Documentaries can cover a wide array of subjects, but perhaps the most notorious of them cover true crimes and world events. Most documentaries seek to aim a spotlight on wrongs, whether that means bringing the truth behind a murder case to a wider audience or pointing to accomplices missed by the judicial process.
In fact, several documentaries have aired and garnered a new set of eyes at a police station to reopen a case. Some have presented evidence that wasn't provided to the original investigators due to science restrictions at the time or other roadblocks to gathering clues. Several times, documentaries have presented new theories about cases that turned out to be just what was needed.
- Photo: HBO
In May 1993, the bodies of victims Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers were found in the Robin Hood Hills of West Memphis, AR. The 8-year-old children's deaths devastated the community, and the police arrested three young men known as the West Memphis Three: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. They were convicted in 1994 with cries of Satanic Panic and cults splashed across newspapers and in the courtroom.
In 1996, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, covering the case and the convictions from every conceivable angle. The film contained testimony from an expert in coerced confessions, which is something that the case's jury never heard. It also covered the circumstantial evidence and connection of the three teens to "satanic cults" due to nothing more than their clothing and taste in music.
After the film premiered, so many people were convinced of the innocence of Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley Jr. that Kathy Bakken, Burk Sauls, and Grove Pashley used their own money to purchase a domain to aggregate all of the case information. The trio also used their own money to hire investigators to reexamine forensic evidence. The movement gained steam and celebrity backers. November 2010 brought an order from the Arkansas Supreme Court to reexamine the DNA in the case, and eventually, the West Memphis Three were prompted to enter Alford pleas to secure their freedom. After asserting their innocence and pleading guilty to the crimes, the three men walked out of prison on August 19, 2011.
- Photo: HBO
Robert Durst agreed to sit for interviews and provide records to the filmmakers behind The Jinx after being investigated for the murder of Susan Berman to allegedly cover up the disappearance of his wife Kathie. Durst was also suspected of killing a former neighbor named Morris Black while hiding from police after Berman's death.
Not only did Durst open himself up completely to the filmmakers, but he also did so against the wishes of his legal team. After years of dodging convictions for the murders of Berman, Black, and his late wife, Durst infamously made a huge mistake during the filming of The Jinx. He was caught on camera saying, "There it is. You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
This was enough to prompt an arrest in 2015. Durst also admitted to writing a note sent to police in The Jinx and then doubled down, admitting “only the killer could have written” the note. He was convicted in 2021 for the murder of Berman and sentenced to life without parole. Durst passed away in prison at the age of 78 in January 2022.
- Photo: Maha Productions
Michael Peterson and his second wife, Kathleen, were relaxing at their Durham, NC, home on December 9, 2001, when tragedy struck. Peterson came into the house to find Kathleen dead at the bottom of the stairs, and he immediately called 911. As there were only two people in the house at the time of the death, Peterson was the initial suspect.
A documentary series about the case aired in 2004 and followed the strange ups and downs of Peterson's trial, including the death of another woman who was last seen alive by Peterson. Peterson's conviction for that crime was struck down after learning a witness committed perjury, but he was still on the hook for Kathleen's death.
The documentary then presented the “owl theory,” created by Peterson's then-neighbor, which posited an owl attacked Kathleen outside and she slipped on her own blood on the stairs, leading to her falling death. After this theory was spread, it came to light that Kathleen had small owl feathers gripped in one hand along with her own hair, and lacerations in her scalp matched the pattern of owl talons. This was enough to exonerate Peterson.
- Photo: Netflix
The 2020 documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X? investigated the 1965 murder of the civil rights icon and activist and the convictions of Muhammad Aziz, the now-deceased Khalil Islam, and Mujahid Abdul Halim. During the initial investigation, Halim confessed to the crime and attempted to exonerate Aziz and Islam. However, all three men received convictions and prison time.
The documentary presented enough evidence and witness testimony to prompt attorneys to reopen the case and call out investigators for withholding evidence from the trial. As a result, the convictions of Aziz and Islam were dismissed in November 2021.
- Photo: Miramax Films
In 1988, Errol Morris released his documentary The Thin Blue Line, which followed the 1976 murder of police officer Robert Wood during a traffic stop in Dallas. The car was stolen, and Randall Adams eventually was charged for Wood's death despite maintaining his innocence.
Morris, a former private detective, used footage of witness testimony. He also presented other theories and recreated the event. Most damning, however, was the confession Morris filmed from David Harris, who was 16 at the time of the murder. This led to Adams's release from prison after serving 11 years.
- Photo: Making a Murderer
Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey received convictions for their alleged involvement in the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2013. In 2015, Netflix debuted a documentary series about the crime that shed doubt on the convictions of Avery and Dassey based on police interrogation techniques and the quality of defense lawyers provided to the accused.
It also received pushback from law enforcement in the case, who accused the creators of pushing their narrative of Avery and Dassey's innocence to the detriment of the police force's reputation. As of 2020, this case was allowed to continue.
The series also led to a public outcry for the release of Avery and Dassey, allowing them to attempt to overturn their convictions. It also pushed critics to shine a light on the ability of filmmakers to tailor facts to fit their own agenda.