Making a Murderer, the new Netflix docu-series about Steven Avery, has been making headlines since its release on Netflix in December. The series lays out the criminal history (or lack thereof) of Avery, who believes that he was wrongfully convicted, and who remains in prison to this day.
Viewers of the series have been taking to the internet to express outrage over Steven’s story, some even going so far as to send threatening messages to the officers involved in the case. Multiple petitions have been created, and the White House issued an official statement to the effect that the President is incapable of pardoning state prisoners.
This furor is incredible, as is the story of Steven Avery, but his is not the first one to be told to a camera crew. Over the years, many powerful documentaries have been made about wrongfully convicted prisoners, strange and unsolved cases, and cases where family and friends have sought justice for their loved ones.
If you’ve been glued to your screen watching Making A Murderer, we are certain that you will be just as fascinated with these 12 Best True Crime Documentaries of All Time. Fair warning, though, you may want to stock up on tissues before you press play!
12. Crazy Love (2007)
This sensationalist documentary charts the bizarre story of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss, whose tumultuous relationship began in the ‘60s, and made headlines after he reacted to her leaving him by hiring men to throw acid in her face.
The film tells the story of a beautiful young woman who fell in love with a successful man, complete with plenty of incredible vintage photographs that create an incredible feeling of being young and free in another time. The sweet story quickly turns ugly, as Burt is revealed to be domineering and violent. The real twist to the documentary, however, comes later, after Burt is convicted and treated for mental illness, when Linda makes the shocking decision to not only continue a relationship with him, but to eventually marry him.
11. Cropsey (2009)
This incredibly creepy documentary combines elements of urban legend and found-footage horror with the traditional format to create a look at a serial kidnapper which is both disturbing and truly frightening.
Interweaving the Staten Island urban legend of Cropsey with the real-life story of a man who was convicted of murdering one missing child, and suspected of kidnapping and presumably murdering another three children and one adult. His story dovetails perfectly with the horror story of a kidnapper living underneath an abandoned mental hospital: a real location where the body of Jennifer Schweiger was later found.
10. There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2011)
Made in the wake of one of the worst traffic accidents in recent New York history, There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is titled after the last words of one of the children killed in the crash, calling from Diane Schuler’s cell phone. The documentary examines the accident and the revelation that Schuler had high levels of alcohol and THC in her system when she drove the car down the wrong side of the freeway, eventually crashing and killing herself and seven others.
As well as looking into the crash itself, and the possibility (put forward by Diane’s family) that she was not, in fact, intoxicated, the film looks at the problem of hidden alcoholism in mothers in America.
9. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
This documentary looks at how competency fits into the criminal justice system, as well as how different portrayals of a suspect can affect a case, as Delbert Ward is charged in the murder of his brother, William. The Wards and their two old brothers lived together on a farm in upstate New York with no modern conveniences or equipment, barely literate and with only each other for company. When William died, their reclusive life was torn apart as the death was considered a possible murder.
The range that is explored here is fascinating. From the brothers themselves, to the local people who went from shunning them to rallying for them, to the press who painted them as hicks, and finally, to the police who may have forced a confession from a man not mentally competent to give one.
8. The Imposter (2012)
In 1994, a 13 year old Nicholas Barclay disappeared in Texas. Three years later, he was found in Spain. The teen was returned to his grateful family, and spent months living with them, happy to be home. However, there were some troubling issues. His coloring was off. He spoke with a French accent. His story, his personality, they didn’t add up.
The title of this film reveals the big twist; that the boy who lived with the Barclay family was not Nicholas Barclay, but a serial imposter nicknamed The Chameleon. What makes the film so fascinating to watch is the exploration of why he did it (he is an active participant in the interviews), and how the Barclay family were convinced that he was their missing son, even though he was so completely different. Riveting psychological viewing.
7. The Staircase (2004)
Also known as Death on the Staircase and Soupcons (suspicions), this 2004 docu-series is a frank look at the American legal system from the perspective of the defense team of Michael Peterson, charged with bludgeoning his wife to death in 2001.
While Peterson claimed that his wife’s death was an accident, the prosecution manages to put forward an incredible series of revelations and new information, so that the film crew watch as the defense team work together to keep up. Peterson’s guilt or innocence becomes secondary to watching the way that the system works, and how the lawyers work to try and stay ahead of it. An engrossing look at the system that will leave the viewer wondering not only about the outcome of the case, but whether or not the process is acceptable.
