Law & Order, the Dick Wolf-produced procedural that paved the way for so many other shows — NYPD Blue, NCIS, CSI: So Many, and so many others — has been running, in one form or the other, since 1990. Since that first season, Law & Order, and all its iterations — SVU, Criminal Intent, and a few other less successful variants — have followed nearly 1,000 criminal investigations. So, it’s no surprise that a lot of those crimes were based on real-life events — some of them even from just a few months prior.
It’s difficult to distill a large body of work into such a small number, but here, we’ve tried. The episodes aren’t ranked necessarily on the quality of the episode of itself, but sometimes on the importance/cultural significance of the event it’s referencing. (As an aside, nearly all of the first season’s 22 episodes were based on true life events, something that probably helped the show become immediately successful, but wasn’t carried through to the following seasons.) Once SVU trumped the success of the original series, many of the ripped-from-headlines stories went there.
Here’s what we think are 50 of the best ripped-from-the-headlines L&O episodes of all time. Get ready to binge watch.
50. Law and Order Season 17, Episode 16: “Murder Book”
OJ Simpson’s whole life has been ripe for crime writers, but it was perhaps one of the more recent chapters in his life that made for one of the more bizarre RFTH cases. The publisher of a crime novel that presupposed its author’s real life guilt — a la Simpson’s If I Did It — is murdered, drawing attention to an accused killer who had been found innocent in a prior case. OJ Simpson: the gift that keeps on giving.
49. Law and Order: SVU Season 4, Episode 24: “Perfect”
Combining two big news items of the early 2000s, “Perfect” focuses on a case inspired by the disappearance/return of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted for nine months and raped several times daily. In “Perfect,” the victim was found dead, at the hands of the leader of a cult that claimed to produce the first human clones. (In reality, this is the Raelian cult.)
48. Law and Order: SVU Season 5, Episode 25: “Head”
Based on a somewhat insane case in which a pedophile stopped having pedophillic urges once a brain tumor was removed — only to have them return when the tumor began to grow back. This episode also contains elements of the Mary Kay Letourneau case, as the offender in the episode is a female principal who becomes pregnant with a student’s child — just like Letourneau.
47. Law and Order Season 11, Episode 14: “A Losing Season”
Based on one of the more ridiculous true crimes, “A Losing Season” draws inspiration from the Rae Curruth crimes of 2001, in which the former Carolina Panthers star was found guilty of conspiracy to murder his pregnant girlfriend. After skipping bail, Curruth was eventually found by police hiding in the trunk of his own car. In “A Losing Season,” the pieces are rearranged just a little bit, with the stand-in for Curruth’s victim found, alive but wounded, in the trunk of a car.
46. Law and Order: SVU Season 10, Episode 10: “Smut”
Normally, an SVU case involving a serial rapist would be no big deal, but “Smut” is clearly pulled from the story of the Andrew Luster case. Luster was the heir to a cosmetics fortune who was discovered to have drugged and raped multiple women over the course of than a dozen years. He also videotaped most of the incidents — a real-life fact that proves that sometimes people are not only awful humans, but also just really dumb. In the episode, the defense tries to blame the assailant’s addiction to porn on his actions, but, luckily, that doesn’t get him off the hook.
45. Law and Order Season 15, Episode 16: “The Sixth Man”
The 2004 fight between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, now known as “Malice at the Palace,” was perhaps one of the most ridiculous brawls in NBA history, culminating in the Pacers’ Ron Artest entering the crowd and punching a fan who threw a drink at him. In “The Sixth Man,” Artest’s stand-in goes a few steps further, as can be expected, killing the would-be drink thrower. Talk about a temper.
44. Law and Order: SVU Season 5, Episode 13: “Hate”
Not based on a single occurrence but rather a disturbing post-9/11 trend, “Hate” follows a spree of crimes against Muslim victims that mirrors the real-world’s tendency of profiling against innocent Muslims.
43. Law and Order Season 10, Episode 15: “Fools for Love”
A less familiar case in America than in Canada, but “Fools for Love” was inspired by Canada’s so-called Barbie and Ken killers, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, who murdered Karla’s sister and two other women. “Fools for Love” follows the case pretty closely, though the show’s police don’t realize Karla’s stand-in is guilty until they’ve had her testify against her husband.
