Two convicted murderers who have been serving their time in prison for the past 25 years have gone viral on social media – thanks to TikTok.
Lyle and Erik Menéndez are two American brothers who in 1996 were convicted of the murder of their wealthy parents seven years earlier.
On the evening of 20 August 1989, the pair entered their parents’ Beverly Hills home and shot both of them dead with shotguns.
They attempted to cover up their crime by shooting the victims in the kneecaps in an attempt to make the murders appear connected to organised crime, and told police officers they had been watching Batman at a local cinema before attending a nearby food festival at the time of the murders.
So just why have they been in the zeitgeist once again?
Here is everything you need to know about it.
How were the brothers arrested?
A lack of evidence immediately following the killings led to very little suspicion being placed upon the brothers, but when they began to lavishly spend their inherited money in following months, concerns were raised.
Both were splashing out on Rolex watches, sports cars and overseas trips, and it is estimated they spent around $700,000 (£496,234) in the time between the murders and their eventual arrests.
After exhausting potential mob leads, police believed that the brothers’ financial motives meant they were most likely the perpetrators; eventually, Erik confessed to his psychologist about the murders, who passed word on to the police through his wife.
Lyle was arrested in March 1990, while Erik turned himself in three days later on return from a tennis tournament in Israel.
The trials of the two brothers were a national sensation, gripping the imaginations of the American public who tuned into the news to receive regular updates.
They were also laced with controversy.
What happened at the trial?
Originally, Lyle and Erik were tried separately with one jury for each brother.
During the first trials, the brothers alleged that they committed the murders in fear that their father – who was described as a cruel perfectionist and paedophile – would kill them after they threatened to expose him for years of sexual and emotional abuse.
Both juries deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial, and a retrial was immediately announced; for the second trial, they were tried together by a single jury.
However, Judge Stanley Weisberg did not allow cameras in to the courtroom for the new trial, which led to much less attention in the national press. Weisberg also did not allow much defence testimony about the sexual abuse claims.
Unlike juries in the previous trials, the jury rejected the defence's theory that the brothers killed their parents out of fear, instead believing that they committed the murders in order to inherit their father's wealth.
It is also claimed that defence lawyer Leslie Abramson told a defence witness to edit his notes. After it was decided not to conduct a criminal investigation of Abramson, the brothers filed for a mistrial, claiming they had suffered irreversible damage in the trial as a result of the lawyer’s possible misconduct and ineffective representation.
Where are the Menéndez brothers now?
Both brothers were eventually convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and of conspiracy to commit murder, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lyle and Erik both now reside in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, in a unit reserved for inmates who agree to participate in education and rehabilitation programs without creating disruptions.
Why have they gone viral on TikTok?
Despite there being no new developments in the case in 25 years, the story of the Menéndez brothers has found an unlikely new audience thanks to the social media app, TikTok.
The video-sharing service popular among younger generations has seen an influx of content surrounding the brothers in recent months, with much of it calling for Lyle and Erik to be trialled again – or even released.
It’s all down to the prolonged sexual abuse they claimed to have endured in their testimonies, the abuse that led to their decision to kill their parents.
Videos on TikTok that show the moment the brothers testified in court, baring visible pain as they remembered traumatic occurrences, have captured the attention of a mostly teen audience, growing up in an age where attitudes are very much different to those some 30 years ago.
Now, we more clearly understand sexual abuse to be the life-changing and horrifying ordeal that it is, and while we also know there are probably much more constructive ways of dealing with that pain than killing those responsible, the empathetic user base of TikTok laments for the brothers.
In a report for ABC News, journalist Erin Murtha detailed how she looked into the driving forces behind the phenomenon, and was met with an army of teens with an “astounding” amount of knowledge “they had accumulated about a legally complex case.”
The entire trial of the brothers is available to view online, and with users having poured through the footage, they've come to some startling conclusions of their own.
"None of these teenagers deny that this horrific crime of their parents being murdered happened or that it was Erik and Lyle who committed it,” says Murtha. “Rather – they take an empathetic approach supported by the benefits of hindsight.
"They’re now looking at the murders through the lens of the values of 2021 – especially with regard to the claims of sexual abuse… they have grown up in an era where #MeToo reigns and where people can speak more openly about what were previously deemed to be uncomfortable issues.”
Videos on the subject regularly garner millions of views and shares, and in a world where social media movements and activism can help drive real world change, could the Menéndez brothers be given another shot?
It may be unlikely, but at the very least, the tale of a decades old case getting new attention on social media is an interesting one – what other historical crimes will Gen Z sleuths demand get a second look in future?
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