I’ll be the first to tell anyone who wants to listen that my job is not like how it is portrayed on television. All too often I see shows like CSI or Law and Order solving crimes with absolute scientific certainty in an hour. That’s crap. Life is messy and so is criminal law. Lying witnesses will not recant if I scream at them. Cops are not always the good guys. And unlike on television, juries sometimes get it wrong and innocent people end up in prison. Here are five series that I think get it right:
Now the gold standard in true crime documentaries, Making a Murderer showcased concepts defense attorneys have stressed for years. Season one features incredibly charismatic and highly-skilled Wisconsin defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting as they defend Steven Avery after he is released from prison for a rape he didn’t commit, and is subsequently charged with the murder of a young photographer. Equally fascinating is the saga of Brendan Dassey, an intellectually disabled kid who is coerced into confession by psychologically powerful interrogation tactics with the help of his own defense attorney. Season one features crooked cops, tunnel vision in a serious investigation, both excellent and utterly incompetent defense attorneys, and the creepiest prosecutor you will ever lay eyes on. I was fascinated.
Season two is also worth watching, although the content is much more dry. This season centers on the appellate process for Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. The documentarians did a good job showing how junk science and flawed interrogation techniques may have contributed to false convictions for both men, and follows a heartbreaking appeals process for Mr. Dassey. I was riveted by the skill and dedication of Dassey’s post-conviction attorneys, but thought that Avery’s attorney was way too flashy and should spend more time representing her client and less time talking about him on twitter.
Speaking of junk science, the Staircase gets everything right. How overzealous investigations lead to the identification of a target rather than an objective search for a suspect. How the State employs pseudo-scientists to reach an investigator’s conclusion, rather than search for the truth. How our justice system is institutionally biased towards admitting evidence that makes a case against a defendant, but excludes that which helps him. But most of all, how the justice system refuses to admit fault even when an innocent man’s life has already been ruined. Excellent lawyering, strong personalities, and a fascinating story.
We all believe that corrupt cops exist, but nobody wants to believe that they exist in our police departments. This is an excellent look at how easy it is for an officer to take the first steps towards corruption, and how it can infect an entire department. Honest officers face serious dilemmas when they are asked to cooperate against their corrupt colleagues, and were left to wonder whether officers they cooperated against would back them up on the streets. The Seven Five was also a good look at the legal barriers that prevent departments from immediately correcting the problem of corrupt police officers.
The only fiction entry on my list is The Wire. Every cop show on television has some variation of hero cops fighting evil, ultimately ending every episode with a gun battle where the fashion model/police officers emerge entirely unscathed. The Wire is the most realistic fictional portrayal of the drug war I’ve ever seen. Being a drug dealer doesn’t make a character evil and being a cop doesn’t make the character good, and all of the characters are subtly transformed by their experiences. Focus is always on the characters and their stories, and only two gunshots are fired by the police throughout the entire series (both accidental). The criminal justice system is portrayed as inefficient, and anyone watching should get the impression that the parties are fighting a war without a point. Exactly how I feel about the drug war.
Also by David Simon, this documentary follows drug offenders and their families through arrest, prosecution and incarceration. The creators follow people caught up in the drug war and highlight how lack of economic opportunity and geographic segregation result in disproportionate enforcement and prosecution of indigent and racial and ethnic minorities.