42. Law and Order: SVU Season 7, Episode 19: “Fault”
Based on sex offender-turned-serial killer Joseph E. Duncan III, “Fault” finds a sex offender kidnapping two children after murdering the rest of their family. The episode ends with Stabler being held hostage by the killer, and Benson too afraid of harming Stabler to do anything about it.
41. Law and Order: SVU Season 13, Episode 1: “Scorched Earth”
Based off of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in which said French diplomat (and once Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund) faced charges of rape and sexual misconduct while in New York. The episode changes the diplomat’s nationality to Italian, but most of the other details remain the same, right down to the fact that the credibility of the victim is questioned.
40. Law and Order: SVU Season 6, Episode 4: “Scavenger”
The rare SVU episode that deals with a cold case, “Scavenger” finds Benson and Stabler tracking down a serial killer from the ”70s. The killer — nicknamed “RTK” for “rape, torture, kill” — mirrors Dennis Rader, or “BTK,” a real life serial killer who bound, tortured, and killed women in the ’70s and was only convicted in 2005.
39. Law and Order Season 9, Episode 4: “Flight”
“Flight” is based off of the case of Brian Stewart, who injected his illegitimate son (above) with HIV because he didn’t want to have to take care of the child. The show’s version is much more complicated and involves heroin junkies and adulteration, but comes to a similar conclusion.
38. Law and Order: SVU Season 7, Episode 16: “Gone”
Upon returning home from an overseas vacation, three teenage boys are accused of the rape and murder of a disappeared girl. The only evidence is a video tape of the incidence, but it’s unclear and circumstantial. This mirrors, almost exactly, the little-known facts of the disappearance of Natalee Holloway. Holloway was never found, and she’s been officially declared dead, even though one of her male friends — several years after the disappearance — claimed (and then retracted) that he sold her into slavery.
37. Law and Order Season 14, Episode 3: “Patient Zero”
Ebola might be the latest medical epidemic, but that spot was once held by the focus of this episode: SARS! “Patient Zero” begins with a carjacking-slash-murder that gets twisted when the detectives find a box ‘o’ SARS in the back of the car. A convoluted murder plot unravels. In real life, this happened in 1994, when a (jilted lover) doctor stole an HIV sample from a hospital and injected his lover with it. The whole plot was uncovered, and happily, the woman survived.
36. Law and Order: Criminal Intent Season 8, Episode 7: “Folie à Deux”
Though not exactly to the letter as far as recreating the case, “Folie à Deux” heavily draws inspiration from the 2007 Madeleine McCann case, in which a girl was abducted from her home while her mother ate dinner 100 feet away. The same happens in this episode, only a ransom is requested. Piper Perabo guest stars.
35. Law and Order Season 11, Episode 9: “Hubris”
In the episode, a man behind the murder of four people in a jewelry store decides to defend himself in court. He flirts heavily with the forewoman of the jury, perhaps having an affair with her. This is based on the Canadian case of Peter Gill, who was part of a gang that was arrested for murdering two people. In real life, Gill did have an affair with a member of his jury, resulting in the both of them going to jail — but Gill only received time for obstruction of justice, while his gang mates served time for murder.
34. Law and Order: SVU Season 15, Episode 2: “Imprisoned Lives”
Based on the awful 2013 revelation of the Ariel Castro case, in which two women were found imprisoned in the basement of his Cleveland, OH home, “Imprisoned Lives” moves that same scenario to Manhattan. A boy who goes missing near Union Square leads the detectives to a house in which they find two grown women who had been, according to their statements, imprisoned there in cages for a decade.
33. Law and Order: SVU Season 10, Episode 6: “Babes”
A high school has an alarmingly high rate of teen pregnancy — and, suddenly, a suicide! The investigation reveals that the girls had formed a pregnancy pact, but that someone had guilted the ringleader into committing suicide. Exactly the same thing happened in real life at Gloucester High in Massachussetts, only nobody in the so-called “Gloucester 18” killed herself. It was even made into a Lifetime movie called The Pregnancy Pact. Teenagers, eh?
