After the success of HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, true-crime documentaries became something of an industry on cable and streaming services. It’s gotten even more intense in 2020, as Netflix seems to be dropping another terrifying true story to make you lock your doors every week. From deeper dives into stories you know like the crimes of Ted Bundy or the disappearance of Madeline McCann to cases you’ve probably never heard of, these are the best offerings currently on Netflix about the darker side of humanity. Trigger warnings all over the place in this content, of course, so tread carefully.
In 2007, Meredith Kercher was brutally murdered in her Italian apartment, and the rush to justice was quick and unforgiving, leading to the arrest of an American named Amanda Knox, Kercher’s roommate. There have been several TV specials about the Knox case because it’s got a bit of everything — an American girl caught in a foreign nightmare, questionable police behavior, and unjustified conviction. The evidence that supports a theory that someone other than Knox committed the crime is overwhelming, but she spent four years in an Italian prison. This doc includes interviews with Knox herself, her ex-boyfriend, and even the prosecutor who put her away. Smart and detailed, this is really the only piece about the Amanda Knox case that you need to see.
Cold Case Files
This was one of the grandfathers of true-crime television, running on A&E as far back as 1999, detailing cases solved years after almost everyone involved thought that justice would go unfulfilled. As of now, Netflix only has the ten-episode reboot of the series from 2017. Hosted by Danny Glover, it has some questionable reenactment sequences in terms of taste and execution, but the actual cases are still fascinating studies of perspective. It sometimes just takes the right person looking at the same evidence to see something new. And the series is a stark reminder that cases often become hot again years after the crime was first committed.
Almost every true-crime series is about solving crimes; this one unsolves dozens of them. The story of Henry Lee Lucas is one of the most depressing in the history of crime-solving because it not only offered false justice to hundreds of people but likely allowed criminals to continue murdering people because they got away with it. The quick version is that Henry Lee Lucas, the inspiration for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, falsely confessed to dozens of crimes. At one point, he had been tied to the murders of over 600 people, many of them with his buddy Otis Toole. Cases were quickly closed around the country by overzealous officers just eager to pin them on Lucas. No one bothered to wonder if he was lying.
There are a lot of true-crime docs about trying to get into the mind of a maniac. Most of them (especially the ones involving Piers Morgan) are horrible, but this one by Joe Berlinger is an exception. Netflix actually released this just before Berlinger’s other film about Bundy, the Zac Efron vehicle Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. This is the better project, a four-part miniseries culled from hours of interviews with Bundy himself. The series got a little criticism for giving a monster like Bundy a platform again, but it does offer the most comprehensive look at this case, the failures of the legal system to hold him, and how Bundy looked at his own crimes in 1980 when he was on death row. What’s somewhat fascinating is how much you won’t really understand Bundy, suggesting perhaps there are some monsters out there that we can never quite fully comprehend.
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.
The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann
The great Chris Smith (American Movie) directed this eight-part Netflix series about one of the most fascinating disappearances in history. In May 2007, 3-year-old Madeleine McCann traveled with her family to a resort in Portugal. One night, while her parents were at dinner not far away, she was taken from their room, and the ensuing investigation and media fury was like nothing anyone had seen before. Smith gets into the case in more detail than any other project in history, ultimately revealing how shoddy police work and a rush to justice to accuse McCann’s parents likely allowed the criminals to get away. McCann’s case is a lot like that of JonBenet Ramsey in that it feels like we will never truly know what happened or find a theory that makes all the pieces fit. This is the most exhaustive look we’ve had yet at this story that continues to fascinate true-crime fans.
This one truly snuck up on people, having dropped on Netflix this past December without much fanfare and becoming something of a phenomenon for true-crime fans. One of the reasons for that is that it details how internet sleuths impacted the case in question: the story of Luka Magnotta, who posted a video of himself graphically murdering two kittens. The internet went crazy trying to track him down, and arguably pushed him to commit more crimes, including eventually killing a student named Jun Lin. The series arguably doesn’t explore enough how much the pressure from the internet impacted Magnotta’s decisions to commit more crimes to get more attention, but it does offer a window into how the web is making sleuths out of ordinary citizens.
Not every true-crime documentary on Netflix is one of their own productions. This film by Andrew Jenks premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015 and is credited with helping right a great injustice. Kent Heitholt was found brutally murdered in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. For two years, no one had any idea who committed the crime, until a young man named Charles Erickson claimed that he suddenly remembered having murdered Heitholt, something that came to him in a dream. And he told the authorities that he did it with Ryan Ferguson. There was almost no evidence, and Ferguson did a decade behind bars because someone he knew had a dream. It’s a terrifying story of demented injustice that peels back the layers of how wrong this case went under the watch of prosecuting attorney Kevin Crane.
