Documentaries like Making a Murderer make viewers’ blood boil, divide them on just exactly who is right and wrong, and even cast doubt on the American justice system. That Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit and then was convicted of a murder many believe he also didn’t commit, fits hand in hand with the theme of documentaries such as the Paradise Lost trilogy, The Central Park Five, and Serial.
Documentaries like The Jinx and The Thin Blue Line make headlines because the documentarian uncovers new evidence that sparks a new trial, with varying outcomes. Robert Durst incriminated himself on camera. A key witness in Randall Dale Adams’s trial was enough to get him off death row and released from prison. Pressure from musical icons and filmmakers following the West Memphis Three case, gained release for Damian Nichols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly 18 years later.
Why are viewers so fascinated with the true crime documentary and true crime TV shows? The best crime documentaries put the audience at the center of the story with access to information that may unlock an unsolved mystery. The documentarian has time on their side and they can focus on one story to uncover details and even evidence overlooked or hidden the first time around. In the hands of a seasoned and determined filmmaker or journalist, this access can be quite powerful.
If you’re looking for documentaries like Making a Murderer or documentaries like The Jinx, you’ll find them below. There are also other disturbing cases that haven’t gotten that level of attention. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of true crime coverage out there to take in. Each of these great documentaries make an emotional impact, so maybe throw in a comedy or take a break between viewings.
If you haven’t seen The Jinx yet, it’s time. Robert Durst was accused of murdering his wife, a close friend, and a former neighbor. Durst actually sought out Andrew Jarecki to tell his side of the story and ended up creating one of the most jaw-dropping twists in modern doc history.
It’s chilling and fascinating to watch a possible serial killer participate in his own downfall.
Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne set out to memorialize and render a real life depiction of his friend, Andrew Bagby, for Bagby’s infant son. The result is a gut-wrenching story of a man who was allegedly killed by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Jane Turner (she was pregnant with his child at the time). She fled to Canada.
Due to many failures in the Canadian and American justice system, Turner was allowed shared custody of Zachary with Bagby’s parents, despite evidence that she was emotionally and mentally disturbed. No spoilers, but be prepared for the ending; it’s a tough one.
This trilogy is notable because of the relentlessness of the filmmakers and the music community, who brought the 1993 story of three teens in a small Arkansas town to life. From the first film to the last, it’s clear why this story galvanized the nation and drew support from unexpected sources. Among them: Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, the members of Metallica, Patti Smith, Henry Rollins, Tom Waits, Lemmy Kilmister, Iggy Pop, and Ozzy Osbourne.
The fact that they kept coming back to the story with three documentaries put pressure on the small Arkansas community and the justice system, encouraging them to do the right thing. Three teenagers – Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley – were accused of murdering three younger boys. The teenagers became known as the West Memphis Three and were convicted based on Echols‘s practice of Wicca, their taste in music (Metallica), Echols’s penchant for reading Stephen King books, Misskelley’s ill-gotten confession, and other murky evidence. Misskelley, like Brendan Dassey of Making a Murderer, had a low IQ and was vulnerable during a 12-hour interrogation.
All three were released in 2011, after 18 years in prison.
The title refers to Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the potential orchestrator of one of the most bizarre bank heists in United States history. The main focus of the docu-series is the haunting Diehl-Armstrong, a master manipulator who left a trail of murdered boyfriends and husbands in her wake. However, was she responsible for strapping a bomb to Brian Wells and forcing him to rob a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania? That much is unclear as the series reveals more and more potential culprits involved in the robbery/murder.
Given many of the suspects have passed away, Evil Genius leaves viewers with a frustrating amount of unanswered – and possibly un-answerable – questions. However, it’s nevertheless a wild, fascinating ride.
Sarah Koenig became a household name when she hosted the first season of Serial, a podcast covering one story week by week. The show had listeners glued to their ear buds each week as Koenig and her staff tracked down all of the details, many of them previously overlooked, in the 1999 murder case of Adnan Syed.
The then 19-year-old Syed was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Koenig’s investigation and her many calls with Syed from prison drew a record 5 million downloads for the This American Life spinoff. Like Making a Murderer, many believe that Syed is innocent and shouldn’t be serving prison time.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade won a Peabody for his docu-series about the murder trial of American novelist and columnist Michael Peterson. The writer was accused of killing his wife Kathleen in 2001. Peterson claimed he found his wife at the bottom of the staircase in a pool of blood.
