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Ready For The 'Law & Order' Reboot? Here Are 10 Infamous Cases That Inspired Episodes Of The Iconic Series
Creator Dick Wolf is back with a revival of the groundbreaking series since it ended in 2010 after 20 seasons.
“Law & Order” fans, you have the right to remain excited – because the iconic television series is coming back!
The original hit show is making its return after a 12-year hiatus. The Emmy Award-winning series, famous for its "ripped-from-the-headlines" plots, ran from 1990 to 2010 on NBC, making it one of the longest-running shows in TV history. While the brand has hatched several successful spinoffs, including “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” creator Dick Wolf says fans can expect to see what they loved most about the original series.
“We always approach storytelling the same way: Good writing, acting, and production values, and give the viewers what they want,” Wolf told Variety. “That’s been our mantra from day one.”
Ahead of the 21st season, premiering on Feb. 24 on NBC, take a look back at 10 notable episodes inspired by real-life events (Dun-Dun!).
1. Kiss The Girls And Make Them Die (Season 1, Episode 4)
The story of a privileged preppy with a history of abusing his girlfriends mirrors the real-life case of Robert Chambers, a.k.a. The Preppy Killer. Chambers, known for his Upper East Side affluence and good looks, was accused of killing 18-year-old Jennifer Levin and leaving her partially clothed body in Central Park. Chambers admitted to the 1986 killing but claimed it was an accident brought on by Levin’s desire to have rough sex.
Chambers pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter during the trial and served the maximum 15 years behind bars. He was released in 2003 but was subsequently arrested several more times on unrelated drug charges.
In 2008, Chambers pleaded guilty to assault and selling drugs. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison; his earliest possible release is in 2024.
2. The Serpent’s Tooth (Season 1, Episode 19)
The case of the Menendez brothers captivated a nation and inspired the "Law & Order" episode about two brothers accused of killing their parents. Erik and Lyle Menendez were twice tried for their parent’s 1989 murders after Jose and Mary "Kitty" Menendez were found shot to death in their Beverly Hills mansion.
The brothers admitted to the execution-style killings but claimed they’d snapped after enduring years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their father. In a highly publicized trial, prosecutors argued that the sons killed out of greed, citing the suspects’ lavish spending sprees after the murders, including the purchases of a restaurant and a Porsche.
Both Lyle and Erik were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The story also laid the foundation for the Emmy-nominated spinoff “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers,” starring Edie Falco.
3. Big Bang (Season 4, Episode 16); Disappeared (Season 8, Episode 19)
Two significant “Law & Order” episodes drew from the crimes committed by the “Unabomber,” one before and one after Ted Kaczynski was identified as the perpetrator. Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski assembled homemade bombs before hand-delivering or mailing them to various targets throughout the country, resulting in three deaths and 23 injured victims.
One of his bombs even partially deployed on an American Airlines flight en route to Washington D.C. from Chicago, forcing an emergency landing.
Kaczynski had The Washington Post and The New York Times publish a 35,000-word manifesto he’d authored, offering to end his bombing campaign in exchange. His brother, David Kaczynski, recognized the writing style of the scathing essay — mostly about Ted's hatred for modern technology — and alerted the FBI. Ted Kaczynski was arrested in 1996 at his remote Montana cabin and later pleaded guilty to federal charges.
4. Family Values (Season 5, Episode 4)
It would seem unlikely that a New York-themed crime series could avoid the Long Island Lolita in the 1990s, which was why “Law & Order” created an episode based on the Amy Fisher story.
Fisher was only 16 when she entered into an illicit affair with auto body shop owner Joey Buttafuoco, who was then 35. One year later, on May 19, 1992, Fisher knocked on the door of Buttafuoco’s wife, Mary Jo Buttafuoco, 37, and confessed to the affair. Fisher then shot Mary Jo in the face before Peter Guagenti, who supplied the .25-caliber handgun to Fisher, drove them away from the scene.
Though Mary Jo narrowly survived, she was left deaf in one ear with partial paralysis of the face. Fisher served seven years behind bars while Joey Buttafuoco later pleaded guilty to statutory rape.
5. Remand (Season 6, Episode 10); Aftershock (Season 6, Episode 23)
Another story that inspired two “Law & Order” episodes was the murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese. The 1964 murder set forth what psychologists refer to as “The Bystander Effect” or the “Kitty Genovese Syndrome,” after exaggerated news reports claimed 38 witnesses stood by and did nothing as someone raped and stabbed the 28-year-old to death in a prolonged attack on a Queens street, according to the New York Times.
