NBC's upcoming anthology series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders isn't pretending to be an objective view of the infamous murder case. Rather, creator Dick Wolf hopes to use this platform to help reverse the tendency to demonize the two killers, Lyle and Erik Menendez (played by Miles Gaston Vilanueva and Gus Halper in the series), as simply greedy, privileged kids who killed their parents for money.
"I don't care what attitude you go in with, your mind is going to receive information that I think will change a lot of peoples' attitudes," Wolf told reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour Thursday. "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, they did it, but it wasn't first-degree murder with no possibility of parole. They probably should have been out eight 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 too."
After Lyle and Erik Menendez murdered their parents, Jose and Kitty, in 1989, the case immediately began dominating the news cycle — a trend that lasted until both brothers were convicted in 1996. But while many headlines claimed Lyle and Erik committed the brutal crime out of greed, the brothers alleged that they had shot their parents in order to end the years of abuse they suffered.
"The defense argued that the boys had an unreasonable, but sincere belief that their lives were in eminent danger from their parents because the secret was about to come out that the father had been molesting them," showrunner Rene Balcer said. "And so under that theory of imperfect self-defense, anything from a second-degree conviction to first degree manslaughter is allowed. But this was 25 years ago. What we understood of molestation, especially of boys, is primitive compared to what we understand now... that's still an area of psychology that we don't quite understand fully. But certainly, as we said before, if instead of Erik it had been Erica Menendez who killed his parents to stop the abuse, he wouldn't be in jail."
The series will also explore how privilege and political collusion between the judge and the district attorney's office in the second trial directly may have lead to the brothers' conviction. "The D.A.'s office had lost the McMartin case, which also had the same judge as the Mendendez case. They had lost the Rodney King case with the four cops. Again, the same judge on that case was the same on the Menendez case. And [Los Angeles district attorney Gil] Garcetti had lost the O.J. case," Balcer explained. "And so the D.A.'s office had a pretty huge chip on their shoulder and was definitely looking for a conviction by any means."
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 10/9c on NBC.