Her injuries and her eccentric husband’s behavior put Peterson directly in investigators’ crosshairs. Although the jury found Peterson guilty, the filmmaker left the possibility of innocence open for discussion.
Diane Schuler was an upstanding citizen who rarely drank, so everyone was shocked when she drove the wrong way on Taconic State Parkway in New York for nearly two miles, killing her daughter, her three nieces, three people in the oncoming car, and herself. Her five-year-old son survived. Schuler’s autopsy revealed that she had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .19 (the equivalent of 10 alcoholic drinks) and a high level of THC in her system at the time of her death. The legal BAC limit in New York is .08.
Her family insisted that she was not drunk or high, and that Schuler must have had a medical emergency. The filmmakers offered to investigate the case to determine whether Schuler was intoxicated or did, in fact, suffer a medical emergency such as a stroke.
This docu-series was the talk of summer 2017 for true crime buffs. Centered around the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik of Baltimore, Maryland, the series reveals a terrifying sex abuse cover up that implicates the Archdioceses of Baltimore.
The Keepers was met with critical acclaim upon its release, as well as public outrage over an alleged long history of sexual abuse at Archbishop Keough High School. Did the school have something to do with Cesnik’s mysterious murder? You can watch the series to decide for yourself.
Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon won a Peabody Award for this documentary. Five black and Latino teenagers were convicted in 1989 of the brutal rape and assault of white investment banker Trisha Meili.
The documentary looks at the aggressive investigation by the NYPD, biased media coverage, and the subsequent 2002 vacation of their sentences.
The esteemed Werner Herzog knows how to put his audience into the very soul of the subject and this 2011 documentary is one of the best examples of that. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett went for a joy ride in a Camaro and ended up being charged with three homicides in 2001.
Herzog looks at Perry’s stay on death row and his impending lethal injection (Burkett got life in prison). Herzog’s eerie style of putting the viewer into the POV of the subject makes any one of his docs a must watch.
On the face of it, it seemed unlikely that a Frenchman could pass himself off as a missing teen from Texas. But between Frédéric Bourdin’s determination and a family’s desperation to believe his story, that’s exactly what happened.
Nicholas Barclay disappeared in 1994. He turned up in Spain three years later, with a French accent and not exactly looking like himself. The most fascinating element of the documentary is Bourdin’s presence, explaining why and how he conned a grieving Texas family.
Ryan Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder, based on someone’s dream. The 20 year old’s life was effectively over, but his father was determined to clear his name. Bill Ferguson spent 10 years obsessing over and retracing his son’s steps until he uncovered evidence that set his son free.
What is striking about the case is that it’s all too common for the judicial system to protect a verdict, even if it’s far from the truth.
In his 1988 documentary, Errol Morris delved into the details of the 1976 conviction of Randall Dale Adams, a man passing through Texas, who was sentenced to death for murdering Dallas police officer Robert Wood. Morris captured a witness on film admitting to lying about the events of that night as well as uncovered inconsistencies and police misconduct.
Adams was released from prison just days before his execution.
The Gilgo Beach Killer, AKA the Craigslist Ripper, is a serial killer believed to have murdered at least 10 people associated with sex work over a period of two decades. Documentarians Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills explore this case and other unsolved cases as their investigation leads them around the region and through the bowels of the Internet.
Tiller Russell takes a deep dive into police corruption in the 75th precinct of the NYPD in the ‘80s. This documentary is packed with more entertainment than most fictionalized crime dramas. The cops, the criminals (sometimes the same people), and the crazy details of the boiling violent crack war on the streets of Brooklyn all make for a colorful and shocking doc. As one former cop says, “Welcome to the Land of F*ck.”
At the center of The Seven Five is former patrolman Michael Dowd, shown during his hearing for his misdeeds as a dirty cop back in the ‘80s, as well as the modern day wiser man who tells it like it is. Most of the players in the doc could have their own TV show. In fact, The Seven Five was once slated for a TV series.