In 2003, Brian Wells committed a bank robbery in Erie, Pennsylvania, and he did so with a bomb strapped to his neck. It was one of the most confusing cases in history, especially after the bomb went off, killing Wells. Was it just a strange robbery gone wrong? Reportedly inspired by the brilliant Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, director Trey Borzillieri started digging into the case himself and made a film about his own cinematic investigation, which led him into the bizarre web of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, one of Wells’ co-conspirators, who reportedly told the man that the bomb was fake. She was eventually sentenced to life in prison, but this description only scratches the surface of how truly strange this case remains.
This 2019 series from Kelly Loudenberg is unique for this list in that it doesn’t examine a specific case as much as how modern techniques of crime solving can still be imperfect. You’ve probably heard of things like blood spatter and touch DNA on shows like NCIS or Dateline NBC, but Exhibit A deconstructs how these things can be misread and manipulated. One of the best episodes even confronts how surveillance footage that appears to show something to one person can be interpreted very differently by someone else. It’s a fascinating series and we only hope they make more of it.
This is the true Godfather of true-crime television, a show that everyone with cable or satellite know still airs in constant rotation on Headline News. (They’re even bringing it back in 2020!) There are literally hundreds of episodes of this show that aired from 1996 to 2011, and the ones available on Netflix are separated into “collections” instead of seasons. One of the reasons they’re so addictive is that they’re bite-sized compared to most true-crime docs, typically running only 22 minutes long and detailing how forensic science puts the bad guy away over and over and over again. Even in such a small runtime, Forensic Files illuminates how such small details can be the undoing for a criminal who thinks he’s got it all figured out. It’s almost comforting to watch a bunch of these and realize how hard it is to get away with murder.
Not all true-crime docs on Netflix are murder mysteries. This one is a crime of fraud, greed, and stupidity, chronicled in Chris Smith’s excellent look at the Fyre Festival of 2017. Run by Billy McFarland, Fyre promised to be the hip event of the year but turned into an absolute disaster when they actually had to try and pull it off. The film earned some criticism by letting co-producer Jerry Media off the hook for their responsibility in fanning the social flames, but there’s still some fascinating material here. Just do some other research, and even take the time to watch the companion piece on Hulu, before you close this story for yourself. There’s a lot to unpack here.
I Am a Killer
Interviews with people in prison, especially on death row, rarely work as television. They’re typically stomach-churning opportunities for the narcissistic criminal to get another chance in the spotlight. This U.K. series is a notable exception. Not only do the interviewers often confront their subjects with contradicting evidence or footage of interviews of people they’ve harmed, but they find a way to open these criminals up in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative. These are nuanced, complex episodes of documentary television that remind viewers that a murder doesn’t just change two lives, but everyone else caught up in the wake of the crime.
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.
Someone killed a nun named Sister Catherine Cesnik in November of 1969 in a Baltimore suburb. She was only 26 years old, and her case shattered the neighborhood, especially her students at Archbishop Keough High School. Brian Knappenberger digs into this story in one of the best true-crime docuseries ever made, uncovering not just the story of Cesnik’s impact but the possibility that she was killed to cover up sexual abuse by a priest at the school. It’s just rivetingly assembled, coming together like an incredible thriller, but it’s all true. It may not have enough answers or conclusions for all viewers, but it really paints a picture of a community in crisis and offers plenty of theories on what happened to poor Sister Cathy, turning death into a way to shine a light on further injustice.
In 2013, Aaron Hernandez, while on the roster of the New England Patriots, decided to kill Odin Lloyd. The investigation into that crime revealed that he may have committed a double murder just a few years earlier in Boston. Geno McDermott’s three-part series examines the details of both crimes while also offering theories as to why Hernandez committed them, including the impact of the death of his failure, possible brain damage from playing football, and even the suggestion of closeted homosexuality. It doesn’t come to any concrete conclusions, and we’ll never know why Hernandez did what he did, but this is an impactful deep dive into a very public story of a famous athlete whose demons had more control over his life than anything on the football field.
The preponderance of true-crime documentaries on Netflix can really be traced back to the massive success of this late 2015 series by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. It’s the story of Steven Avery, a man who spent almost two decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit … and then possibly committed a murder. Could he have been falsely accused twice? Or could he be guilty of the second crime? Questions still swirl around this case that ignited something in the public interest so much that Netflix even created a follow-up series in 2018 to detail further developments in the case. It’s not just an essential true-crime show on Netflix, it’s a building block for how the streaming service became one of the biggest entertainment forces in the world.