Days after the attack, serial killer Winston Moseley confessed to the murder, as well as two other murders, eight rapes, and dozens of burglaries.
Moseley served more than 51 years behind bars as one of New York’s longest-serving inmates.
Moseley died at the age of 81 in 2016.
6. Trophy (Season 6, Episode 12)
The Atlanta Child Murders have gained considerable attention since HBO released “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children” in 2020, but the tragic story also motivated this episode of “Law & Order.”
Between 1979 and 1981, the bodies of about 29 Black children, teenagers, and young adults were found murdered around the Atlanta area, according to the FBI. The case was officially closed after Wayne Williams was convicted in 1982 for the murders of two adult men. FBI agents said they linked Williams to 20 of the 29 Atlanta Child Murders.
The conviction of Williams, who has long maintained his innocence, has stoked controversy over the years. Many advocates argue Williams was wrongfully convicted by a system that wanted the case swept under the rug. Local police faced backlash when accused of not putting enough effort into the investigation because the victims were Black and came from lower-income homes.
Williams is currently serving a life sentence at Telfair State Prison, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
7. Baby, It’s You (Season 8, Episode 6)
The JonBenét Ramsey story might be one of the most famous unsolved murders in American history, so it’s no wonder that “Law & Order” fictionalized their own version of the case in their eighth season.
The 6-year-old child beauty pageant contestant was found strangled to death in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home in 1996. While JonBenét’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, were suspects early in the case, they were officially cleared in 2008 after investigators found DNA evidence belonging to an unknown male, as previously reported.
Many unfounded theories abounded over the years, including the involvement of the victim’s 9-year-old brother, crazed fans, and some who even confessed to the grisly murder. No one was ever charged in JonBenét’s murder, and it remains unsolved 25 years later.
8. Genius (Season 13, Episode 17)
This episode about an author and his murderous subject reflects Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer. Mailer’s nonfiction book,“The Executioner’s Song,” followed the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who was convicted in 1976 for killing a gas station attendant and a motel night manager in Utah, according to Salt Lake City’s ABC 4. Gilmore’s execution came at a precarious time in America, just a few years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death sentence as “cruel and unusual.” (The court would later clarify the ruling in 1976, reinstating the death penalty in certain circumstances). He demanded the reinstatement of his death penalty and would be the first person to be executed in America after more than 10 years.
Gilmore died by firing squad in 1977. His final words, “Just do it,” became the basis for Nike’s iconic slogan.
The “Law & Order” episode also paralleled Mailer’s relationship with real-life criminal-slash-writer Jack Abbott, who Mailer lobbied to free from prison, according to the New York Times. Weeks after Abbott’s 1981 release — around the time Abbott published a bestselling memoir — he stabbed a waiter to death outside a New York City cafe.
Abbott took his own life while in prison in 2002. Mailer himself infamously stabbed his wife, nearly killing her, in 1960.
9. Couples (Season 13, Episode 23)
The murder of Laci Peterson by her husband, Scott Peterson, inspired its own “Law & Order” episode at the height of its infamy. Laci’s Christmas Eve disappearance in 2002 took the world by storm, largely because she was eight months pregnant with her first child. Fears came true when Laci's dismembered remains and unborn child washed up in the San Francisco Bay in the spring of 2003, as previously reported.
America’s suspicions were cast on Scott Peterson, especially after his affair with Amber Frey was revealed during the trial. Frey became a star witness and testified that she and Scott Peterson began their affair before Laci’s disappearance. Scott also told Frey his wife was already dead, according to Frey’s account.
Scott Peterson was convicted in 2004 for the first-degree murder of Laci and the second-degree murder of their unborn son, Connor. He was sentenced to death.
10. Shrunk (Season 14, Episode 4)
From being a pioneer in the rock n’ roll industry to a cold-blooded killer, the story of Phil Spector captured the attention of many, as previously reported. The songwriting legend was behind the “Wall of Sound” (or “The Spector Sound”), the 1960s style of musical production that gave birth to jukebox hits as performed by The Beatles and The Beach Boys. But flash forward into the new millennium, when Spector was accused of killing actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, and you get a story made for a “Law & Order” episode.
Despite the defense’s argument that the victim took her own life, Spector was found guilty for fatally shooting Clarkson at his castle-style mansion in Alhambra, California. The prosecution alleged that Spector killed Clarkson after she rebuffed his advances and tried leaving the estate.
Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life and died in prison at the age of 81.