The Best True Crime Documentaries on Netflix

Netflix helped bring true crime fascination to the streaming era with these documentaries and docuseries.

Making a Murderer, Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country
Photo: Netflix

It might seem contradictory that the rise of short video clip popularity coincided with the popularity of long form journalism, but Netflix may be the common factor. The streaming network didn’t invent true crime documentation, but it helped shape the style, and keeps a vast repository of the hottest cold cases.

Real-life crime stories are riveting, whether the watcher is concerned about avoiding such events or solving them. There is something for every taste, from feature-length documentaries to full series. Not all crimes are equal under the laws of public opinion, but these are some of the most dangerously addictive true crime offerings currently available on Netflix.

Making a Murderer (2015)

Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s 10-part documentary on Steven Avery catapulted Netflix to the top of the True Crime streaming game. Making a Murderer spurred the fascination with the genre more than any other series. Avery served 18 years in prison for the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen before being exonerated. The DNA in the case was matched to another suspect, already known to the police. Avery was released in September 2003.

Several years later, Avery was charged, along with his then-16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey, with the rape and murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. The filmmakers spent three years chronicling efforts to clear their names, but they were not released.  Making a Murderer season 2 heard evidence implicating another party possibly responsible for Halbach’s death. It wasn’t enough for reasonable doubt. Illinois lawyer Kathleen Zellner, who represents Avery, calls the proceedings “a case of gross, extreme, egregious prosecutorial misconduct.”

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Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019)

One of the most infamous American serial killers, Ted Bundy confessed to murdering between 30 and 37 women between 1974 and 1978 before he was put to death in January, 1989. The true number of his victims is unknown. Only 20 have been identified. Created by Joe Berlinger, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is a dramatization of investigative reporters Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth’ 2000 book, which condensed hours of recorded interviews during Bundy’s imprisonment in the 1980s.

Bundy was charismatic, intelligent, good-looking, and “concerned” enough to volunteer for the suicide hotline. During interviews, he manipulated the media with his glorified self-narrative. To counter this, the four-part Netflix series mixes archival news footage, and the filmmakers speak with detectives, journalists, attorneys, and one of his survivors. Even without the counterpoint, the tapes are chilling. Bundy nonchalantly admits feeling no guilt. He doesn’t dissociate from the crimes. He understands his actions.

The Staircase (2004)

Originally running for eight episodes in 2004 on the Sundance Channel, The Staircase set the template for the modern true-crime docuseries genre. Online sleuthing, binge-watching, and fan theories began in the shadow of this banister. The program initially built a case for innocence, only to let it crumble under the weight of the prime suspect’s personal agenda. Michael Peterson, a Durham, N.C.-based Vietnam vet and novelist, is accused of killing his wife, Kathleen. He claims it was an accident, and his entire life is put under the microscope by French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

Filming began shortly after Peterson’s indictment. Camera crews were given access to the extended family, defense attorneys, and the courtroom, but the series retains an objective distance. The Staircase returned in 2012, when three more episodes were aired on French TV station Canal+. Peterson maintains innocence not only throughout the trial, but long after he’s been convicted.

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (2021)

Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, was a serial killer and rapist who terrorized Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. He was convicted of 13 murders, 11 sexual assaults, five attempted murders and 14 burglaries in 1989, and sentenced to death. The Night Stalker: The Hunt for A Serial Killer is L.A. noir. The same kind of darkness that crept into the headlines when the Black Dahlia murder struck.

The series delves into the mind of Ramirez, while duly noting the strain on the cops in pursuit. Serial killing ran in the family, Ramirez’s older cousin Miguel showed Richard pictures of the assaults and dismemberments he got away with during the Vietnam War. Ramirez was one of 59 people facing execution who died of natural causes since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Even though we know how it ends, the series captures the race-against-the-clock tension of the summer of 1985.

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The Keepers (2017)

Murder is a crime and a sin, so when the killing of a nun goes unsolved, there is hell to pay. Sister Cathy Cesnik, went missing in November 1969. Her body was discovered the following January. In The Keepers, director Ryan White tries to find out who would want to kill a nun. And not just any nun, but one who was the most beloved teacher at an all-girls high school, where she taught English and drama.

