American Bar Association: Documentaries about Crimes That Change Lives

Posted on August 3, 2020 at 8:32 pm

The American Bar Association’s magazine has an article about “documentaries that swayed criminal cases.” Documentaries can be a very effective form of journalism, advocacy, or both. One example in the article is Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost Trilogy, three films over a period of fifteen years about three teenage boys accused of the May 1993 murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys. Because the accused boys listened to heavy metal music and had been in trouble for various petty offenses, the prosecution alleged that they killed the young boys as a part of a Satanic ritual. The filmmakers originally assumed that the boys were guilty. One of them confessed. But as they talked to the families of the murdered boys and reviewed the evidence, they concluded that they were not guilty. The documentaries, the attention brought to the case by celebrities including some rock musicians, and the review of DNA evidence that showed no connection between the boys and the murder, led to their being released from prison, though not a full exoneration.

The article also discusses Surviving R. Kelly, which gave women who had been sexually abused by the singer the opportunity to tell their stories. “Days after the premiere, Georgia and Illinois opened criminal investigations and encouraged more victims to come forward. By the next month, Kelly had lost his record deal and been charged by the Cook County state’s attorney in Chicago with sex abuse. In July 2019, he got hit with federal sex abuse charges as well. At press time, he sits in a Chicago jail awaiting trial.” He had managed to avoid responsibility in an earlier trial. The evidence in the documentary provided a path to holding him accountable.

Other documentaries mentioned include The Central Park Five, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and documentary podcasts In the Dark and Serial.

The “documentary” footage taken by amateur observers has had an enormous impact recently, in tragedies like the death of George Floyd and in angry disputes over racist comments and wearing masks. Footage like that will certainly have an increasing impact on criminal and civil cases.

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