It isn’t often that Sand Canyon has a prison insider. But viewers of “NBC News” following episodes of “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” can see local resident Betty Oldfield share what she knows about the famous trial 23 years ago. She served as a substitute on the jury for Erik Menendez during the first trial, which ended in a deadlock. After a second trial, in 1996, the brothers were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
NBC began airing the “Law & Order True Crime” series on Sep. 26, which will be presented in eight one-hour segments. It is a drama starring Emmy Award-winner Edie Falco as Erik Menendez’ defense attorney, Leslie Abramson. NBC’s Colleen Williams will air her interviews with jurors intermittently.
Oldfield and another juror, Hazel Thornton, were interviewed by Williams for the segments, as well as many other shows over the last two decades, such as “Snapped” on the Oxygen Network. One of Oldfield’s first interviews after the trial was on “Larry King Live,” plus she appeared on TMZ, and she was interviewed by Greta Van Susteren on “Fox News.” Producers always send a car to take Oldfield to their studios in Los Angeles, she said, except the Reel Channel, who filmed in her Sand Canyon living room. She’s been on so many shows at this point that she’s lost count.
While actress Edie Falco was impersonating attorney Leslie Abramson to the best of her ability, the real Abramson was reconnecting with former jury members Oldfield and Thornton, now an author with a book entitled “Hung Jury: The Diary of a Menendez Juror.” Back in 1994, to prepare for the second trial, Abramson reached out to several jurors to learn which aspects of the defense resonated with them. Oldfield developed a rapport with the attorney, as well as a friendship with defendant Erik Menendez.
According to press about the new show, the storyline will focus on why the brothers committed murder, an attempt, in part, to humanize them. And in the same way “Law & Order True Crime” seeks to grow public empathy for the Menendez brothers, Erik has a parallel project behind bars, according to Oldfield. He works with groups of inmates to help them develop empathy for fellow prisoners.
“One of his goals is to bring in some of the younger inmates to learn empathy for the older ones,” Oldfield explained. “He makes much time in helping others while incarcerated.”
Over the many years Erik Menendez has corresponded with Betty Oldfield, she has become impressed by how he’s turned a life sentence into a life of productivity, including educating himself and developing his skills as a painter.
She received a copy of a letter from a Folsom Prison official praising the younger Menendez for how he’s helping fellow inmates.
“The prison where he is has a lot of physically handicapped individuals,” Oldfield said. “Erik said they’d be pushed in a corner and just be ignored. So, he started a group where they could all meet and socialize a bit — and now the group has grown way beyond that.”
The role the cameras played in the courtroom during the first trial (the judge barred them from the second trial) have, doubtless, affected public sentiment about the case. And the spate of shows about the Menendez brothers will add layers to the already existing (largely negative) attitudes.
“My slant is not what the media has portrayed,” Oldfield said. “I certainly know Erik for who he really is. He’s a very caring person. My main goal is to help people understand they are not the rich, spoiled kids from Beverly Hills. Those people have not sat through the same trial that I sat through.”
In the case of both Lyle’s and Erik’s deadlocked juries in 1994, votes were pretty much split down gender lines. The women voted for leniency, while the men were unsympathetic to the defendants.
“You could see (the male jurors) throw their notepads down and not bother to take any notes,” Oldfield said. “It was never a case of whether they were guilty. It was question of degree.”
For anyone wondering how the jurors in the second trial managed to make a decision for guilt, Judge Stanley Weisberg limited testimony about allegations of sexual abuse by Jose Menendez. “I could understand how they reached a verdict,” Oldfield responded. “They didn’t hear the truth of it.”