Sister Cathy was so beloved her former students investigated the death the Baltimore police deemed a cold case. They found a cover-up involving a priest at their school which led to stories of multiple counts of sexual abuse against students. The Keepers includes interviews with Cesnik’s former students and friends, as well as investigators and detectives, to show just how far the church will go to cover a crime.

Evil Genius (2018)

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist isn’t just about the crime. Netflix’s four-part documentary series is a codependent love story. It opens with footage of what will be designated a murder scene. In 2003, pizza delivery driver Brian Wells walked into a bank with an explosive device handcuffed to his neck, a walking-cane-gun, and a note demanding money. The bomb squad showed up just as he blew up, which TV cameras caught on tape because they beat them to the scene. A week later, another pizza delivery man from Mama Mia’s, Robert Thomas Pinetti, also died. The cops put it off to Erie, Pennsylvania’s then-rampant drug plague.

Written by Barbara Schroeder, who co-directed with Trey Borzillieri, the documentary series includes an interview with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. She used to be the “prettiest girl in town” and men “would do almost anything for her.” Evil Genius explores just how true that is.

The Confession Tapes (2017)

As many as six percent of capital crime prosecutions end with a wrongful conviction, and Netflix’s true-crime experts know all the ways to overturn the books. The first thing you hear when you are read your Miranda rights is: “You have the right to be silent.” The Confession Tapes waves these rights like a red flag. A confession not a confession when it is coerced, involuntary or false. That doesn’t mean it won’t still result in a conviction. In creator/director Kelly Loudenberg’s The Confession Tapes, the suspects were tried and sentenced based on their confessions, but little evidence. Each of the subjects confessed but recanted.

Each of the series’ 11 episodes include interviews with investigators, lawyers, wrongful conviction experts, and people close to the cases. We see examples of “Mr. Big” interrogation techniques, and brainwashed admissions. The series also includes audio and video recordings of the questioning. The Confession Tapes makes the inadvisable inadmissible.

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ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (2019)

The shooting death of the original soul stirrer, Sam Cooke, was devastating for fans, and the circumstances were irreconcilable. Not only for the fact that no one could have imagined the “You Send Me” singer committing such an act, but because it didn’t add up. Cooke was 33 years old when he was shot by a motel’s manager, Bertha Franklin, who said it was self-defense. The LAPD didn’t feel Cooke’s death warranted a full investigation.

ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke is as wide-ranging as its subject. Cooke was a soul music pioneer, and a powerful force in the civil rights movement. He used his popularity for social reappraisal, and met with Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Jim Brown about getting things done. Cooke turned the message into art, recording “A Change is Gonna Come.” The details of Cooke’s murder are inconclusive, but The Two Killings of Sam Cooke makes a good case for re-examination.

The Confession Killer (2019)

Henry Lee Lucas became a star boasting about hundreds of killings in the mid-1980s. His admissions helped a Texas Ranger taskforce clear 213 unsolved cases from its books. Cops from across the country questioned him about over 3,000 murder cases, and he never met one he couldn’t match. Lucas gave precise details about each victim. He was convicted of murdering 11. Directed by Robert Kenner and Taki Oldham, The Confession Killer concludes Lucas’ many mea culpa moments didn’t add up.

Netflix’s six-part docuseries finds the admissions didn’t stand up under even the slightest scrutiny. There was no discernable pattern between the victims, methods or weapons, and no tangible evidence presented. The confessions closed the cases to further investigation. Maybe it was Lucas’ three teeth, or his lazy eye, but America was thrilled to name him the country’s most prolific serial killer of the 20th century. If only he did it.

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann (2019)

Chronicling one of the world’s most infamous missing child cases, director Chris Smith’s The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann is an exhaustive search for more than a lost three year old. The eight-episode series looks for order in chaos, if not meaning or closure. Madeleine was last seen at the seaside resort of Praia de Luz, Portugal in May 2007, while on a family vacation. The series follows the initial panic, the delayed police response, endless futile searches, tenuous suspect identifications, trained hounds that sniff out the parents, and the media attention. The McCanns declined cooperation.

The series doesn’t impose any conclusions. It doesn’t examine suspected miscarriages of justice. There are no new facts presented on the case, and it doesn’t make all the pieces fit, but The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann feels complete. It gives the impression that we will never know what happened, and lets the frustration settle in.

