Making a Murderer is, undoubtedly, the sleeper hit of the last few weeks. Released to little fanfare – and with little promotion – on Netflix in the middle of December, the documentary series essentially got buried by the Christmas season. Post-festivities, however, it seems to be all anyone could talk about, and the online obsession has only become more fervent since.
Making a Murderer tells the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was arrested and imprisoned for the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beernsten. Avery was later exonerated of the charges, when DNA analysis proved his innocence.
Following his wrongful conviction, Avery sued the county, and some of the officials involved in his arrest. Shortly after filing the lawsuit, Avery was accused of the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer last seen on the Avery family land.
Making a Murderer looks at both of Avery’s arrests and convictions, and aims to get to the truth of both cases. It makes for compelling viewing and its comprehensiveness has been widely praised.
But, at just 10 episodes, the series is over almost before it’s begun, and viewers are left yearning for even more fascinating true crime stories, so we’ve pulled together a list of some documentary movies, series and podcasts that should meet that need.
Movies and Series
The Jinx – The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
The Jinx aired early last spring, and provided much fodder for office water cooler discussions, particularly following the airing of the damning final episode.
Offering unprecedented access to Robert Durst – a man around whom rumours of murder had swirled for decades – The Jinx investigated the disappearance of Durst’s wife, Kathie, and the murders of writer Susan Berman and Durst’s neighbour Morris Black.
For those who missed the media circus around The Jinx last year, we won’t spoil anything. Suffice it to say, it’s worth sticking around for those final moments.
Paradise Lost trilogy
The Paradise Lost trilogy centres on the story of three teenage boys – Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, or the West Memphis Three – who were accused of the murder and sexual mutilation of three younger boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.
The first film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, looks at the arrests and trials of Misskelley (who confessed after 12 hours of questioning, but later recanted), Echols and Baldwin. Echols – the only one of the three over 18 – was sentenced to death by lethal injection, while Misskelley and Baldwin each got life.
The second, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, continues to follow the case, focusing on support groups who believe the West Memphis Three are innocent, on appeal developments, and on the adoptive father of one of the young victims, who was at that point facing gossip about his possible involvement in the murders.
The final instalment, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, updates the viewer on how the case has progressed in the intervening years, and offers a conclusion of sorts.
The Thin Blue Line
The story of Randall Adams, a man wrongfully imprisoned for the shooting death of a police officer, The Thin Blue Line uncovers evidence of a botched trial, featuring interviews with Adams, the true killer, the judge who oversaw the case, several witnesses and detectives, and two of Adams’ defence attorneys.
The Thin Blue Line is also notable for spawning the style of crime reenactment that is prevalent in many true crime movies and TV shows now.
Give Up Tomorrow
The one entry on this list that features a crime that didn’t take place in the US, Give Up Tomorrow focuses on the arrest of Paco Larrañaga, who was falsely convicted in the case of two murdered Chinese-Filipino women.
Although the two women disappeared on Philippine island Cebu, and Paco was surrounded by reliable witnesses at a party on Manila hundreds of miles away, he was arrested for their rapes and murders.
While Paco’s case is at the heart of Give Up Tomorrow, the documentary moves beyond this individual circumstance to examine the Filipino system and culture that allows miscarriages of justice like this to take place.
West of Memphis
Also telling the story of the West Memphis Three, West of Memphis treads ground similar to that of Paradise Lost. Where it differs, however, is its focus on Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the murdered boys.
Looking at Hobbs’ history of violent behaviour, statements made by his ex-wife and nephew, his lack of alibi, and physical evidence linking him to the crime, this documentary offers a grim account of how police mishandling and a community blinkered by rumours of satanic rituals can lead to gross miscarriages of justice.
At the time of the boys’ murders, Hobbs was never interviewed by police investigating the crime.
The Central Park Five
The Central Park Five delves into the story of the widely-publicised Central Park Jogger case, which involved the assault, rape and sodomy of a female jogger during the 1980s.