This griping documentary will keep you on the edge of your seat. Thanks to the work of Northwestern journalism students, Anthony Porter was exonerated just 48 hours before his execution. Their work was headed up by Northwestern professor David Protess and led authorities to arrest and convict Alstory Simon for the double homicide in a Chicago park.
The twist at the end is what makes this one of the more fascinating true crime documentaries out there.
Michael Morton knows exactly how Steven Avery feels. Morton was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife, Christine, in 1987 and spent 25 years in prison. DNA evidence proved Morton was not the murderer and the prosecutor in the case was convicted of contempt of court for withholding evidence.
The documentary’s twists and turns make it a must-watch for crime documentary enthusiasts and those hoping for a similar result in the Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey cases.
Richard Kuklinski lived a double life of family man and serial killer/mafia hit man, and was accused of multiple murders across three decades. Known as “The Iceman,” Kuklinski claims to have killed more than 100 people, having shot, strangled, and poisoned his victims.
He tells the interviewer that he doesn’t feel much about killing, and hearing him talk about his crimes is beyond chilling.
Justice is hard to come by when you don’t trust the police. How an alleged serial killer got away with his crimes for decades is only part of the story in this documentary by Nick Broomfield.
Lonnie Franklin is suspected of murdering dozens of women in South Central. Franklin was charged with 10 murders, but the community suspects there are many more. One victim lived to tell her tale of being shot and the intended horrors that awaited her. The on-camera interviews by Franklin’s son and the obviously scared residents of South Central are hard to shake.
Reclusive elderly brothers are at the center of this haunting documentary. Delbert Ward is accused of killing his brother, William. The Ward brothers lived in meager hermit-like conditions in Munnsville, NY and were regarded as outcasts until Delbert was accused of William’s death. Filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger start with what looks like a possible mercy killing on Delbert’s behalf (William had been ill for years), to a murkier conclusion.
The most moving part of the film is watching the townspeople support the brothers.
Two Pennsylvania judges are accused of handing down harsh sentences to juveniles in exchange for kickbacks to the tune of $2.6 million. Kids appeared in court without counsel, lives were ruined, and it’s still going on.
The details are heartbreaking. Michael Dunn shoots and kills 17-year-old Jordan Davis because the black teenager told the white man that he wouldn’t turn his music down. Dunn confronts Davis in the parking lot of a convenience store, later claiming that the four youths in Davis’s car were armed and that he feared for his life.
Dunn chose to go with the Stand Your Ground defense that mirrored the Trayvon Martin case. He chose wrong – and his fiancee chose to tell the truth. The film’s strength is in humanizing Davis and the pain his parents have to live with.
A 15-year-old boy, Brenton Butler, is accused of murdering a middle class white tourist in Jacksonville, FL on a Sunday morning in 2000. French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (who also made The Staircase) investigates Butler’s coerced confession and wrongful conviction. The documentary won de Lestrade an Oscar.
Since his death in 1994, conspiracy theorists have maintained that Kurt Cobain was murdered. In this documentary, weight is given to this theory by the presence of Tom Grant, an investigator hired by Courtney Love days before Cobain’s body was found. Grant is a compelling figure, but its the interview with the former Seattle police chief, in which he admits they might have mishandled the investigation, that causes a double take.
Scenes with an actor playing Courtney Love are downright hilarious, but Grant’s hundreds of audio tapes between him and the real Love are not.
Dan Klores doesn’t make a flashy documentary, but he didn’t need to. When you learn the details of Crazy Love, they kind of speak for themselves. Despite some cheesiness and klunkiness, the doc is very much worth a view and nearly unbelievable despite evidence to the contrary.
Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio doggedly chase down details surrounding the case of Andre Rand, convicted of kidnapping children with mental and physical disabilities. Rand was known as “Cropsey” to Zeman and Brancaccio when they were kids, growing up in Staten Island. Cropsey was an urban legend for decades, a tale parents told their children to keep them out of abandoned buildings.
The filmmakers interviewed the parents of the missing children, law enforcement, the community, and Rand himself. Most of the remains of the missing children haven’t been found. The cat and mouse game Rand plays takes center stage in the documentary, overshadowing the five missing children. The audience is left with many unanswered questions, the most frustrating of which being, did Rand act alone?