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The Innocent Man (2018)

The Innocent Man is an adaptation of John Grisham’s only nonfiction novel. The work investigated a murder committed in Ada, Oklahoma. Debbie Carter, a bar waitress who was sexually assaulted and killed in her walk-up apartment in December 1982. TV series developers Ross Dinerstein and Clay Tweel expanded the narrative to include the murder of Denice Haraway, which was detailed in Robert Mayer’s 1987 book The Dreams of Ada. The convenience-store clerk went missing in August 1984, and was eventually found dead. Both crimes implicated pairs of men as the killers.

Ron Williamson, a former minor league baseball player, and Dennis Fritz were named in the Debbie Carter case, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were fingered for the Denice Haraway murder. All four men claimed innocence, two were convicted. The Innocent Man digs into the shoddy police work, and the prosecutorial expediency which led to appeals from all four of the accused.

The Ripper (2020)

English serial killer Peter Sutcliffe was responsible for the brutal slayings of 13 women in Manchester and West Yorkshire between 1975 and 1980. His modus operandi was similar to the infamously uncaught Jack the Ripper, who terrorized London streets in the 1800s. This led the press to label Sutcliffe “The Yorkshire Ripper.”

Netflix’s four-part miniseries talks with survivors, investigators, journalists, and the victims’ families to lay out a chronological arc, while trying to get into the mind of the elusive killer at large. It gets its best perspective from the detectives who worked on the case, and presents previously unseen footage into the docket. As the “Yorkshire Ripper’s” pattern continued into the late 1970s, law enforcement was tricked at every turn, in spite of an extensive investigation. The Ripper explains the search for the culprit in extreme detail, fully documenting one of the most significant investigations in British police history.

Wild Wild Country (2018)

No matter how enlightened the guru, Karma is a bitch when real estate deals are on the line, and bacteria is in the water. Wild Wild Country documents the Rajneeshpuram community, led by “Osho,” a.k.a Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela. The Rajneeshis made the pilgrimage from their ashram in Poona, India, to an 80,000-acre ranch outside Antelope, Oregon, to offer peace of mind. When rejected, they launched the first bioterror attack in the U.S.

Wild Wild Country interviews members of the cult, residents, and law enforcement agents. Each tells different stories, even decades later. The Rajneeshi movement was a media curiosity at the time, and made its way onto a lot of archival footage. It doesn’t help the events make sense, or reconcile the steadfast memory divisions, but it is evidence of a unique community, and a rare historical event. Wild Wild Country does not take sides, but poses larger questions.  

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The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness (2021)

The “Son of Sam” killer spree captivated the world in the late 1970s. All of New York City clung to its every detail. David Berkowitz pled guilty to eight shootings in 1977, and the case was closed. The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness focuses on the work of journalist Maury Terry, who was convinced Berkowitz was part of “a highly motivated and well-organized cult group whose various criminal enterprises included the .44 homicide.”

Directed by Joshua Zeman, the documentary shows authorities heard claims about ritual murders, but rushed the case to a close because of fears of public panic. The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness opens with the director receiving boxes of files from Terry’s investigation. They included a 1981 letter from Berkowitz, postmarked Attica Correctional Facility, reading: “I am guilty of these crimes. But I didn’t do it all.”

The Devil Next Door (2019)

Directed by Yossi Bloch and Daniel Sivan, The Devil Next Door documents one of the highest-profile courtroom conflicts since Nazi Gestapo head Adolf Eichmann sat before the Nuremberg trials 25 years earlier. In 1985, John Demjanjuk, was arrested as a war criminal. The US Office of Special Investigations presented evidence the nationalized Ukrainian immigrant and Ford auto worker was, in reality, “Ivan the Terrible,” the notoriously sadistic death camp guard who operated gas chambers at Treblinka death camp. He was arrested and extradited to Israel for trial, and was recognized by Holocaust survivors. Demjanjuk’s attorney, Yoram Sheftel, calls himself “the most hated man in Israel” during the trial.

The trial was nationally televised, providing a wealth of courtroom footage. The Devil Next Door adds witness testimony, and archival newsreels from concentration camps, but without undue sensationalism. The documentary series keeps its focus so objective it becomes hard to be sure what to believe.