True crime documentaries, if done well, elicit the same kind of emotions people feel after watching 10 episodes of Making a Murderer on Netflix. From Ken Burns to Werner Herzog, the crime documentary has taken center stage in recent years, stepping beyond a mere headline and examining the details that can change public perception and, in many cases, the final outcome of a case.
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. Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit and was then convicted of a murder many believe he also didn’t commit. This fact fits hand in hand with the theme of documentaries like 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 culminated in the release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley 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. True crime miniseries offer more time to deeply examine the story. The documentarian has time on their side and they can focus on one story to uncover details and even evidence that was 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 crime documentary series 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 makes an emotional impact, so maybe throw on a comedy or take a break between viewings.
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 were Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, the members of Metallica, Patti Smith, Henry Rollins, Tom Waits, 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.
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.
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 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.
Watch here: Netflix
When it was released on Netflix in early 2019, audiences became obsessed with Abducted in Plain Sight.
The documentary traces the events leading up to (and during) the kidnapping of Jan Broberg. Jan was taken by a trusted family friend and neighbor. It is a truly stranger-than-fiction tale full of blackmail, alien conspiracy theories, and some things that simply have to be seen to be believed.
This docuseries 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 Archdiocese 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 and decide for yourself.
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 docuseries 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 that many of the suspects have passed away, Evil Genius leaves viewers with a frustrating amount of unanswered - and possibly unanswerable - questions. However, it's nevertheless a wild, fascinating ride.
There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
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 5-year-old son survived. Schuler’s autopsy revealed that she had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.19 (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 0.08.
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.
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.
This true crime documentary took over a decade to make. The show tells the story of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey. Both Avery and Dassey were convicted for the murder and assault of Teresa Halbach.
The documentary looks deeper into Dassey's conviction, and helped unearth evidence that potentially proves his innocence.
- A Crime on the Bayou is a 2020 American documentary film, directed by Nancy Buirski. It follows a young black teenager challenging the most powerful white supremacist in 1960s Louisiana with the help... more
Ted Bundy is easily the most notorious serial killer, and this four-part documentary from Joe Berlinger uses actual audio footage from Bundy himself.
The documentary traces the timeline of all of Bundy's slayings and has former friends of Bundy talk about what a normal person he seemed to be.
- Nail Bomber: Manhunt (aka The Nailbomber) is a 2021 American documentary film directed by Daniel Vernon. This documentary tells the story of the 1999 London bombings that targeted minority... more
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade won a Peabody for his docuseries 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.
Ryan Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder based on someone’s dream. The young man'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.
Tiller Russell takes a deep dive into police corruption in the 75th precinct of the NYPD in the 1980s. This documentary is packed with more entertainment than most fictionalized crime dramas. The cops, the criminals (who were sometimes the same people), and the crazy details of the 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 shows.
- The Pharmacist (Netflix, 2020) is an American true crime documentary series. Small town pharmacist Dan Schneider beats the odds when he embarks on a dogged pursuit to find and bring his son's killer... more
- Murder by the Coast (aka El caso Wanninkhof-Carabantes) is a 2021 Spanish crime documentary film directed by Tània Balló. In 1999, teen Rocío Wanninkhof is murdered. Her mother's ex-partner, Dolores... more
- Private Network: Who Killed Manuel Buendía? is a 2021 Mexican crime documentary film directed by Manuel Alcalá. A deep dive into the work of renowned Mexican journalist Manuel Buendía looks to... more
Who Killed Vincent Chin?Who Killed Vincent Chin? is a 1987 American documentary film directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña about the death of Vincent Chin. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best... more
In his 1988 documentary, Errol Morris delves into the details of the 1976 conviction of Randall Adams, a man who was sentenced to death for murdering Dallas police officer Robert Wood while passing through Texas. Morris captured a witness on film admitting to lying about the events of that night, and also uncovered inconsistencies and police misconduct.
Adams was released from prison just days before his execution.
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.
Herzog looks at Perry’s stay on death row and his impending lethal injection. Herzog’s eerie style of putting the viewer into the POV of the subject makes any one of his docs a must-watch.
The PhantomThe Phantom is a 2021 American true crime documentary film directed by Patrick Forbes. It follows Carlos DeLuna, who was arrested in 1983 for the murder of a woman, and protested his innocence until... more
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, New York 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) before arriving at a murkier conclusion.
The most moving part of the film is watching the townspeople support the brothers.
On the face of it, it seems 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.