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.
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.
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 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.