Beyond Making A Murderer: 18 more true-life injustices brought to light in pop culture

Beyond Making A Murderer: 18 more true-life injustices brought to light in pop culture

Netflix’s runaway hit documentary series Making A Murderer is currently raising the ire (and pulses) of viewers across the country, but it’s far from alone in the ranks of real-life injustices that have been documented in hopes of raising awareness among the general public. Here are some other infuriating—and compelling—examples of films, podcasts, books, and other media that present cases to stoke audiences’ sense of outrage.

1. No End In Sight (2007)

By the time No End In Sight, Charles Ferguson’s 2007 documentary about the disastrous execution of the Iraq War, rolled into theaters, there was already more than enough evidence to suggest that our political leaders had made a hash of the whole thing. Plunging a foreign country into chaos and giving rise to a new generation of terrorists, all for the sake of short-sighted political point-scoring and filling the coffers of war-profiteering associates and campaign contributors, the postwar occupation of Iraq was an unmitigated disaster, and this film exposed in excruciating detail all of the idiot decisions (not to mention the idiots who made them) for all the world to see. It’s difficult to watch the Oscar-nominated film and not pull out your hair in frustration at the narrow-minded ideology of neoconservative zealots who sacrificed long-term international security for the sake of electoral chest-puffing and the quest for profit. Sadly, it probably deserves repeated pointing out that a lot of these same guys (and make no mistake, they’re almost all guys) are still in positions of power, just waiting for a right-wing reclamation of the White House. [Alex McCown]

2. Hot Coffee (2011)

When the public caught wind of some lady who sued McDonald’s for its coffee being too hot, it laughed, ridiculed, and grew angry at the whole situation, railing against a supposed lawsuit-happy America and calling for tort reform. And while there might be arguments for limiting excessive civil litigation, Hot Coffee shows how this was the worst and most misunderstood case to use as an example. Susan Saladoff’s documentary details the true story of what happened to Stella Liebeck when she purchased that infamous cup of brew (which caused third-degree burns along her inner thighs—Google search the images to see, but know they’re graphic), using the case as an informative springboard into what tort actually is—a legal method to hold large businesses accountable—and the various ways said businesses and media outlets often discredit such lawsuits as frivolous. Exposing a complex legal system too often misunderstood by the average person (a mindset aided by the nongovernmental lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce), Hot Coffee attempts to demand its viewers try, at the very least, to really learn about a case before passing judgment. It’s hard to tell if it worked, though. [Kevin Johnson]

3. The Invisible War (2012)

The details of The Invisible War—Kirby Dick’s deeply unsettling examination of intraservice rape in the modern U.S. military—are infuriating on pretty much every count. The abuses of power, the brutal betrayals of soldiers by those they relied upon to keep them safe, the bureaucratic lethargy of the Department Of Veterans Affairs in helping victims recover from their attacks—they all contribute to a stomach-churning world where patriotic volunteers are trapped at the mercy of a system that neither believes in nor cares about their fates. Worst of all, the military justice system, often more obsessed with saving face than serving soldiers, gave final say in sexual assault cases to commanding officers who were frequently friends with (or in some cases actually were) the perpetrators of the crimes. (That last outrage, at least, has reportedly changed for the better, partially thanks to the film: then-Secretary Of Defense Leon Panetta cited The Invisible War as part of his motivation for ordering that sexual assault cases be handled by high-ranking officers outside a soldier’s own unit, although a similarly inspired bill to establish independent trials in assault cases was killed by Congress in 2013.) [William Hughes]

