The era of these new documentaries has its roots in the 1980s when Thin Blue Line, a film about a Texas man wrongfully sent to death row for the murder of a police officer, exposed astonishing problems in the criminal justice process. It was not until the mid-1990s, however, that the genre truly began to take shape, and even then, it was not the filmmakers’ intent to really do anything different. HBO dispatched a pair of filmmakers to Arkansas in 1996 to document the infamous murder of three young boys by teenagers dubbed the West Memphis Three. The film was supposed to be about Satanism, heavy metal, and youth gone bad, but the filmmakers quickly sensed something was wrong.
Joe Berlinger, who had already done films on wrongful convictions, reported back to HBO that he felt the boys were being railroaded, and the nature of the documentary suddenly took a different turn. What emerged was the 1996 film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and two sequels released in 2000 and 2011. These films showed how police coerced a confession from an underage defendant with mental impairment and then used that confession to give one boy the death penalty and two others life sentences.
The documentary drew extraordinary attention from celebrities like Johnny Depp and activists who helped raise money and do research for an appeal. Continued public attention kept the case in the spotlight, and in 2010, an appeals court ordered an evidentiary hearing to analyze DNA that pointed to another suspect. The following year, the West Memphis Three were freed.
Damien Echols, who had been sentenced to death in the case, has said that without the documentary and the publicity it generated, he would have been executed.
The success of Paradise Lost, both as a film and in creating real-world change, has spawned many imitators. Netflix aired a 10-episode series called Making a Murderer to spotlight problems in the convictions of two men for 2007 murders in Wisconsin. HBO has continued in the genre with 2019’s The Case Against Adnan Syed, which cast doubts on another murder conviction. No new film has as yet resulted in exoneration.
These documentaries are not limited to questioning the convictions of those behind bars. Noted director Ken Burns released The Central Park Five after the men convicted of the brutal rape and attempted murder had already been exonerated. The film did generate enough publicity to convince the city of New York to settle a lawsuit by the wrongly accused for $41 million.
A new angle for this type of documentary emerged in 2019 when Lifetime aired Surviving R. Kelly. The film investigated the many claims that the R&B superstar had sexually abused underage girls for years. In the aftermath of public scrutiny, Kelly was charged in Georgia and Illinois, and not long after, the federal government also filed sex trafficking charges. The victims who came forward for the film were unanimous in their belief that the new publicity had finally brought Kelly down.
These documentaries are not without dangers. It is easy for a filmmaker to take sides and slant his presentation into advocacy. Several attorneys have also noted that public scrutiny can make prosecutors and judges dig in their heels even in the face of obvious injustice.
Despite these problems, transparency and public accountability rarely do harm to the criminal justice process, and any mechanism that offers hope to those who have suffered injustice must be seen as a benefit to society as a whole.
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