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15 of the Most Fascinating True Crime Stories Ever Told

8 minute read

Netflix’s docuseries Making a Murderer is just the latest in a genre that’s as saturated as ever with provocative tales of justice, sometimes served and often not.

Making a Murderer

Making A Murderer.
Making A Murderer.Netflix

Netflix’s answer to the uber-popular Serial podcast and HBO’s The Jinx, this docuseries created by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos was a decade in the making. Ten episodes, released in December 2015, detail the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man exonerated by DNA evidence after 18 years in prison for a brutal attack and sexual assault he did not commit, only to be accused of murder two years later. It is as much a meditation on class, rural poverty and the imbalance of power in the American criminal justice system as it is an examination of a single murder.

Where to watch: Making a Murderer is streaming on Netflix.

The Jinx

The Jinx.
The Jinx.HBO

Director Andrew Jarecki’s interest in the real estate heir Robert Durst—who was suspected in the murders of his wife, a close friend and a former neighbor—began with a 2010 feature film, All Good Things, in which Ryan Gosling played a character inspired by Durst. When Durst later called Jarecki and offered to be interviewed about the accusations, Jarecki readily agreed, resulting in a six-episode HBO docuseries, released in early 2015. The series presents both evidence and Durst’s reaction to it, including shocking revelations made when he believed his microphone was turned off.

Where to watch: The Jinx is streaming on HBO NOW.

The Staircase

The Staircase.
The Staircase.SundanceTV

This Peabody Award-winning 20014 docuseries by French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade examines the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson for the 2001 death of his wife Kathleen, who was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase in their home. Granted access to Michael Peterson’s family and defense attorneys, Lestrade presents a series of increasingly bizarre revelations that are often stranger than fiction.

Where to watch: The Staircase is streaming on the SundanceNow Doc Club.

Serial, Season 1

Sarah Koenig Talks 'Serial' At BosSarah Koenig, producer and host of Serial.
Sarah Koenig, producer and host of Serial.Jessica Rinaldi—Getty Images

The fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads, Serial spun off from This American Life in order to explore one story over the course of many episodes. Host Sarah Koenig and her co-producers essentially re-report the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, for which Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend, was convicted the following year. Koenig’s shifting judgment, from episode to episode, in favor of Syed’s innocence and then guilt and back again, inspired many amateur sleuths to begin digging into the details themselves.

Where to listen: Serial is available for download on iTunes.

The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line.
The Thin Blue Line.Miramax Films

Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, a Texas man sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer which he did not commit. Morris’ film was influential not only in terms of the style of crime-scene reenactments it introduced, but on the Adams’ case itself: the year after its release, the case was revisited, and Adams was released from prison.

Where to watch: The Thin Blue Line is streaming on Netflix and the SundanceNow Doc Club.

The Imposter

The Imposter.
The Imposter.Picturehouse Entertainment

In 1994, a Texas teen named Nicholas Barclay disappeared. Three years later, he was found in Spain. Only it wasn’t him—it was a French impersonator named Frédéric Bourdin, who despite being several years older than Barclay and in possession of an undeniable French accent managed to convince authorities otherwise. This 2012 documentary uses archival footage and interviews with Bourdin and Barclay’s family to examine exactly how—and why—Bourdin pulled off the stunt.

Where to watch: The Imposter is streaming on Netflix.

Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss.
Into the Abyss.Sundance Selects

Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary doesn’t dwell in the details of a 2001 triple homicide in Texas. Instead, this profile of death-row inmate Michael Perry focuses on what it is like, as the film’s title evokes, to stare into the abyss of one’s own execution. Herzog initially intended to include interviews with four other death row inmates before deciding to hone in on Perry’s story. The other inmates’ interviews were edited into a TV miniseries called On Death Row, released a year after the film.

Where to watch: Into the Abyss is streaming on Netflix and on the SundanceNow Doc Club.

The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five.
The Central Park Five.Sundance Selects

This 2012 documentary co-directed by the legendary Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon revisits the case of the Central Park jogger, in which five black teenagers were convicted of raping and brutally assaulting a young investment banker named Trisha Meili. The convictions were vacated in 2002, after which the men filed a lawsuit against New York City for racial discrimination and malicious prosecution. The documentary, which examines not only the case but the media maelstrom that surrounded it, received a Peabody Award.

Where to watch: The Central Park Five is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.


Cropsey.Breaking Glass Pictures

The name “Cropsey” once referred to an urban legend, a child snatcher who roamed the streets of Staten Island. But ever since the 2010 documentary of the same name, it has come to be associated with a single man, Andre Rand, who was convicted of kidnapping two children and suspected in a string of murders. The film itself couples the creep factor of a horror movie with the shiver-worthy reality that sometimes urban legends are more than just that.

Where to watch: Cropsey is streaming on Netflix.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost.HBO

The first of a series of three documentaries, Paradise Lost uncovers the story of the “West Memphis Three,” a trio of Arkansas teens dubiously convicted, and later exonerated, of the murder and mutilation of three younger boys. The film captivates with its portrait of a conservative Southern community, satanic obsessions and murky evidence leading to even murkier outcomes.

Where to watch: Paradise Lost and its two sequels are streaming on Amazon Prime.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Dear Zachary.
Dear Zachary.Oscilloscope Laboratories

Just the trailer for this documentary is enough to elicit tears. The premise: A man is murdered by his ex-girlfriend, who turns out to be pregnant with his son. His childhood best friend decides to make a film to introduce the child, Zachary, to the father he will never know. But despite filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s original intention—a resurrection of his friend on film—the project morphs into a true crime story, with an unraveling legal drama that renders the film as tense as it is heartfelt.

Where to watch: Dear Zachary is streaming on Netflix and the SundanceNow Doc Club.

Tales of The Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper.HBO

What may at first blush appear to be the story of a serial killer who terrorized South Central Los Angeles for two decades turns out to be, in addition, a brutally honest look at what can happen when police-community relations break down. British filmmaker Nick Broomfield crossed the pond to find out more about murder suspect Lonnie Franklin, only to realize that the distrust of the Los Angeles Police Department among the community where Franklin committed his crimes may have contributed to the delay in bringing him to justice.

Where to watch: Tales of the Grim Sleeper is streaming on HBO NOW.

The Seven Five

The Seven Five.
The Seven Five.Sundance Selects

This true-crime documentary is not about law enforcement prosecuting criminals. It’s about what happens when members of law enforcement are the criminals. The story of Michael Dowd, referred to in the trailer as “a crook who ended up wearing a cop’s uniform,” The Seven Five was released to a warm reception in 2015, with Dowd participating in the film. It is being adapted into a feature film by Sony Pictures.

Where to watch: The Seven Five is streaming on the Showtime app.

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets.
3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets.Candescent Films

The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, a black teenager, by a middle-aged white man named Michael Dunn, is reconstructed in this arresting 2015 documentary. What began as a heated argument over the volume of music playing in a car left Davis dead and Dunn claiming self-defense. The film explores not only what happened on that day in 2012, but how a tense racial climate is playing out across America.

Where to watch: 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is streaming on HBO NOW.

A Murder in the Park

A Murder in the Park.
A Murder in the Park.Sundance Selects

Anthony Porter was 48 hours away from being executed for a double homicide when the discoveries of a Northwestern University journalism class led to a confession from another Chicago man named Alstory Simon. Porter was exonerated and Simon went to prison. But A Murder in the Park, released in 2015, ends with a curveball so unexpected that the film ends up challenging any assumptions viewers might have brought to it or developed along the way.

Where to watch: A Murder in the Park is streaming for purchase on Amazon and will become available on Showtime on Feb. 17.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com