Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders

NTV’s Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders tells the true story of the trial that became an international sensation


Here’s a question. What is the most publicized murder case in American history? If you didn’t answer O.J. Simpson, shame on you. What rock have you been living under for the past two decades? Forgiveness would be given if you had answered with the much publicized Menendez Brothers Murders.

To say it was a media sensation in 1993 when born to wealth brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez, at the tender ages of 21 and 18, were tried for the 1989 shotgun executions of their parents Jose and Kitty would be an egregious understatement. It was the original trial of the century, the birth of reality television.

NTVs anthology series Law & Order True Crime: The Mendendez Murders, starring Emmy winner Edie Falco, has birthed a renewal of public interest in the larger-than-life case, with the shocking defence from D.A. Leslie Abramson at the center.

For a contextual rewind, Jose Menendez was a Cuban immigrant turned Hollywood executive, who met Kitty  Andersen when both were students at Southern Illinois University. The pair would move to New York City in the early 1960s, with Lyle being born in the winter of 68 and Erik following two years later in the fall of 1970.

Beverly Hills Brats

From a young age, Jose modeled his sons as if they were prized thoroughbreds, with a deep concern for the family image, keeping up the facade of the ‘perfect family.’ The boys would have their homework done for them, were told who they could (or could not) date and were encouraged to excel in athletics. They rode in limos, attended country clubs and ivy league schools. But behind the exterior of spoiled, rich Beverly Hills brats, there are stories told of a different kind, one of a cold and overbearing and abusive father and drug dependent mother.

In a now iconic interview between the brothers and Barbara Walters, the pair described their relationship with Jose as ‘brutal’ and ‘painful,’ while Erik admits to admiring the man, that he was “everything that success was.”

The family moved from lavish Princeton, New Jersey to California in 1987. In a combination of boredom and thrill seeking, the brothers began to break into houses and burglarize, alongside other suburban youths in Calabasas, California.

After one such incident resulted in their arrest (one which the powerful Jose quickly squashed), the family uprooted to Beverly Hills, California, where from a distance the four lived out the American dream. Realistically, says the brothers, it was anything but. Within two years Jose and Kitty Menendez would be dead, slain in cold blood by their sons in a brutal murdered labeled a mafia style gang-land killing.

Family Ties

In the preceding weeks and months the family dynamic grew strained. Lyle was viewed by the family as smart, high-functioning and cunning, but a equally ruthless man, traits passed on from his father. His playboy lifestyle and tendencies towards recklessness caused discourse in the family, while Erik wasn’t exactly the poster-boy for familial affection himself.

Erik would model, drawing the ire of his father, who would accuse him of being a homosexual. Between the pair of them the brothers had reached a turning point, one in which Jose and Kitty had begun to cut them off financially.

Jose was known to have kept two mistresses – one in New York, the other in Los Angeles, with a slew of prostitutes at his beck and call. The brothers described the toll this took on their mother, who at this point had become a shell of her former self, abusing Valium and alcohol and expressing suicidal tendencies.

Allegations of Abuse

“She was battered, physically and certainly emotionally,” Lyle tells Walters.  

Then came the allegations of abuse. A week before the murders Erik alleges that he confided in his brother that Jose had been sexually abusing him, and continued to do so, for years. Lyle brought forth similar claims, admitting that Jose had sexually abused him before his adolescence, while also claiming that at the age of eight his mother was informed of the abuse, turning a blind eye.

“It’s very difficult to understand the emotion and the fear and the conflict that is building over the years to something like this,” says Lyle in the interview. “It’s difficult to say this is why this happened.”

On August 20, 1989, Lyle and Erik Menendez executed their parents in the family room of their Beverly Hills home  on 722 North Elm Drive. Jose was shot five times with a shotgun, including once in the back of the head.

Lyle himself made the police call, originally telling authorities that he and his brother returned from the movies to find their parents killed execution style. A mob hit was suspected. Authorities didn’t bother to check the brothers for gun residue. If they had checked the brothers car they would have found the murder weapons. Case closed.

No Probable Cause

No one expected Erik and Lyle, and why would they? On the surface they were rich kids from a good neighbourhood, a wealthy family and had no probable cause. Five weeks after the murders an insurance policy paid out over $400,000. The brothers would embark on a lavish and questionable spending spree, purchasing high priced jewelry and clothes, cars and even investing in a restaurant on the east coast.  “I didn’t know what to do with the money. It got to the point that I had all this money and so much pain and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Erik recalls.

Overcome by guilt, Erik would seek out the counsel of psychiatrist Dr. Ozel, which would turn out to be the ultimate downfall of the brothers. After ensuing sessions with both brothers were recorded, the ex-mistresses of Ozel brought the information to police. The brothers were arrested in March of 1990.

The subsequent trial became an international sensation. The prosecution presented a cut and dry case – two brothers, spoiled by wealth and privilege, cut-off and angry, driven to murder for money and greed. The defense, spearheaded by Erik’s lawyer Leslie Abramson, argued that the brothers were pushed to murder through years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Lyle and Erik Mendenez did not deny that they had killed their parents. It was up to the jury to decide if they acted in fear and self-preservation, or were compelled by the prospect of riches, poisoned into a life of crime that spiraled out of control.

Want to know the rest of the story, of the trial that shook a nation? Watch NTVs Law & Order True Crime: The Mendenez Murders, Tuesdays at 8:30 P.M.

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