30 Powerful True Crime Documentaries

30 Powerful True Crime Documentaries

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People who pay attention to the news are likely familiar with some of the most disturbing true-crime headlines below but in recent years, filmmakers have taken up the task of documenting these cases. These documentaries open a window into the realities of the criminal justice system and have captured viewers in a way that many news stories cannot. Check out this list of 30 true crime documentaries as told by the people who lived the stories.

  1. 1. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer 

Year: 2003

Description from IMBD: “This documentary looks at Aileen Wuornos convicted of killing 7 men while working as a prostitute in Florida. This is actually the second Wuornos documentary made by this group the first being Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992). With her execution now on the horizon, Nick Broomfield returns to Florida to complete the story. Her argument has always been that the killings were in self-defense but she eventually pleaded no contest or guilty to most of the murders. Broomfield was able to film several interviews which reveal her state of mind and puts into question her mental competence.”

  1. 2. Brother’s Keeper

Year: 1992

Description from IMBD: “This documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky details the murder trial of Delbert Ward. Delbert’s of a family of 4 brothers (the other 3 being Roscoe, Lyman, and William – Bill, for short), working as semi-literate farmers and living together in isolation in a ramshackle shack, until William’s death. The subsequent police investigation and medical examiner’s autopsy suggested Bill may not have died from natural causes, and Delbert was arrested on charges of second-degree murder. Under questioning by police, Delbert appears to have waived his rights and signed a confession, but, it seems he might not have been competent and was coerced into doing so. The film explores possible motives for the crime, from mercy-killing (Bill was ill at the time), to progressively more outré hypotheses. It also shows how residents of the rural community of Munnsville, NY rallied to the support of one of their own (residents previously considered the Wards as social outcasts), against what they felt were intrusive ‘big-city’ police and a district attorney involved in an election, who might’ve used the death to help bolster his candidacy.”

  1. 3. Capturing the Friedmans

Year: 2003

Description from IMBD: “Documentary on the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes.”

  1. 4. Cleanfix

Year: 2009

Description from IMBD: “When a small Utah-based edited movie company is caught sanitizing Hollywood’s copyrighted material, the film industry strikes back with a devastating blow.”

  1. 5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Year: 2008

Description from IMBD: “A filmmaker decides to memorialize a murdered friend when his friend’s ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son.”

  1. 6. Deliver Us From Evil

Year: 2006

Description from IMBD: “Documentary about Father Oliver O’Grady, a Catholic priest who was relocated to various parishes around the United States during the 1970s in an attempt by the Catholic Church to cover up his rape of dozens of children.”

  1. 7. Hot Coffee

Year: 2011

Description from IMBD:10. “How the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit and similar cases were exploited as part of a right-wing crusade to weaken civil justice.”

  1. 8. I Called Him Morgan

Year: 2016

Description from IMBD: “An exploration of the relationship between jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his common-law wife Helen, who was implicated in his murder in 1972.”

  1. 9. Indivisible

13. Year: 2017

Description from IMBD: “Love knows no borders: a film about the fight to reunite families separated by deportation.”

  1. 10. Into the Abyss

Year: 2011

Description from IMBD: “Conversations with death row inmate Michael Perry and those affected by his crime serve as an examination of why people – and the state – kill.”

  1. 11. Little Hope Was Arson

Year: 2013

Description from IMBD: “January 2010: In the buckle of the Bible Belt, 10 churches burn to the ground in just over a month igniting the largest criminal investigation in East Texas history. No stone is left unturned and even Satan himself is considered a suspect in this gripping investigation of a community terrorized from the inside-out. Families are torn apart and communities of faith struggle with forgiveness and justice in this incredible true story.”

  1. 12. Making a Murderer

Year: 2015

Description from IMBD: “Filmed over a 10-year period, Steven Avery, a DNA exoneree who, while in the midst of exposing corruption in local law enforcement, finds himself the prime suspect in a grisly new crime.”

  1. 13. Presumed Guilty

Year: 2016

Description from IMBD: “Presumed Guilty,” the award-winning, controversial U.S. produced documentary that exposes illegal practices by Swiss banks and their aggressive campaigns that target foreign nationals. The bold documentary tells the story of banking corruption in Switzerland and the country’s efforts to prosecute prominent individuals in an effort to win international credibility.”

