Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Crime Documentaries Every Law Student Should See

Just as the practice of law isn’t at all like law school, real crimes aren’t at all like the ones depicted in movies and TV series. The people are a lot less attractive, and the motives aren’t nearly as complicated. Things tend to boil down to money, sex, or power. The best documentaries bring a deft touch to these human stories that forms them into a narrative but never loses sight of the fact that these atrocious things happened to real people, and that real people have to pay the price or go free. They should be required viewing for law students to help them understand what’s really waiting for them when they get out of school. They’re as close as you can get to the real thing.

    1. The Staircase: The Staircase is a riveting police procedural and courtroom thriller that plays like a tightly written mystery. Writer-director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade had ridiculous access to author Michael Peterson, who in 2001 was arraigned for the murder of his wife, discovered in a pool of blood at the base of the staircase in their family home. Filmed as a documentary for French TV, this riveting eight-part film runs six hours but barely feels like two.

  • The Thin Blue Line: Errol Morris’s documentaries never fail to illuminate some of the darker and more compelling parts of the human experience — The Fog of War is a brilliant example of how hubris leads nations to battle — and The Thin Blue Line is fantastic for the way it examines the real-life application of the law. Revolving around the murder of a Dallas police officer and the subsequent investigation, the documentary demonstrates how easy it is for the wrong man (or men) to become implicated in a crime they didn’t commit if the legal system turns against them.



  • Cocaine Cowboys: The Miami drug wars of the 1970s and 1980s were terrifying for the way they gave organized crime an even stronger foothold in the area and pushed law enforcement to the limit in their attempts to stem the flow of coke into the country. This incisive documentary also explores how the town benefitted economically from the additional cash, as dirty money was laundered to fund a variety of modern landmarks. Granted, it’s not as if fictional films make this life look like a non-stop party: sooner or later, the feds always come calling. But this doc gets even closer to the action by offering interviews with former criminals and cops, putting the viewer in the middle.



  • Deliver Us From Evil: Critically lauded for its skillful execution of a difficult story, Deliver Us From Evil tells the tale of Father Oliver O’Grady, a Catholic priest who molested and raped a number of young children from the 1970s to the 1990s and who was moved to various parishes around the country by church officials in an attempt to cover up the crimes. A heartbreaking, devastating look at the cancer that’s eating the Catholic Church in America.



  • The Trials of Darryl Hunt: In 1984, Darryl Hunt, a black man in North Carolina, was convicted of raping the white Deborah Sykes. There was just one problem: he didn’t do it. He served almost 20 years before DNA technology was able to exonerate him, and this penetrating doc captures the legal system in a warts-and-all manner that’s bound to be eye-opening for students convinced of the law’s flawlessness.



  • American Pimp: The protestations of Kid Rock notwithstanding, a pimp is probably not something one should aspire to be. Directed by the Hughes Brothers, who also helmed Menace II Society, American Pimp strips the cheesy glamour and dubious reputation from the pimp subculture by showing just how deluded (and illegal) these men are. It gets even darker when it touches on the women who have died living the prostitute life.



  • Witch Hunt: This one’s well below the radar for most people, but that’s all the more reason to seek it out. Narrated by Sean Penn, this 2008 documentary deals with the dozens of men and women in California’s Kern County who were wrongly convicted for committing sexual crimes against children. Despite the mountain of evidence that the children were coerced into lying, the district attorney remained in office by boasting of his impressive conviction rate. A harrowing look at how the legal system can be manipulated by the wrong person.



  • Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father: Writer-director Kurt Kuenne’s documentary is a stunning story of twisted love and sick betrayal. Kuenne’s best friend, Andrew Bagby, was shot and killed by Shirley Turner after Bagby broke up with her. Shortly after, she revealed she was pregnant with Bagby’s child. Kuenne’s film is a letter to the infant that attempts to piece together Bagby’s life and death as a letter for the son who would never know him. Wrenching and unforgettable.



  • The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer: Richard Kuklinski was an enforcer for the Gambino crime family, a brutal job that eventually landed him in prison. In this 1992 documentary (and its 2002 follow-up, The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman), he speaks frankly about the people he killed and the life he lived. It’s a stunning look at a man seemingly immune to all violence, and the weird calm with which he discusses his jobs is unnerving.



  • Scottsboro: An American Tragedy: It’s not hard to see why stories of wrongful conviction make up so much of the crime documentary field: there’s something about the stories that expresses the worst (miscarriages of justice) and the best (hard-won salvation) of the American legal system. The tale of the Scottsboro Boys (pictured above) is a sad one born of racism and anger, in which a group of nine young black men in 1931 were sent to prison for raping a pair of white women, despite the fact that no evidence was presented. The case was a landmark in the development of rights for the accused, and this documentary is a stirring reminder of the high cost and higher responsibility of fighting for the people.