It was the other trial of the century in the 1990s, before that of O.J. Simpson. Actually, two of them. Broadcast live on Court TV, millions of viewers nationwide could not look away from the grisly spectacle of two handsome, young, rich brothers, Lyle and Erik Menendez, being tried for gunning down their mother and their father as the couple watched TV in their Beverly Hills home on a warm August night in 1989.
The trials, which ended in deadlocked juries, made a media star of defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who claimed the brothers were driven to kill Kitty and José Menendez after suffering a lifetime of behavioral and sexual abuse at their hands.
A second trial, in which cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, ended with both brothers convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They are each serving life prison sentences without the possibility of parole in separate California correctional institutions.
The sordid, sensational true crime drama, which has been the subject of TV movies and documentaries — including one earlier this year on ABC in which Lyle Menendez spoke by phone from prison — now gets the limited series treatment in the eight-episode “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” premiering tonight on NBC.
It’s the first time the venerable “L&O” franchise has tackled a real murder case.
“There’s no disclaimer that any similarities to any person living or dead or actual events are purely coincidental. It’s very freeing, yet more restrictive to be bound by the facts of the case. It’s a fascinating journey,” said executive producer Dick Wolf at the recent Paley Center for Media’s Fall TV Preview for the new series.
Unlike a typical “Law & Order” episode that traces the investigation of a crime, apprehension of a suspect and then a trial, it is not a whodunit or a procedural.
“It’s not the ‘who,’” Wolf said. “At the end of the eight hours, you’re going to really understand the ‘why.’ It’s the first time ‘Law & Order’ has had an agenda. There was evidence kept out of horrifying sexual abuse. If they were tried now, it would be manslaughter. The reason behind the crime is fascinating. It’s a different perspective and should be viewed with a different legal lens.”
With Edie Falco portraying Abramson, and Lyle and Erik Menendez played respectively by Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper, the series examines their upbringing and her controversial defense tactics, including the physical affection Abramson displayed toward the brothers in the courtroom, where she seemed to treat them like sons rather than murder suspects.
“She took the job very seriously and devoted herself to giving the best defense. Her job was to represent them fairly,” said Falco, who appeared at the event with Wolf, showrunner Rene Balcer, Villanueva, Halper and other cast members including Heather Graham, Carlos Gomez, Sam Jaeger and Lolita Davidovich. “I like the fact that she’s not concerned with how she appears. She humanized them and it perturbed some people because they don’t like gray areas.”
“I had access to all the police reports, the trial transcripts and manuscripts from reporters covering the trials,” said Balcer. “Between the first and the second trials, something went off the rails with the prosecution. On ‘Law & Order,’ the point of view is from the prosecutors and the cops. This point of view is from the defense attorney. She knew they did it but that doesn’t preclude her from giving them the best defense. It had nothing to do with money.”
Graham plays Judalon Smyth, the lover of the psychologist Jerome Oziel, (played by Josh Charles) to whom Erik Menendez — and later Lyle — confessed the killings. She went to authorities after Oziel ended their extramarital affair and later testified against the brothers, as did Oziel.
“She played a pivotal role in the arrest of the boys,” Graham said. “If she wasn’t in this story, they could’ve gotten off. But it’s hard to get away from a taped confession.”
Gomez said it was a challenge playing José Menendez, who came to the United States from Cuba at the age of 16 and became a hard-charging, successful entertainment executive. Known as a stern and demanding father and a tough boss, Menendez also had a string of extramarital affairs, which sent his wife, Kitty, spiraling into prescription drug abuse and heavy drinking.
“It felt like heightened reality, and kind of Shakespearean,” he said. “I knew the subject. I found this very successful man and tried to weigh who this guy was. If he did do the abuse, he was a sick man. It was very challenging.”
“She’s a tragic figure in the story,” Davidovich said of Kitty Menendez. “Despite the indiscretions, she passionately loved him — but the devastation of what she was living forced her to anesthetize with drugs and alcohol.”
Neither of the actors playing the Menendez brothers was born yet when the murders occurred. Lyle and Erik Menendez were 21 and 18 years old at the time they shotgunned their parents.
“It was a blessing not to know,” Halper said. “There’s so much information we got to absorb from this, instead of absorbing it from the media, which portrayed them as spoiled rich kids.”
“The press colors reaction to everything, especially when it gets to this level of hysteria,” Wolf said of the media coverage at the time.
The real subjects who are portrayed in the series, including Smyth, Abramson and Erik and Lyle Menendez, did not participate in the production.
“Erik has some other [TV] deal,” Halper said, but added, “Lyle’s wife has a Facebook page and said he’s going to watch.”
(“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” premieres on NBC Tuesday night, Sept. 26, at 10 p.m. ET/PT, 9 p.m Central.)