32. Law and Order Season 12, Episode 7: “Myth of Fingerprints”
Essentially: an investigation of a present-day crime leads to the revelation that, ten years prior, an innocent man had been imprisoned, and then died in jail. This leads to an investigation of the expert whose testimony lead to the false imprisonment — turns out, she’d been lying about inconclusive fingerprints for years. In real life, the case mirrors that of Joyce Gilchrist, a real life forensics expert whose false testimony lead to the false imprisonment and ruined lives of dozens of men.
31. Law and Order: SVU Season 8, Episode 11: “Burned”
A woman accuses her husband of rape, but the police don’t believe her. They should, though, because the man returns to set her on fire. This exact same thing happened in real life, with Yvette Cade’s restraining order on her husband, Roger Hargrave, having been denied. Hargrave then showed up at her workplace and set her on fire, allegedly saying, “I want to fry you like Crisco grease.”
30. Law and Order Season 12, Episode 6: “Born Again”
This may not be the most sensational episode on this list, but it’s certainly one of the saddest: An adoptive mother who is unhappy with her child’s bond with her seeks help via therapy. The therapist suggests a risky, new procedure called “rebirthing,” which is kind of like being a born again Christian, except for actually being birthed again. The therapists recreates a womb by wrapping the child in a blanket and forcing her to fight her way out, operating under the assumption that this will help the child form a bond with her adoptive mother. The child dies from suffocation.
Sadly, this exact thing happened in real life, only worse. The mother, Jeane Elizabeth Newmaker — along with three other women — put bodily pressure on Newmaker’s daughter Candace in order to prevent her from escaping the “womb” for nearly an hour, during which time she released all of her bodily fluids. Even then, the women didn’t relent, and the girl died.
29. Law and Order: SVU Season 3, Episode 11: “Monogamy”
A woman is found dead in a park, her body cut open in what appears to be a hasty Do-It-Yourself C-section. A woman is found, having kidnapped the unborn child. A history of abuse is revealed, yada, yada, yada. The scarcely believable fact is that this also happened in real life. In Texas. Lisa Mongtomery (above) killed and gutted Bobbie Jo Stinnett, later trying to play off Stinnett’s child — STILL LIVING — as her own. She was later convicted and sentenced to death, and is the only woman currently on Death Row.
28. Law and Order: SVU Season 1, Episode 22: “Slaves”
A pretty good looking Andrew McCarthy plays a lawyer who keeps his Romanian made locked up as a sex slave. This is a type of episode that would become pretty typical for SVU, only this one is based on real life. Tanya Kach (above) was taken prisoner by a security guard who kept her as a sex slave for TEN YEARS. She later wrote a book about it, thanking God for her survival.
27. Law and Order Season 8, Episode 1: “Thrill”
Every delivery person’s nightmare: two random dudes call for takeout, don’t even pay, and then murder you just for the hell — er, thrill — of it. This is what happens in “Thrill,” and this is what happened in real life, when Jason Vreeland (above) and Thomas J. Koskovich ordered two pizzas to be delivered to an abandoned house and then abducted and murdered the delivery men.
26 & 25. Law and Order Season 1, Episodes 15 & 16: “The Torrents of Greed Pts. 1 & 2”
In one of the first “To Be Continued” two-part episodes of Law and Order, “The Torrents of Greed” dissects the case of one of modern America’s most infamous mobsters, John Gotti. In the L&O, the whole investigation was prompted by an attack on the owner of a candy store, but the real life case wasn’t so cut and dried, and took years to assemble.
24. Law and Order Season 10, Episode 1: “Gunshow”
It’s surprising that misogyny isn’t a more blatant motive for murders on shows like Law and Order — though, any case of rape could be said to be motivated as such. “Gunshow” is the most overt in placing misogyny as blame for a killing spree, with a man shooting exclusively women in Central Park. This is based, in part, on the 1989 killings at a Montreal school. Marc Lepine (above) killed 14 female engineers because he blamed them for his not being accepted into the program, regardless of how bad his grades were.
23. Law and Order: SVU Season 6, Episode 14: “Game”
“Game” is not an on-the-nose portrayal of any one crime, but is instead an indictment of violent video games, particularly one game that mirrors the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The killers in this episode turn out to be a couple that can no longer differentiate between reality and fantasy, further needlessly worrying American parents.