  1. 14. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

Year: 2000

Description from IMBD: “The history of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of African American men who were victims of a racist miscarriage of justice that became a national controversy.”

  1. 15. Strong Island

Year: 2017

Description from IMBD: “When filmmaker Yance Ford investigates the 1992 murder of a young black man, it becomes an achingly personal journey since the victim, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., was the filmmaker’s brother.”

  1. 16. Tabloid

Year: 2010

Description from IMBD: “A documentary on a former Miss Wyoming who is charged with abducting and imprisoning a young Mormon Missionary.”

  1. 17. Team Foxcatcher

Year: 2016

Description from IMBD: “Documentary filmmaker Jon Greenhalgh examines the life of Dave Schultz, a professional wrestler who was part of ‘Team Foxcatcher’, funded by multi-millionaire John du Pont.”

  1. 18. The Central Park Five

Year: 2012

Description from IMBD: “A documentary that examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. After having spent between 6 and 13 years each in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime.”

  1. 19. The Fear of 13 

Year: 2015

Description from IMBD: “A convicted murderer who has spent 23 years on Death Row tells his story.”

  1. 20. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Year: 2015

Description from IMBD: “Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki examines the complicated life of reclusive real estate icon Robert Durst, the key suspect in a series of unsolved crimes.”

  1. 21. The Smartest Guys in the Room

Year: 2005

Description from IMBD: “A documentary about the Enron corporation, its faulty and corrupt business practices, and how they led to its fall.”

  1. 22. The Thin Blue Line

Year: 1988

Description from IMBD: “A film that successfully argued that a man was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County, Texas.”

  1. 23. The Witness

Year: 2015

Description from IMBD: “The brother of Kitty Genovese investigates the circumstances of her murder and the truth of the story that dozens of locals witnessed the crime and did nothing to intervene.”

  1. 24. Tower

Year: 2016

Description from IMBD: “Animation, testimony, and archival footage combine to relate the events of August 1, 1966, when a gunman opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 16 people.”

  1. 25. Valentine Road

Year: 2013

Description from IMBD: “On February 12, 2008, in Oxnard, California, eighth-grade student Brandon McInerney shot his classmate Larry King twice in the back of the head during first period. When Larry died two days later, his murder shocked the nation. Was this a hate crime, one perpetrated by a budding neo-Nazi whose masculinity was threatened by an effeminate gay kid who may have had a crush on him? Or was there even more to it? Looking beyond all the copious news coverage of this tragic event, Valentine Road tells the story of two victims: the deceased and the murderer. With keen insight, the film connects the human wreckage of Larry’s and Brandon’s troubled lives-both physically abused, both from broken homes, and both searching for a sense of belonging.”

  1. 26. West of Memphis

Year: 2012

Description from IMBD: “An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three.”

  1. 27. Who Took Johnny 

Year: 2014

Description from IMBD: “WHO TOOK JOHNNY is an examination into an infamous thirty-year-old cold case: the disappearance of Iowa paperboy Johnny Gosch, the first missing child to appear on a milk carton. The film focuses on the heartbreaking story of Johnny’s mother, Noreen, and her relentless quest for the truth about what happened on the tragic September morning in Des Moines when Johnny never returned from his paper route. Along the way, there have been mysterious sightings, strange clues, bizarre revelations, and a confrontation with a person who claims to have helped abduct Johnny. Steeped in intrigue and conspiracy theories, WHO TOOK JOHNNY explores eyewitness accounts, compelling evidence, and emotional discoveries spanning three decades of the most spellbinding missing person’s case in U.S. history.”

  1. 28. Wild Wild Country 

Year: 2018

Description from IMBD: “When the world’s most controversial guru builds a utopian city deep in the Oregon desert, conflict with the locals escalates into a national scandal. A true story.”

  1. 29. Witch Hunt

Year: 2008

Description from IMBD: “The story of several families who have their lives destroyed when their hometown is whipped into a frenzy by allegations of child molestation.”

  1. 30. Wormwood 

Year: 2017

Description from IMBD: “In 1953, Army scientist Frank Olson takes a fatal plunge from a hotel window. In 1975, a bombshell report ties his death to a top-secret experiment.”

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