Five juveniles – four black and one Hispanic – were convicted for the crime. Four brought appeals against the conviction, which were denied. The five men served between six and 13 years each.
Years prior to the documentary’s release, a sixth man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the assault, asserting that he acted alone.
The Central Park Five examines the evidence available to police during the investigation, and suggests that the police should have connected Reyes to the crime at the time. It was released, says director Ken Burns, to push New York City to settle a case brought against it by the wrongfully imprisoned men.
In 2001, novelist Michael Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, was found at the bottom of the staircase in the couple’s home. She died before help could arrive. Whether she fell or was pushed soon became a topic of public debate.
After Peterson was convicted of Kathleen’s murder, French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released a documentary series detailing the twists and turns of the trial and the unravelling lives of the Peterson family, which called into question the fairness of the trial itself.
The series spans eight episodes, and makes for compelling viewing.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Dear Zachary is a true crime documentary with a difference – it wasn’t initially intended as one.
In 2001, Andrew Bagby was murdered by Shirley Jane Turner. When she learned she was a suspect in the case, Turner fled to Canada. Following her arrest, and while awaiting extradition, Turner announced she was pregnant with Bagby’s child. She gave birth to a son, whom she named Zachary.
In an effort to create a film that would allow Zachary to know his father, Bagby’s close friend, Kevin Kuenne, set out to gather stories of the dead man from his friends and family.
The video eventually became much more than that, and Kuenne – who had initially intended it to be just for family – released it to the public as Dear Zachary.
A Murder in the Park
In 1999, a tenacious journalism class looking into a murder case uncovered evidence that seemingly absolved Anthony Porter – the man convicted of the killing – of the crime and saved his life just 48 hours before his scheduled execution.
The case became a rallying point for anti-death penalty protesters and eventually led to Illinois abandoning the death penalty.
A Murder in the Park questions whether all is as at seems, and posits that the intervention of that journalism class actually led to the release of the real killer and the subsequent incarceration of an innocent man.
Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss offers a different side to these true crime stories, looking not at cases, or evidence, or whether someone is guilty or innocent, but offering a glimpse of what happens after the trial.
Werner Herzog offers a touching glimpse into the life of Michael Perry – a death row inmate – and the families devastated by his crime.
With many of the interviews with Perry conducted just eight days before his execution, Into the Abyss gives viewers a raw insight into what it’s like to look death in the face.
Of course, no list of true crime documentaries would be complete without last year’s pivotal podcast, Serial.
Serial – a spin-off from This American Life – detailed the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and later arrest of Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed, with podcast creator Sarah Koenig examining the case and debating Syed’s guilt.
Serial is a fan favourite in the Siliconrepublic.com offices. Season 2 – which is looking at Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was arrested for desertion after reportedly being held by the Taliban for five years – is currently airing.
This American Life – “Run on Sentence”
This American Life, the progenitor of Serial, doesn’t always focus on murder, but, when it does, it does so with aplomb.
In Act One of “Except for That One Thing” (episode 518), “Run on Sentence”, the team behind This American Life delves into the story of Mike Anderson, a man convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 13 years in prison, but never actually taken to jail.
Over those 13 years, Anderson turned his life around, getting married, fathering four children, and starting his own business.
When the end of his would-be sentence approached, the Missouri Department of Corrections finally realised their mistake, arrested Anderson and sent him to jail.
In “Run on Sentence”, This American Life speaks to Mike five months into his sentence.
Criminal is described on its website as “Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or caught somewhere in the middle”.
Not necessarily as sensational as other entries on this list, Criminal nevertheless offers a valuable insight into the world of crime, with recent episodes taking on the work of police dogs, transgender rights and those who actively seek to become outlaws.
For anyone whose appetite for murder and mystery has been whetted by Making a Murderer, but who can’t stomach any more actual, real-life, lives-destroyed, documentary-style viewing, keep an eye out later in the week for a list of fiction shows that should satisfy your cravings.
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