22. Law and Order Season 6, Episode 10: “Remand”
This is less of ripped from the headlines, and more of ripped from the psych books. “Remand” finds a woman being forced to testify about a rape that happened ten years prior and was witnessed by many of her neighbors. This mirrors the Kitty Genovese case of 1964, in which Genovese was murdered in view of plenty of neighbors, all under the “bystander effect,” which presupposes that, the more witnesses there are to a crime, the lower the likelihood of one of those witnesses doing anything to stop it.
21. Law and Order Season 1, Episode 9: “Indifference”
One of the only episodes to have voiceover narration that warns the viewer of its real-life inspiration, “Indifference” follows the case of a lawyer who, when tasked with giving a foster child an adoptive home, illegally “adopts” the girl himself. In the episode, the girl is abused. In reality, the girl’s “parents” — Joel Steinberg (above) and Hedda Nussbaum — aren’t so cruel, but just longing for a child and unable to reproduce.
20. Law and Order Season 1, Episode 3: “The Reaper’s Helper”
The third episode of the first season took on two major stories of the era: Dr. Jack Kervorkian, the man who aided dying/ailing people in committing suicide, and AIDS, something that needs no introduction. “The Reaper’s Helper” featured a killer who put AIDS’ victims to rest to help them end their suffering.
19. Law and Order: Criminal Intent Season 10, Episode 8: “To the Boy in the Blue Knit Cap”
“To the Boy in the Blue Knit Cap” is essentially a retelling of the Winklevoss twins’ fight against Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg — except if Facebook were a dating site called Kizmate, and the Winklevoss twins ended up dead.
18. Law and Order Season 18, Episode 18: “Excalibur”
While investigating an upscale prostitution ring, it’s discovered that a high-ranking government official is potentially involved, which gives McCoy pause — because he hopes to run for DA in the near future. This draws inspiration for former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was linked to a prostitution ring but never formally charged for it because of lack of evidence of misuse of public funds.
17. Law and Order: SVU Season 10, Episode 19: “Selfish”
This episode draws from two real sources: The first is Casey Anthony (above) — the mother who killed her young daughter so she could have a social life — and the second is the anti-vaccination trend, lead by spokesperson Jenny McCarthy. In the episode, a woman — Casey Anthony — is thought to have killed her daughter. Instead, she died of measles, which is running rampant in the city. The police choose to prosecute a mother — McCarthy — who refused to have her child vaccinated. Fairly interesting twist on an upsetting reality.
16. Law and Order Season 13, Episode 24: “Smoke”
Hey, remember that time Michael Jackson dangled his kid off of the balcony? The writers of “Smoke” did, too, only they made MJ into a famous, eccentric comedian, and they also made his child die, rather than grow up to answer to the name “Blanket.”
15. Trial by Jury Season 1, Episode 6: “Pattern of Conduct”
Ah, Kobe Bryant. His early 2000s career was thrown off the rails when he was accused of the rape and sexual abuse of a 19-year-old hotel worker in Colorado. “Pattern of Conduct” is pretty much the same as the real life happenings, only there’s a sex-tape involved.
14. Law and Order: SVU Season 13, Episode 2: “Personal Fouls”
Even the worst of these episodes is based in reality, it seems. “Personal Fouls” finds a basketball coach in the middle of a sexual assault scandal. It’s proven that he sexually abused many of his players over several years. In real life, the coaches were Bob Oliva and Ernest Lorch (above), who were found to have been guilty of pretty much exactly what was depicted in the episode.
13. Law and Order Season 8, Episode 6: “Baby, It’s You”
These RFTH cases are perhaps at their best when they go after unsolved cases, and what bigger unsolved case from the ’90s than the JonBenét Ramsey case? The case of the murdered child pageant star — which remains unsolved today — threw lots of heat on the kids’ parents, and “Baby It’s You” treads familiar territory, but still offers a satisfying conclusion to all those folks left wanting by the real life case we all lived through.
12. Law and Order: Criminal Intent Season 6, Episode 10: “Weeping Willow”
Remember LonelyGirl15? Well, Law and Order: CI did, and they made a whole episode based around her. The titular character of “Weeping Willow” is, indeed, WeepingWillow17, a very thinly veiled take on the sensitive YouTube star. (CI refers to the video platform as YouLenz, a site that appears several times throughout the series.) The investigation starts when, in a video, Weeping Willow and her boyfriend, Holden (perfect name), get kidnapped. It’s revealed to be a hoax, but someone still dies.
