Unlike the movies where they always seem to find a reason for a car chase and a shoot-out, sexy sub-plots, or the suspense of some government conspiracy, the kind of true to life snapshot we get from documentaries focus in on the realities of human dramas as they unfolded in real life… And the true crime documentaries that have come out in recent years tell some of the most compelling stories we’ve ever seen play out on film.
A good documentary can give you a glimpse of the realities of law and the criminal justice system in a way that a Hollywood movie never could. And nothing gets its hooks in you quite like a true story told by the people who lived it.
Here’s our pick for the ten must-see documentaries for anyone with more than a passing interest in the legal field or in justice and human rights.
“Serial” is better than just pretty good and more than just a documentary. The unique podcast format hooked a massive audience worldwide in its first season, investigating the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 19-year-old high school student, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed for the murder. Evidence uncovered by “Serial’s” investigative reporting team was cited by a Maryland judge in granting Syed a retrial in the case.
The dramatic tension of following a still-developing case with open questions about the guilt of the accused was enough to make the first season of “Serial” a must-download podcast in the fall of 2014 and it remains the most downloaded podcast series in history. The popularity won it a Peabody Award in 2015, but the attention to legal maneuver and trial detail is what makes “Serial” a must-listen documentary for paralegals.
- Making a Murderer
Part of the reason “Serial” was so addictive was the suggestion that the convicted party was not the actual murder. “Making a Murderer” follows a similar story with a more conclusive ending, examining the case of Steven Avery, wrongfully convicted of rape and attempted murder in 1985 and exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 18 years of his 32-year sentence. The Department was publically embarrassed and got a huge black eye after his conviction was overturned. This is standard documentary stuff—wrongly accused, later vindicated, a story of loss and miscarried justice.
That’s when “Making a Murderer” really goes off the rails… Avery was arrested again in 2005 for another murder case and was convicted in 2007 to serve a life sentence. Allegations of retaliation flew immediately at the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. Is it a coincidence Avery was suing for wrongful arrest and conviction in the first case? “Making a Murderer” explores the misconduct and opportunities for tampering by the sheriff’s department in the case and presents the frightening possibility of law enforcement with a grudge.
- The Central Park Five
When respected documentary filmmaker Ken Burns puts out a film, it’s time to sit up and pay attention, and his only foray into the world of the law was good enough to garner a Peabody Award in 2013.
The case of one Hispanic and four black teenagers wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989 continues to reverberate in our country today. Burns’ own daughter and co-director Sarah Burns had a front-row seat to the legal struggle for compensation these young men went through – she was actually a paralegal working in the office of one of the firms representing them.
This combination of an expert paralegal perspective and the masterful storytelling abilities of acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns provides a dark but vital look at mob mentality and race in the American justice system.
- The Smartest Guys in the Room
Most criminal law documentaries focus on the darkest and most salacious crimes with the heaviest consequences for both victims and perpetrators. But “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is the rare movie about white-collar crime, covering the accounting cover-ups and fraud that led to the collapse of energy giant Enron in 2001.
Many executives at the company were indicted and twenty were convicted, including several from outside firms that assisted in the cover-up. From whistleblowing to betrayal, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” dramatically illustrates the sprawling nature of white-collar criminal cases in a way that hasn’t happened before or since. A must-see for any paralegal working in a corporate legal department.
- The Jinx
The makers of “The Jinx,” a documentary mini-series about suspected multi-murderer Robert Durst, had the kind of great good fortune most documentarians can only dream of: their subject both agreed to sit for an interview, and, apparently, inadvertently confessed to unproven crimes on microphone in a moment when he didn’t realize he was being recorded.
Both the blockbuster revelation and other evidence uncovered in the course of filming led to Durst’s arrest and charges against him for first-degree murder.
- West of Memphis
If you thought Peter Jackson only worked in the realm of fantasy, “West of Memphis” will set you straight. As co-producer of this documentary examining the case of the West Memphis Three—three teenagers convicted in 1994 of murdering three children in Arkansas in a bizarre Satanic ritual—Jackson shows his chops telling a dramatic true story of police malfeasance and prosecutorial overreach.
The film traces the course of the trial and the subsequent imprisonment and eventual release of the three men after 18 years in prison.
- The Thin Blue Line
Errol Morris pioneered what we’ve come to think of as the modern style of criminal documentary reenactments in “The Thin Blue Line.” His investigation of the shooting of a police officer and subsequent trial and death sentence of a man who may not have committed the murder were informed by his own background as a private investigator.
Paralegals will appreciate the solid investigative and evidentiary work Morris put into his film, even as they are appalled at the apparent misconduct of police and prosecutors on the case.
- Witch Hunt
Paralegals are often dragged into ugly, dispiriting cases, but none are worse that those involving child molestation. In the 1980s, some of the most horrific of these were the mass day care abuse accusations made in Kern County, California, where prosecutors convicted 36 people of participation in what they alleged was a Satanic cult ritualistically abusing children placed in a day care center.
As many as 60 children testified about that abuse; later, it was determined that many of the children had been coached to provide that testimony. Thirty-four of the convictions were later reversed and many of the accusers recanted. Narrated by Sean Pean, “Witch Hunt” examines the hysteria that gripped the county and the effects the case had on later child abuse investigations—important procedural changes all paralegals should be familiar with.
- Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
Documentaries about wrongful convictions are the most common kind, but it’s rare to investigate crimes decades in the past. But the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers convicted of rape in Alabama in 1931 without a shred of evidence, presents an unvarnished look at the state of pre-war Southern justice and the effect on the lives of the accused that stands as a warning to paralegals and citizens alike about the dangers of racism and importance of impartial court systems.
There are few hot-button issues in American society getting as much attention as immigration… and the debate over immigration reform always seems to circle back to the Dreamers: individuals brought into the United States illegally as young children, raised as Americans, yet technically undocumented and ineligible for citizenship.
“Indivisible” follows three of those kids as they fight to enjoy the same rights as their peers, a fight that is being continued at a fever pitch and with an outcome that hangs in the balance even after the cameras stop rolling.