In 1999, Dan Schneider, a pharmacist in New Orleans, suffered the horrible devastation of the death of a child when his son was shot. Investigating the case on his own, he learned that his son was feeding an addiction, and he even helped bring his killer to justice. But that’s really just where this story began. Schneider decided he needed to do more and started staking out and investigating a doctor who was basically making addicts with her OxyContin prescriptions. Schneider’s story is one of redemption, turning his son’s death into a fight to make sure fewer sons die on this pharmacist’s watch. He is a movingly open interview subject, the kind of guy you can’t help but like and root for as he tries find some sense of closure and justice.
It was picked up and added to by Netflix, but this is actually a 2004 French miniseries that many true-crime fans point to as one of the essentials in the subgenre anywhere. It’s a riveting case, the death of Kathleen Peterson, whose husband Michael was convicted of murdering her, despite his protestations that she fell down the stairs. It happened in December 2001 and instantly became a major case with authorities believing that Peterson had bludgeoned his wife and then staged the scene to look like an accident. The reason The Staircase is so powerful is that its exhaustive, spending time with Peterson through every phase of the trial, and yet you will still leave it uncertain of what exactly happened that fateful night on the staircase.
Originally broadcast on Spike and BET, this is the story of the horror of Rikers Island, a hell on Earth where young men are turned into criminals whether they like it or not. People accused of crimes like high-school student Kalief Browder who can’t afford bail have to sit there and wait for trial. In Rikers, gang warfare rules, and Browder refused to pledge allegiance to a gang, leaving him open to regular beatings. He was at Rikers, even though he was completely innocent, for three years, two of them in solitary confinement. Browder’s story should be one that makes every single American angry, and yet Rikers continues to destroy people like Kalief Browder, who committed suicide in 2015, forever destroyed by a corrupt, broken system.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez
Be fully warned that this is the most unflinching documentary on this list, a study of absolute horrible inhumanity committed against a child. Gabriel Fernandez’s mother and boyfriend abused him so badly that they eventually killed him. In precise detail, Brian Knappenberger examines the case and the trial against these monsters, going as far as to point fingers at the system that allowed this to happen. Los Angeles prosecutors even charged four social workers with a crime, and Knappenberger’s film reveals how the safety nets in place to save people like Gabriel are torn and tattered. Again, it’s got details and even photographs that you will literally never forget, but it’s a powerful way to ask people what we can do to make sure what happened to Gabriel never happens again.
It’s back! One of the most influential and essential programs in the history of true crime television has returned to Netflix in a slightly different form but with one essential ingredient intact: you can help solve a crime or explain the unexplainable. Instead of the multi-story format employed by the original series, the new Unsolved Mysteries focuses on one case per episode, including the story of a man whosesuicide looks mighty suspicious, a woman who disappeared from in front of her salon, and a small town in which everyone tells the same story of an alien encounter. There’s no host in this new version either but it’s tight, well-made television that has people talking on social media, and potentially turning intoarmchair crime solvers yet again.
Who Killed Little Gregory?
In 1984, in a small town in France, a 4-year-old named Grégory Villemin was abducted from his yard, his hands & feet were tied, and he was thrown in a river. The case dominated headlines for years in France, becoming that country’s most infamous unsolved murder. And it remains unsolved to this day. This French mini-series includes a lot of archival material and modern-day interviews to tell the story of the murder, the media circus, and the investigation that followed. This one has more twists and turns than your average thriller, and leaves viewers with solid suspects but no answer to its titular question.
In 1981, a man named the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh started a commune in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, resulting in not just local controversy but an eventual criminal investigation. One of Netflix’s most famous docuseries, this is one of those experiences where every episode reveals a new unforgettable character or event, none more memorable than Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s assistant and true force behind the Rajneeshpuram community. It’s a story that got a lot of press when it happened, but had been relatively forgotten in the decades since, turned into an incredible phenomenon yet again, even being parodied on Saturday Night Live and Documentary Now! You really can’t miss this one if you have any interest in Netflix documentaries at all.
The masterful Errol Morris directed this six-part series that’s heavy on reenactments (starring Peter Sarsgaard and other familiar faces) but also serves enough as a non-fiction examination of true crime that it qualifies for this list. It’s the story of Frank Olson, a man who died in 1953 under mysterious circumstances, and his son’s eventual investigation into whether or not the government had something to do with it. Olson may have been a part of a covert government operation called Project MKUltra, who possibly even dosed him with LSD shortly before his death. Morris approaches the story from multiple angles, making a historical thriller that’s intertwined with a personal story of a son trying to find the truth. As with almost all things Morris, it’s great stuff.