From Netflix’s Making a Murderer, to the podcast Serial and FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, true crime series have found their way onto almost every major network and streaming service. We've become dazzled by reality; highly–publicized murder trials have found their place in prime time. But it's almost impossible not to ask why we continue to entertain ourselves with gruesome, tragic murders. It seems, though, that we're less interested in the grizzly details and more interested in the people behind these crimes.
The latest true crime series is Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders. The show follows brothers Erik and Lyle Menendez as they are put on trial for the 1989 murder of their parents, José and Kitty Menendez. When the trial originally took place in the early 1990s, the media seized upon it; the Menendez family was wealthy, poised, seemingly perfect. The lead attorney for the Menendez Brothers, Lesli Abramson, shaped her defense around the parents' sexual and physical abuse of the boys. She tried to prove to that the boys committed the murder out of fear for their lives. Throughout the mini–series, the story of Erik and Lyle’s childhood becomes central, as the tales of their abuse unfold slowly each episode.
Often in true crime series, and especially in the case of The Menendez Murders, the felons become the victims. Spoiler alert (but not really), Erik and Lyle are ultimately convicted of first degree murder and conspiracy to convict murder, and the judge sentences them to life in prison without parole. The stories of their parents’ abuse were ultimately not enough to convince a jury that they acted out of fear; however, viewers of Law & Order True Crime may have different reactions. It's wrenching to watch Erik and Lyle open up to their psychiatrist and attorneys. With flashbacks to their abusive childhood appearing throughout each episode, it’s almost impossible not to feel empathy for the brothers and believe that they did, in fact, fear that their parents would kill them.
It’s hard to understand why American popular culture has become consumed with television shows that humanize murderers. Some may say that the media is critiquing the justice system, pointing out that, oftentimes, it fails. Netflix’s Making a Murderer put the Manitowoc County justice system under scrutiny for its decision to convict scrap car dealer Steven Avery of murder. Though for some viewers, this show opened old wounds, for others it opened their minds to the possibility of a corrupt justice system. The People v. OJ Simpson reminded us of one of the justice system’s more popular failures. Letting ‘The Juice’ walk free was one of popular culture’s biggest confusions of the 1990s. Despite popular agreement that OJ did commit the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the FX show somehow victimized the Juice in a way that made viewers almost want to root for him.
True crime series give viewers the opportunity to put themselves on the jury bench, and often times, they suggest to viewers that there is more to the story than just what the winning side wants us to accept. Humanizing the criminals gives viewers a different perspective on popular trials and makes for great TV.