago. What we understood about molestation, especially of boys, was primitive compared to what we understand now. So that’s an issue that, in the recent suicide of the lead singer of Linkin Park, also an abuse victim, and what his abuse, what role that played in his death. So that’s still an area of psychology that we don’t quite understand fully, but certainly, as was said before, if instead of Erik it would have been Erica Menendez who killed her parents to stop the abuse, they wouldn’t be in jail.”
Lyle Menendez is currently incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, and Erik, meanwhile, is incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. He once confessed to People that he regrets the murder.
“Law & Order True Time: The Menendez Murders” airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC.