The venerable Law & Order franchise’s latest attempt at a new series, and a first attempt at an anthology series, has come to an end and the question is was it a success? It’s hard to say with NBC’s ads touting this week’s episode of Law & Order True Crime as a “series finale.” Producer Dick Wolf hopes to do more seasons and focus on new cases (season two could focus on Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing) but the fate of the show now rests with how NBC’s other dramas perform. The show has done modestly in the ratings (but behind the numbers of Chicago Fire which occupied the 10:00 PM Tuesday slot at this time last season), but if some other shows tank, it could be the opening this one needs. Only time will tell.
For now, let’s look at the events of the final episode. At the conclusion of Episode 7, the Menendez brothers and their legal team were optimistic about their chances after a mistrial was declared when the juries were deadlocked but … Judge Weisberg threw a wrench into the retrial by declaring that both brothers would be tried together this time, to allegedly save taxpayer dollars, and none of Leslie Abramson’s family testimony from the first trials would be allowed in the retrial. Without the family members testifying on the brothers’ behalf about the abuse they witnessed, it would be up to Lyle and Erik to tell their stories. But without corroboration, it was going to be a tough sell to a jury that had not already been following the case for the last four years.
Leslie still thought they had a chance but those chances got even slimmer than they were with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case that enraged the D.A.’s office. With that and the fallout from the Rodney King trial, the D.A. needed a win and he was going to make the Menendez brothers his whipping boys, instructing his legal team to pull out every dirty trick in the book. Judge Weisberg was already in the hot seat, and already pissed off about the case and Leslie, so he was not amenable to anything she suggested.
What Leslie wasn’t prepared for were the bombshells that were dropping around her thanks to Lyle’s phone correspondences with his fans and the woman who was helping him connect to them. One woman swore she had tapes of phone recordings in which he admitted things to her about the murders but when the D.A. dispatched the authorities to her home in Ohio to confiscate the tapes, she denied ever having said there was incriminating evidence on the tapes and they were not used in the trial.
Lyle also had a woman who was acting as his “switchboard” connecting him to the women who wrote to him. She was aware of a woman in Scandinavia named Anna that Lyle had been talking to, and while Leslie and Barry Levin were questioning Lyle’s friend, Barry let slip that Lyle was engaged to Anna. Suddenly the woman who Lyle trusted most after Leslie had hours of “explosive” recordings she was turning over to the D.A. out of jealousy. She even got a book deal, claiming that she and Lyle were making the recording together for the book. But Lyle didn’t know about them and the D.A. refused to let Leslie listen to them, repeating the claims of the explosive information contained on the tapes. Leslie fought to have them ruled inadmissable because it violated Lyle’s right to privacy, but Weisberg ruled that as an inmate he had no right to privacy and the tapes could be used in court. Leslie argued again that since she didn’t know what was on them that they should only be used as rebuttal to Lyle’s testimony. The D.A. was fine with that but that seemed to be his trap — without knowing what was on the tapes, Leslie could not risk allowing Lyle to testify on his behalf so it would all fall to Erik. In the end it turned out there was nothing incriminating on the tapes which Leslie deduced when the woman revealed she was offered just $12,500 for the book deal. “Explosive” information would certainly go for much more.
Leslie put Erik on the stand once again to relate his stories of sexual, physical and mental abuse at the hands of his father, and the fear they both felt for their lives. When the psychologist who spoke with Erik in prison was on the stand, the D.A. asked him to read a portion of his notes regarding Erik and the abuse, but what the doctor had was slightly different from what the D.A. had, having been amended a bit while going over testimony with Leslie just for clarification purposes. The D.A. insisted the two were conspiring to mislead the jury and the judge agreed, all of this in full view of the jury. What they did was delegitimize Leslie in the eyes of the jury, and when she attempted to deliver her summation to the jury, again the judge berated her for her “heartfelt” delivery and directed her to get to the point or not speak at all.
Things got so heated that Leslie and Barry knew she would not be able to appear credible to the jury at this point so Barry had to deliver the closing arguments and give a plea to the jury to not convict the brothers to death, because that would just be revenge. The jury finally ruled that both brothers were guilty of First Degree murder and sentenced them to life in prison with no chance of parole. It wasn’t the best outcome Leslie could have hoped for but the brothers and their family members were relieved that it wasn’t the death sentence.
Outside the court, one jury member could be heard telling the press that if the jury had been able to hear the family testimony about the abuse, they would not have decided on First Degree murder, proving that the brothers were completely shafted by the court and the District Attorney’s office. But even on an appeal the convictions were upheld. The brothers’ aunt Marta also thanked Leslie for all she did, but Leslie felt she didn’t do enough. She asked Marta why she was the only family member to believe the stories of abuse, and what she told Leslie was chilling — but she was sworn not to say anything while the boys’ grandmother was still alive. It turns out that when Jose was a child, his mother sexually abused him and he carried that behavior with him into adulthood, probably thinking that was the way it was supposed to be. That revelation seemed to shatter Leslie but it was too little, too late to help the boys at this point. One thing she knew for sure was that because of the conviction, the cycle of abuse would end with them. The brothers were remanded to different prisons and have not seen each other since 1996. And while Judge Weisberg refused to let Lyle see his fiancée for a few minutes before being taken to prison so they could get married, they did eventually tie the knot over the phone.
Law & Order True Crime started out a little shaky but improved in quality and performances over the course of the eight episodes. So now we’re left with the nagging question — did the brothers kill their parents out of fear or for the money? The series made a compelling case for their claims of fear and it was heartwrenching to listen to the stories they told on the stand. But was the show trying to make them appear more sympathetic or was this a genuine portrayal of them? And what about the trial? To anyone looking at this now, it appears that this was a complete miscarriage of justice in the way Judge Weisberg behaved towards Leslie and the restrictions he placed on her while allowing the D.A. free reign in the courtroom. Yes, the brothers did kill their parents, that was never in doubt, but if they had genuine fear for their lives was it justified in the moment? Hindsight, of course, says that perhaps they could have gone to a relative but that could have angered Jose and Kitty even more, making the threat of violence even more palpable. It really seemed to them that it was their only way out of a bad situation.
Of course, the money has to be a factor too. Had the brothers simply removed themselves from the situation, cutting all ties with their parents, they would have been broke and with nowhere to go. At least with Jose and Kitty dead, they’d still be able to live the life they’d been accustomed to if their story of a botched robbery or mob hit had held up. So there are still many factors to weigh in this situation, but either way it’s plain to see the Menendez brothers did not get a fair trial or conviction. Could this TV show bring about some change for them?
What did you think of the finale? Were the brothers shafted by the legal system? Does their case deserve some kind of review? Tell us what you think!