HBO’s true-crime documentary series The Jinx ended in shock this week when the show’s subject, real estate magnate Robert Durst, confessed to multiple murders over an open microphone and was subsequently arrested. No spoiler warning on this one: Durst’s arrest made international headlines. After all, how often does a documentary change the course of the legal system?
As it turns out, The Jinx is only the latest documentary that resulted in arrests, appeals, and settlements. The true-crime genre is having its moment with the success of podcasts like Serial, but filmmakers have long been fascinated by controversial legal battles to the point of essentially intervening in the cases. If you enjoyed The Jinx – or if you just find the Durst story compelling – consider watching these four documentaries in our collection that famously jumpstarted the legal process.
- The Central Park Five – Streaming video
Ken Burns investigated the story of a racially polarized rape case from 1989 in which five black and Hispanic minors were convicted on various assault-related charges despite a lack of evidence. Burns towards a damning eye towards the racist testimony and media coverage that propelled the case, as well as the accused party’s struggle to find closure after their convictions were overturned. Shortly after the release of this documentary, the city of New York awarded $41 million to the Central Park Five for emotional distress.
In 1994, three teenagers in Arkansas were convicted for the murder of three children in a supposedly Satanic ritualistic murder. The filmmakers of Paradise Lost were not satisfied with the trial, which used no physical evidence, and spent nearly twenty years investigating the murders and lobbying for the West Memphis Three’s innocence. Arkansas courts took notice, re-examined the case, and released the three convicted men after DNA evidence proved inconclusive.
- The Staircase – HU DVD 10358
Was the death of North Carolina woman Kathleen Peterson a stair-related accident or murder? This eight-part documentary series looks into the ongoing murder trial of Kathleen’s husband Michael and tries to find the answer. The filmmakers were given “unusual access” to the Peterson family and lawyers to produce this documentary. Michael Peterson remains in legal limbo, and this documentary is responsible for the increased scrutiny afforded to the case.
- The Thin Blue Line – HU DVD 2219
Randall Dale Adams was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of a Texas police officer in 1976. Now-legendary documentarian Errol Morris poked holes through Adams’s trial in The Thin Blue Line, using a combination of reenactments and interviews to build the case for his defense. Within a year of the film’s 1988 release, Adams was a free man.