Now Reading
10 True-Crime Documentaries You Need to Watch

10 True-Crime Documentaries You Need to Watch

Killer Inside The Mind of Aaron Hernandez

Between the viral Making a Murderer on Netflix to the wildly popular American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX, it’s not hard to see that the true-crime genre is having a moment.

A distant cousin of reality TV, true-crime cuts through the manufactured drama of scripted entertainment and brings raw and real and riveting stories to life unlike anything else that’s out there.

Here are a few of our true-crime documentaries based on shocking real-events, available to watch right now.

The Pharmacist

The Pharmacist is not your typical Netflix original docuseries: It’s a work of true justice rather than true crime, telling the story of a civilian hero rather than an enigmatic murderer.

Its protagonist is Dan Schneider, a valiant and determined pharmacist from St. Bernard Parish, located outside New Orleans, Louisiana. The docuseries recounts a two-year period in Schneider’s life: from when his son (and namesake), Dan, was randomly shot and killed while buying drugs in the 9th Ward of New Orleans in 1999, to solving his son’s murder case in 2001, and correctly identifying the initial inner-workings of the opioid epidemic, also in 2001.

Watch it on Netflix.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

HBO’s six-part docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, from Lost Girls director Liz Garbus, chronicles Michelle McNamara‘s descent into the macabre world of crime blogs and chat rooms, where theories are swapped as often as grisly photos. Though the case has become known in the national media as that of the Golden State Killer, the same man went by many names around California — most notably, the East Area Rapist, or EAR for short.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was also the title of McNamara’s posthumous bestseller in 2018, is a complex and thoughtful attempt to comprehend mutual fixations — not only as it pertains to the psychopathy of a serial rapist and killer, but also the allure that such a string of crimes can have on the professional detectives and determined amateurs trying to identify him.

Watch it on HBO.

The Innocence Files

An all-star team of documentarians collaborated on this 9-part series, including Liz Garbus, Roger Ross Williams, and Alex Gibney. The result is one of the most comprehensive, infuriating, and enlightening looks at the system flaws in our judicial system in history.

Deserving comparison with Errol Morris’ game-changing The Thin Blue Line, this project dissects issues with justice from three angles – evidence, eyewitnesses, and prosecution – through the experience of The Innocence Project, a group of heroes devoted to getting the wrongly convicted from behind bars.

Each episode is more than just a standard true-crime chapter – some run the length of a feature film on their own – and the cumulative impact is something that anyone going into any aspect of justice from people applying to law school to those who want to be police officers should be required to watch.

Watch it on Netflix.

American Murder: The Family Next Door

In 2018, the world watched in horror as husband and father of two Chris Watts seemed to transform before their eyes. Initially seen as a grief-stricken husband and father searching for his missing family, Watts soon became one of the most hated men in America when he confessed that he had murdered his pregnant wife Shannan and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste.

Using security footage from the Watts’s Colorado home and the couple’s own personal communications, Netflix’s true-crime documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door tells the heartbreaking story of the Watts family.

While the streaming giant packed a lot of information about the tragedy into its 83-minute running time—including several clips of Shanann Watts speaking about Chris and her family, which she documented on social media—it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Especially about why a seemingly happy husband and dad would suddenly snap and kill his entire family.

Watch it on Netflix.

Who Killed Little Gregory?

The 1984 murder of 4-year-old Gregory Villemin was a media spectacle in France, captivating the country’s attention in much the same way the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsey did for the American public a decade later. Though it’s little-known here, it’s been thoroughly dissected in the French media over the years, with no killer ever being identified. This miniseries examines the case, the family’s suspicions, and the ominous events that preceded the tragedy.

The events of October 1984 in the rural northern region of France known as the Vosges clearly have stayed with everyone who touched on the case even briefly. In contemporaneous and current-day interviews with investigators, reporters, doctors, and people familiar with the Villemin family, we learn about the pattern of harassment that led up to the tragic death by drowning of little Gregory at the hands of the mysterious person known as “The Raven.” You can see that no one has let this go — and it’s understandable why: the case is as sensational as it is tragic.

It’s an exhaustive documentary series in the spirit of the best true-crime works, and a crime on the level of those that are immediately familiar by name to anyone here — Adam Walsh, Etan Patz, Jon-Benet Ramsey. Though I haven’t consulted with any French citizens to know, I suspect that Gregory elicits the same reaction from them that those names do from Americans.

Watch it on Netflix.

The Keepers

Who killed Sister Cathy? The case still isn’t all-the-way cracked, but the search for the nun’s murderer upturned years of shocking clergy abuse and a massive cover-up from both the church and local authorities.

Hearing what harm was done to young girls in a supposed safe space will make your stomach turn. The doc centers on two women acting as amateur detectives, in an effort to keep Sister Cathy’s story and compassion alive.

Watch it on Netflix.

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez

This three-part docuseries revealed the misdeeds of Aaron Hernandez, a former star of the New England Patriots, to nonfans who pay more attention to the Super Bowl halftime show than the big game.

Hernandez was released in 2013 after being charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, a man romantically involved with the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée. Killer Inside pieces together Hernandez’s dark and at times violent world and features audio of his calls from prison.

Watch it on Netflix.

The Staircase

When a wife dies, the husband is usually the first person people suspect. Just ask Michael Peterson. He said his wife suffered a fatal—yet accidental—fall down the stairs, but a lengthy legal battle full of head-scratching details and secret lives suggested otherwise.

Shot over the course of 16 years, The Staircase follows Peterson as he is charged with the murder of his wife Kathleen, then released from jail – after eight years – when a key witness is revealed to have committed perjury.

But the fallibility of the evidence doesn’t prove Michael’s innocence, with the director, Jean-Xavier Lestrade insisting that he never intended to either demonstrate or disprove Michael’s guilt, but was looking instead to document the processes of the US justice system.

Oh, and some food for thought: Peterson was a crime novelist. Funny, huh?

Watch it on Netflix.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez

One of the most difficult documentaries to watch that’s on our list is The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. It details graphically the horrendous abuse and death of a child by his mother and stepfather in ways that will make you sick to your stomach.

These monsters made every day of an eight-year-old boy’s life hell. They kept him locked in a cabinet, fed him kitty litter, and put out cigarettes on his head. And that’s really just the start. And what turned the case of Gabriel Fernandez into an international story is that the L.A. Prosecutors went after the people who let this kid slip through the cracks of the system.

At its best, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez paints a picture of a completely broken system, one in which people designed to protect the innocent are not using the tools at their disposal to do so. For six hours of this grueling experience, you want to tell yourself that this is an isolated case, when the truth is that there are Gabriel Fernandezes all over the country—kids who reach out for help and never get it.

Watch it on Netflix.

The Devil Next Door

Do you like Amazon’s Hunters? How about a story that could have inspired it? In 1977 (the same year that the Amazon show takes place, by the way), an Ohio man named John Demjanjuk was accused of being Ivan the Terrible, one of the most vicious and awful guards at Treblinka during the Holocaust.

After years of denials, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel, where he stood trial. The case remains controversial to this day — just recently photos surfaced again from Sobibor that reportedly featured Demjanjuk — and this detailed documentary offers both sides of the story.

There’s a great deal of evidence suggesting that Demjanjuk was an SS Guard but probably not Ivan the Terrible. The archival footage here is riveting, especially the testimony of Holocaust survivors staring down their greatest enemy. It’s powerful stuff.

Watch it on Netflix.

Copyright ©2023, MJP Content Labs, LLC. All Rights Reserved.