When Law & Order first premiered in 1990, it created a new genre of crime drama, becoming an overnight sensation. Created by Dick Wolf, the show has become one of the longest running American crime dramas, and even inspired sister shows such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Many people have wondered why the shows are so popular, and the answer is pretty easy. Between the riveting script, incredible guest stars, and the story lines, you have the recipe for a hit show.
One of the things that draws people into the Law & Order world are the cases that the fictional detectives take on. The show is rarely criticized for being unrealistic, and many people find that they can relate to the detectives and victims. What is fascinating and probably even more disturbing is that many of the shows’ story lines are actually inspired from real-life cases. Most viewers don’t even realize it, unless they decide to research an episode after viewing.
While the original Law & Order series has gone off the air, and Criminal Intent has closed its doors, SVU is still going strong and remains as one of the favorite shows in the series.
Here are twelve real life cases that have inspired various episodes in the Law & Order franchise. If anything, these cases prove that you don’t have to try very hard to create a disturbing and creepy plot. In reality, truth really is stranger than fiction.
12. Imprisoned Lives
In the second episode of the fifteenth season of Law & Order: SVU, “Imprisoned Lives” told the story of a young boy who is abandoned in Times Square and ends up leading detectives to his home where two women are being held prisoner in the basement, forcing the precinct to reopen cold cases.
The true story that likely inspired this episode was the story of Ariel Castro, who was holding Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Georgina DeJesus captive for over a decade and even fathered one of their children. After being convicted, Ariel Castro committed suicide by hanging himself in his jail cell.
The twenty second episode of the first season of Law & Order: SVU told the story of a lawyer named Andrew McCarthy and his wife, who were accused of holding their Romanian immigrant maid hostage as their sex slave.
The real story behind this case centers around Tanya Kach, who was kidnapped by a security guard at her school, named Thomas Hose. He held her captive as his sex slave for over a decade before she was finally able to escape.
10. Patient Zero
“Patient Zero” was the third episode of Law & Order‘s fourteenth season and told the story of how a carjack murder leads to a SARS outbreak in New York City because the car had a container full of the virus.
The episode may have found inspiration from Dr. Richard Schmidt, who purposely infected his former lover with AIDS and told her she was receiving a Vitamin injection. The blood in the injection contained blood from one of Schmidt’s patients who was battling the virus.
9. Myth of Fingerprints
The seventh episode of Law & Order‘s twelfth season told the story of a fingerprint expert whose testimony and forensic science is put into question. The episode likely gained inspiration from the story of Joyce Gilchrist, who was a forensic scientist based in Oklahoma City.
The FBI exonerated her records and went through her lab to find out that her testimony and findings didn’t reflect was was testified in court or given to police detectives, which means that she may have wrongfully sent people to prison and death row.
“Babes” was the sixth episode of the tenth season of Law & Order: SVU, which told the story of the murder of a homeless man that led the detectives to discover a pregnancy pact between four high school girls.
In 2008, a group of 18 girls at Gloucester High became pregnant so that they could all have kids at the same time. This story also inspired a Lifetime movie called The Pregnancy Pact.
7. Out of the Half-Light
“Out of the Half-Light” was the eleventh episode of Law & Order‘s first season, and told the story of a young black girl who claimed to have been raped by police officers. The episode is based on the real life case of Tawana Brawley, who claimed to have been raped by four white men in 1987.
The 15-year-old girl claimed that one of the men carried a badge, but no forensic or medical evidence supported her claims. Even to this day, Brawley and her family still stick to their story of what happened all those years ago.
6. Poison Ivy
Law & Order‘s eighth episode of season one told the story of a plainclothes veteran cop who shoots a black student who was on the honor roll. The episode was based on the real death of an honors black student named Edmund Perry, who was set to attend Stanford on a scholarship.
Lee Van Houten, the cop, claimed that Perry and his brother attempted to mug him. Racial tensions were high, and Houten was eventually cleared of any charges, much to the public’s dismay.
5. Born Again
“Born Again” was the sixteenth episode of the twelfth season of Law & Order. The episode involved the death of an 11-year old girl who was killed by her mother and therapist using a controversial therapy known as rebirthing.
The episode is based on an actual event involving the death of 10-year old Candace Elizabeth Newmaker. After she wasn’t adjusting to her life after being adopted, her new mother took her to Dr. Connell Watkins and his assistant Julie Ponder. Candace was put through a 70 minute birthing session where she was wrapped in a flannel blanket with four adults sitting on her, trying to force her way out. She ended up suffocating to death.
4. Subterranean Homeboy Blues
The second episode of the first season of Law & Order featured the story of a woman who claims that she shot two men in a subway car. The story was actually based on the real case of Bernhard Goetz, who shot four men in 1984 while riding in a New York City subway car.
Initially, he was hailed as a hero, but then it came to light that the shooting was racially motivated. Goetz was eventually acquitted of murder, but he was charged for carrying an unlicensed firearm.
During Law & Order‘s eighteenth season, an episode called “Excalibur” told the story of how an investigation of a murdered jeweler uncovers a secret prostitution ring that the governor patronizes.
The episode hit a little too close to home for New Yorkers as former governor Eliot Spitzer left his office in shame after his involvement in a prostitution ring came to light in 2008. The federal government never charged Spitzer as there was no evidence that campaign funds were misused. In total, Spitzer spent about $80,000 on a high end prostitution ring called “The Emperor’s Club.”
The nineteenth episode of the tenth season of Law & Order: SVU told the story of a young mother who killed her child so that she could party more. The episode mirrored the real life sensational story of Casey Anthony, who was put on trial in 2008 and was accused of killing her young daughter Caylee.
Even though Anthony was found not guilty, it seems that everyone around the world is convinced of her guilt and the Law & Order episode probably didn’t help.
1. Manhattan Vigil
Law & Order: SVU‘s 300th episode, “Manhattan Vigil”, was based on the real case of Etan Patz, a six-year old boy in lower Manhattan in 1979 who disappeared. The episode was about the abduction and disappearance of a young boy and how it reopened an older case with similar traits that had occurred 13 years prior. The episode ended with the child being found, as well as the remains of the other child being found and justice being served.
Etan remained missing until 2010 when his case was reopened. It was Etan’s disappearance that sparked the missing child movement and he was the first child to have his face on the side of a milk carton. While an arrest was made of self-confessed suspect Pedro Hernandez, the trial was declared a mistrial in 2015. Etan was declared legally dead in 2001, and his remains have yet to be found.