6. Into The Abyss (2011)
This powerful documentary by the award-winning Werner Herzog centers on Michael Perry, a young man convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty. His friend and accomplice, Jason Burkett was also convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Rather than focusing on the presumed or possible innocence of the two men, the film presents a balanced view of the crime and attempts to explore the judicial system, the death penalty, and how these affect the lives of everyone involved in this case. All of the filming with Perry was done in a short period leading up to his execution, and some of the most painful scenes are those where the 28-year-old struggle with his imminent death, and cling to the hope that he may still be pardoned. An intense, but balanced look at the death penalty and how it affects those sentenced, and those who are left behind.
5. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008)
When Dr. Andrew Bagby was murdered in 2001, the prime suspect in the case fled to Canada and announced that she was pregnant with his child. After this shocking revelation, Bagby’s childhood friend and filmmaker Kurt Kuenne set out on a journey to attempt to chronicle Andrew’s life and the impact he had as a way for his unborn child to get to know him. Kuenne followed Bagby’s parents to Newfoundland, where they were fighting for custody of the baby, and where the mother was out on bail, awaiting extradition. The film covers the legal situation and the fight for custody as well as Andrew’s life, although it ended up documenting far more than Kuenne originally intended when another tragedy unfolded.
Definitely one of the most likely to have you weeping, Dear Zachary is incredibly moving, as Kuenne creates a stunning tribute to his friend at the same time as chronicling an incredible failure of the Canadian legal system to protect a truly innocent life.
4. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)
This groundbreaking HBO docu-series looks into the two violent deaths and one disappearance of people close to reclusive multi-millionaire Robert Durst. The film (and the crimes) span over twenty years of Durst’s life, and the documentary looks beyond that to paint a complex picture of him as a man, and a presumed murderer.
The series starts with his arrest in 2015, and travels through his present legal issues as well as his past. Often disturbing, the episodes show two sides of his story, from those who believe in his innocence to those who believe unequivocally that he is guilty. The final episode ends with a chilling moment that the filmmakers could not have ever thought to capture on film, and one that will leave viewers reeling.
3. The Central Park Five (2012)
Exploring one of the most famous criminal cases in New York in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, The Central Park Five is a scathing look at a broken and discriminatory justice system in the city.
When Trisha Meili was brutally assaulted and raped while jogging in Central Park, five Black and Latino teenagers were convicted of the horrifying crime, despite vehemently protesting their innocence. This documentary does an incredible job of capturing the general attitude of fear in the city at the time, and a situation that led to a conviction based primarily on a desperate need to show justice being done. Exploring themes of racism and mob mentality, the film interviews the teens (now men), who spent between six and thirteen years of their lives in prison for a crime that they didn’t commit.
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
This incredible documentary didn’t just chronicle the events surrounding a murder case and subsequent appeals, but was actually instrumental in the release of its subject. This alone should make it one of the most incredible pieces of filmmaking of the past few decades, but it also manages to be a harrowing indictment of a broken system unwilling to try a juvenile for murder.
In 1976, two men (28-year-old Randall Adams and 16-year-old Ray Harris) ended up spending an unplanned day together; driving around in a stolen car, smoking pot, drinking, and watching a movie. At the end of that day, a police officer was shot and killed when investigating the stolen vehicle. The Thin Blue Line follows the crime and what happened next, as perjury and a corrupt system relying on faulty psychiatry sentenced an innocent man to death.
1. Paradise Lost/West of Memphis (1996-2012)
In 1993, three young boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. In 1994, three teenagers were charged and convicted for the murders. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr, and Jason Baldwin would go on to spend nearly twenty years incarcerated for the crime, despite arguing their innocence from the start. The boys and their families argued that the evidence wasn’t strong enough, a confession was coerced from a boy without the intelligence to know what he was doing, and that the so-called West Memphis Three were convicted primarily because of their non-conformist attitudes and penchant for listening to heavy metal.
Paradise Lost is a heartbreaking trilogy of documentaries (The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, Revelations, and Purgatory) that chronicles the initial investigation, and the fight for their release. In 2012, a further documentary, West of Memphis, was released as an overview of the miscarriage of justice in this case. A third film (not a documentary), Devil’s Knot, was also made about the story in 2013, starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon.
Are there any other true crime documentaries that we should check out? Let us know in the comments!
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