11. Law and Order: SVU Season 13, Episode 3: “Blood Brothers”
A really, really, really convoluted retelling of the Arnold Schwarzenegger scandal of 2011 — the central relationship of which began way back in 1991. In “Blood Brothers,” it’s a non-celebrity politician, and things involve more than one love child, and rape, and so much more.
10. Law and Order Season 1, Episode 19: “The Serpent’s Tooth
Most of the RFTH stories have some sort of clever spin, like the inclusion of drugs, religion, or some other topical cultural phenomena. But, nope, not this time: “The Serpent’s Tooth” is basically the Menendez Brothers case down to a T, minus, of course, any kind of ambiguity.
9. Law and Order: SVU Season 5, Episode 19: “Sick”
Another episode inspired by Michael Jackson, though this time it’s not for his child negligence. “Sick” finds a billionaire on the receiving end of several accusations of pedophilia, just as MJ was for most of the later part of his life. As (perhaps) in reality, the parents of the abused children in “Sick” were wary of testifying against the billionaire because of money he had given them over several years.
8. Law and Order: SVU Season 7, Episode 22: “Influence”
Remember that time Tom Cruise went on Oprah and jumped all over her couch? Remember, around that time, that Tom Cruise went on TV and talked about how evil psychiatric drugs are? Yeah, “Influence” is about that, only Tom Cruise is a rockstar named Derek Lord.
7. Law and Order: Criminal Intent Season 6, Episode 20: “Bombshell”
Based on the tragic life of Anna Nicole Smith, “Bombshell” sees a much younger woman marry a young billionaire, only to later die days after giving birth to what was meant to be his child. Turns out the paternity of the child was up for debate, giving motivation to her billionaire husband and his family for the killing. Oh, and David Cross is in it.
6. Law and Order Season 17, Episode 7: “In Vino Veritas”
Tell me if this sounds familiar: A washed up, anti-semite actor is arrested when he’s found with blood on his clothes. Soon after, a Jewish producer is found dead. Hmmmm. Mel Gibson, maybe? Probably, yeah, and Chevy Chase plays the Gibson stand-in, which is pretty inspired, given how infamously difficult Chase is.
5. Law and Order Season 20, Episode 12: “Reality Bites”
“Reality Bites” is basically what would have happened between Jon and Kate Gosselin if their children were adopted, special needs kids, and Kate had been reluctant to do Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Oh, and if Jon then killed Kate. Jim Gaffigan stars as the would-be Jon, and his character’s would-be show is called Larry Plus Ten.
4. Law and Order: SVU Season 16, Episode 5: “Pornstar’s Requiem”
This episode is based on the Belle Knox case, which involved a Duke freshman who became a porn star, and who was later outed on campus. Belle has written a lot about her experience, and wrote about “Pornstar’s Requiem”‘s similarities to real life better than could ever be written here.
3. Law and Order: SVU Season 16, Episode 2: “American Disgrace”
This is a potpourri of real, recent cases, most notably the Ray Rice case mixed with the Solange/Jay Z case. Mostly, though, it’s Ray Rice, as the main antagonist of the episode is an athlete (basketball player rather than football, in this case) who has several women come out against him after surveillance footage shows him abusing his girlfriend. A Donald Sterling-esque executive comes into play, too.
2. Law and Order: SVU Season 14, Episode 16: “Funny Valentine”
Inspired by the Chris Brown and Rihanna incident. It’s not very camouflaged: A rising pop star is beaten by her rapper boyfriend named Caleb Bryant. Yes, C.B. To top it off, there’s a joke at the end of the episode that suggests that the couple should go on a double date with Chris Brown and Rihanna. Weird, for L&O to reference the exact case it’s drawing its inspiration from.
1. Law and Order: SVU Season 15, Episode 3: “American Tragedy”
“American Tragedy” is really an episode that is hard to top. First, the real world inspiration: both Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin. Then, add in the celebrity casting of Cybill Shepherd as the Paula Deen character — who, yes, does murder a young African American man out of racist intention — and the semi-recurring Jeffrey Tambor. It’s got camp, timeliness, and, somehow, timelessness, and will probably go down as one of the best episodes of Law and Order should this series ever go the way of the dodo.