“The Thin Blue Line” (Errol Morris, 1988)
Just as the investigate reporting in “Serial” has raised new questions about a 15-year-old murder case and could lead to a post-conviction appeal, Morris’ investigation into a 1976 murder case in “The Thin Blue Line” had real-life implications. Through detailed reenactments and a series of interviews, Morris makes a compelling case that Randall Dale Adams was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Clearly, it had an impact. About a year after the film was released, Adams was released. Bonus: Phillip Glass composed the haunting score, his first of several collaborations with Morris.
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Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
The Academy Award-nominated documentary gained critical acclaim and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for its nuanced approach to a difficult topic. Through awkward and emotional home movies from the ’80s, the filmmaker examines the child molestation charges against Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse. The film suggests that that they were victims of a “witch hunt” and that Jesse was wrongfully accused. The elder Friedman confessed, was convicted of 10 years in prison and committed suicide in jail in 1995. Jesse plead guilty (under threats of a life sentence), served 13 years in prison and still maintains his innocence. Jarecki has become one of his biggest supporters, telling Indiewire that “the process of justice was so broken in this situation that Jesse had to be reconsidered as an individual, not as his father’s diabolical assistant, but rather as a person who was ultimately in an impossible situation.” As with “Serial,” “Capturing the Friedmans” involves a teenager who may or may not be guilty — and a seriously flawed criminal justice system. (SnagFilms)
Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
In 1990, William Ward, the eldest of four brothers who lived together in a small town in upstate New York was found dead in his home and his brother Delbert was accused of suffocating him. Delbert eventually confessed and explained that it was a mercy killing sanctioned by his other brothers. Berlinger and Sinofsky follow the ensuing trial and the media coverage surrounding it — which pits the illiterate brothers and their neighbors against newcomers. Apart from the murders, there’s little that “Brother’s Keeper” and “Serial” have in common plot-wise, but they each suggest you can never really know the full story. (Netflix)
The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004)
On December 9, 2001, author Michael Peterson phoned the police to say he found his wife Kathleen’s dead body at the bottom of a staircase. But when the autopsy revealed that she had lacerations on her head that were consistent with blows from a blunt object, police arrested Peterson. Lestrade’s eight-part documentary assembled from hundreds of hours of footage, covers the time of the murder through the trial. As with “Serial,” you’ll be left asking, “Did he do it?”
The “Paradise Lost” Trilogy (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1996, 2000, 2011)
Though Berlinger and Sinofsky were originally hired by HBO to make a documentary about children killing children in an instance of Satanism, the filmmakers soon changed their tactics. It was clear to them that the police conducted a flawed investigation and that the case against the three teenagers accused of the crime was flimsy. As with Adnan in “Serial,” there was no physical evidence linking these teenagers to the crime. The appeals process continued for many years until a 2011 plea deal allowed all three men to walk free (though they are still pursuing a full exoneration). Enough questions remain about the bizarre crime and its legal aftermath to ensnare a devoted “Serial” fan.