'Menendez Murders' - Michigan native plays prosecutor in 'Law & Order'

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Elizabeth Reaser compared and contrasted playing real people as opposed to playing fictional characters. 

The Bloomfield Hills native, best known for her role in The Twilight Saga,”recently played Ellie Fitzgerald, wife of FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald – one of the key figures in capturing Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber – in last month’s Manhunt: Unabomber on The Discovery Channel. She will play Deputy District Attorney Pamela Bozanich, who prosecuted brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez, on the upcoming Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders, debuting Tuesday, Sept. 26, on NBC.

“Both times it was hard to find out personal things about these people. It was frustrating because these are real people – you have to honor that and respect that. It’s a big responsibility,” explained Reaser. “Any character that you play, it’s a different process, whether they’re a real person or a [fictional character] – they’re real for you, so in a way it’s similar.”

Like Ellie Fitzgerald, Reaser did not speak to Bozanich when preparing for this role. In fact, none of the members of the True Crime ensemble cast – including Anthony Edwards (Top Gun) as Judge Stanley Weisberg, Edie Falco (The Sopranos) as defense attorney Leslie Abramson, Josh Charles (The Good Wife) as psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Oziel, et al – talked to their real-life counterparts. 

“I wish I had. I would have really liked to, but I was not encouraged,” said Reaser. “The scripts were incredibly specific; they did a lot of the preparation for you. Also, watching videos; there are documentaries about the case, there’s stuff about [Bozanich], but it’s hard to find certain things about her – she’s a private person. It was really trying to find my way into her point of view, which is a point of view I agree with, which is that they’re guilty. And they were found guilty. And they said that they were guilty. Understanding that from a legal perspective, I think, was more important than anything else.”

At approximately 10 p.m. on August 20, 1989, Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva, The Young and the Restless) and Erik Menendez (Gus Halper, Power) – who were ages 21 and 18, respectively, at that time – murdered their parents Jose (Carlos Gomez, 24) and Kitty Menendez (Lolita Davidovich, Gods and Monsters) in the family’s affluent mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif. Their parents were killed with shotguns, which the brothers later disposed of that night on Mulholland Drive. They returned home at 11:47 and called the police upon “discovering” their parents’ bodies. 

Although the brothers were considered suspects, the police didn’t have enough evidence at the time to charge them. According to prosecutors, in the first six months after their parents’ murders, the two brothers spent around $1 million each. Erik eventually confessed murdering his parents to Oziel (Charles). After Lyle threatened Oziel, he told his mistress Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham, The Hangover). When Oziel ended his relationship with Smyth, his jilted mistress informed the police about the Menendez brothers. 

Lyle was arrested on March 8, 1990. Erik surrendered himself to authorities on March 11, 1990 upon returning from overseas. Both brothers were remanded without bail and separated from each other.  

The admissibility of the taped conversations between Erik and Oziel were debated and appealed since Lyle threatened Oziel, thus voiding doctor-patient privilege. In August 1992, the Supreme Court of California declared several taped conversations were admissible with the exception of the one where Erik confessed to murdering his parents. In December 1992, a Los Angeles County grand jury issued indictments against the two brothers on charges they had murdered their parents. 

The prosecution – led by Bozanich (Reaser) – stated the brothers’ motive for murdering their parents was inheriting their vast fortune. However, Abramson (Falco), Erik’s defense attorney, alleged that the two brothers were driven to murder after a lifetime of relentless abuse at the hands of their parents, including sexual abuse by their dad This bombshell was the biggest twist of their trial, which ended in a mistrial in 1994. 

“I am 100 percent sure that they fabricated their defense,” said Bozanich on an episode of Murder Made Me Famous on the Reelz Channel in 2015. “I’m not 90 percent sure; I’m 100 percent sure.”

The brothers were retried. On July 2, 1996, Weisberg sentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder of their parents and conspiracy to commit murder. Both brothers were sent to different prisons and classified as maximum-security inmates. As of 2017, both remain incarcerated.

“The Menendez case was the criminal justice system equivalent of the perfect storm. Rich kids with privilege and money, a prime location – the home and crime scene in Beverly Hills – and domestic violence in a way we don’t usually see it: two brothers killing their parents. [This was] a feeding frenzy for the media,” said Linda Fairstein, former head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and now a New York Times best-selling novelist. 

The Menendez case has been the subject of several documentaries, including the above-mentioned Murder Made Me Famous episode and the 2017 documentary Truth and Lies: The Menendez Brothers – American Sons, American Murderers. A Lifetime movie, Menendez: Blood Brothers, aired earlier this year on Lifetime. In 1994, the case was dramatized in the telefilm Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills.

Reaser spoke about how True Crime stands out from previous docu-dramas about this case.

“I think it’s because it’s a mini-series and you have the Law and Order brand behind it – it’s a great structure when it’s telling this story. These amazing writers know what they’re doing; they know how to tell a great story. It’s having all the elements you could ever want within the same cast,” she said.

“[Creator] Dick Wolf is just a major icon ... He’s very passionate, very involved in everything we’re doing, which is pretty amazing, given his success – he’s just so passionate about it all!”

Reaser also gave her insight into why adaptations of true crime stories are so prevalent on television today with the success of her previous project Manhunt: Unabomber” and last year’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. In early 2018, the second season of “American Crime Story” will chronicle the 1997 murder of fashion mogul Gianni Versace. 

“People are obsessed with true crime. The stories are highly dramatic and it feels real because it was real,” she said. “A lot of these stories we were aware of at the time ... I felt that way about O.J. But I wasn’t that interested in it because I didn’t have a connection to O.J. as a sports fan or as an actor, so I wasn’t captivated by it. I didn’t know enough. Then you go back and see this show and you learn so much. It’s just great storytelling, even though it’s a tragic event ... It just is what it is.”
 
Reaser next appears in The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix.

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