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Menendez case blazed trail for true crime genre

‘Victims or Villains’ takes another look at sensational case

By Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:02am

LOS ANGELES — If there were a Mount Rushmore of true crime, the faces of Erik and Lyle Menendez would certainly be on it.

The 1989 murder case of the two brothers who gunned down their parents Jose and Kitty Menendez in their Beverly Hills mansion predates the era of podcasting and YouTube sleuths that saturate the internet today. But their sensational trials were inescapable in the 1990s and now resonate with a new generation of obsessives.

The public’s enduring fascination with the case — and the changing perceptions of the brothers’ defense that they were sexually abused by their father — is the focus of “Menendez Brothers: Victims or Villains,” a new documentary series that premieres Monday on Fox News Media’s streaming service Fox Nation.

“It’s the first such case in American media history that was something more than a legal story,” Jonathan Towers, vice president of development for Fox Nation, said in an interview. “It was a form of entertainment.”

The case’s powerful mixture of family dysfunction, money and violence has made it the subject of two made-for-TV movies, an upcoming Netflix series from Hollywood producer Ryan Murphy and a steady stream of documentaries over the years.

It’s easy to understand audiences’ insatiable appetite for stories about the brothers.

Entering the living room of the family’s Elm Drive home on Aug. 20, 1989, the brothers fired 12-gauge shotguns multiple times at their parents, creating a crime scene so blood-soaked even Sam Peckinpah would have looked away.

After telling police that their parents were murdered, the brothers went on a conspicuous spending spree before they were arrested for the crime. At their trials, defense teams said they were driven to kill after years of being physically and sexually abused by their father.

Their first trial in 1993 ended in hung juries. They were re-tried and convicted in 1996 and are serving prison sentences of life without parole at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.

The first Menendez trial took place when cameras in the courtroom were still novel and cable TV was growing. Courtroom video became programming for Court TV, one of the early signature networks of the then expanding multi-channel universe.

Instead of sketches or print and TV journalism accounts, viewers watched the criminal justice system play out in real time. The shared experience of observing the proceedings made the Menendez brothers ubiquitous. Every facial expression was scrutinized, as “Victims or Villains,” produced by the Los Angeles-based Pilgrim Media Group, depicts with dozens of vintage video clips.

Los Angeles commuters heard KFI radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou riff daily on the topic. Network news and tabloid shows such as “A Current Affair” featured the story every night. Loftier venues such as Charlie Rose’s PBS talk show and ABC’s “Nightline” with Ted Koppel weighed in as well.

The Menendez brothers paved the way for the live-from-L.A. legal saga of O.J. Simpson that began in 1994. The televised trial of the actor and former football star for the killing of his wife Nicole Brown Smith and her friend Ron Goldman was such a ratings draw it dealt a blow to network daytime soap operas from which they would never recover.

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True crime sagas and court cases went on to become the main source material for network newsmagazines such as “Dateline” and “48 Hours.” They have proliferated on dedicated cable networks such as Investigation Discovery, supplied streaming platforms, and serve as a massive driver for podcasts such as Ashley Flowers’ “Crime Junkie.”

Murdoch family-controlled Fox News Media has turned to true crime to build its Fox Nation streaming business. The platform, which has 2 million paid subscribers, is stocking up on investigative documentaries that can attract a younger audience than that of the company’s conservative-leaning cable news channel.

But what may be the most jarring aspect of “Victims or Villains” is how the Menendez brothers were a source of laughs. They were depicted in sketches on “Saturday Night Live” and spoofed by Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” (Both shows lampooned the Simpson trial as well as Leno featured a dancing troupe of Judge Lance Ito lookalikes).

“It is fascinating to see how it was a matter of comedy back then,” Towers said. “It would not be today.”

“Victims or Villains” examines how the media frenzy around the Menendez brothers permeated through the public perception of the case. Their defense was called “the abuse excuse” by some legal pundits and critics.

“Are we on the verge of substituting a talk show empathy for our criminal code?” Koppel asked his “Nightline” viewers.

The documentary also explores how the ridicule the juries and prosecutors were subjected to after the mistrial affected the second trial that ended with a conviction. Those latter proceedings were not televised.