4. Serial, season one

Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular This American Life spin-off was the podcast sensation of 2014, an unsolved mystery that drew listeners into its tangled web of competing accounts, opinionated witnesses, and disappearing pay phones. But season one’s greatest accomplishment could be the harsh light it shines on the Maryland court system (and, by extension, the American one): Koenig shows, in step by step fashion, how a case can be built against a suspect with little physical evidence, inconsistent testimony, and technology (in this case, cell-phone triangulation) that’s not as reliable as one might think. Ask a random group of Serial junkies whether Adnan Syed is guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and you’re likely to get a variety of competing theories. What nearly everyone can agree on, though, is that the evidence presented against Syed—then a Baltimore teenager, now 15 years into a life sentence—probably wasn’t sufficient enough to convict him of the crime. And thanks at least partially to Serial, he may get his fair day in court yet. [A.A. Dowd]

5. No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, And Other Terrors Of Our Times (2003)

During the crest of the 1980s wave of sex abuse hysteria, dubious charges against day-care providers were a regular occurrence. These egregious miscarriages of justice formed the basis of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Dorothy Rabinowitz’s book, No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, And Other Terrors Of Our Times. In particular, she touches on the case of the Amirault family and the Fells Acres Day Care Center in Malden, Massachusetts. What began with a 4-year-old boy wetting the bed during a nap turned into outrageous accusations of rape, torture, and molestation of the center’s students, all birthed within a moral panic that was sweeping the collective consciousness. Coercive and aggressive interviewing tactics of the day care’s students were employed to get testimony out of children, who at first flatly denied that anything happened. In addition to the suggestive and subsequently highly criticized interviewing tactics, there was no physical evidence to support any claims of abuse (despite the children’s testimonies including such outlandish and presumably easily corroborated details such as hidden rooms in the day-care center, sodomy with a 2-foot-long butcher’s knife, or being tied naked to trees on the playground within view of the entire neighborhood). Much like the interrogation of Brendan Dassey in Making A Murderer, these coerced fabrications confirmed that testimonies, especially those of children, can be reverse-engineered by detectives or attorneys emboldened by a witch hunt. It’s an infuriating read, and a frustrating reminder that, even in a civilized society, logic and reason can be overcome by panic and irrational fear. [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]

6. The Unknown Known (2013)

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been able to shine a light on some of America’s darkest foreign policy moments. In The Fog Of War, he gets Vietnam-era Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara to acknowledge some regret as to how he conducted the war, and Standard Operating Procedure heard Abu Ghraib guards speak frankly about torture. But when he interviews another defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, he isn’t able to break through the facade, as Bush’s former advisor talks about the lies that led to invading Iraq—and the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks—without ever showing an ounce of regret or remorse. Morris surely made the film intending to examine Rumsfeld’s failures, but instead drives home a distressing message: whatever mistakes were made, whatever war crimes may have been committed, however many lives were senselessly lost by the actions of the Bush administration, none of the decision makers responsible will ever suffer any punishment, or so much as a pang of regret. [Mike Vago]

7. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Errol Morris has a lot more on his mind than just war and former secretaries of defense. Having concerned himself with competing pet cemeteries (Gates Of Heaven) and voluntary self-amputation for profit (Vernon, Florida), Morris got deadly serious with his third feature, The Thin Blue Line. This watershed of a documentary centers on the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood in 1976 and subsequent wrongful conviction of Randall Adams. Here Morris channels his obsession for detail and the absurd into a film noir stew of artful re-enactments, newspaper clippings, catalogued evidence, and interviews with an array of witnesses, lawyers, and detectives. Driven by the patient unfolding of revelations, the movie plays out like a real-life thriller, one where an actual human life hangs in the balance. Much like in Making A Murderer, there’s an almost complete lack of motive, questionable evidence, villainous prosecutors, and a coerced confession taken at face value. Unlike Making A Murderer, however, the release and immediate interest in the film caused the Texas Court Of Appeals to overturn the conviction, then opt not to re-try, setting Adams free after 12 years in prison. [Andrew Morgan]

8. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (1996) and West Of Memphis (2012)

The Paradise Lost documentaries—there are three—feel the closest in spirit to Making A Murderer, because they’re about people who were convicted seemingly just because of who they were. In this case, it was three Arkansas teenagers who liked metal, dressed in black (sometimes), and were sarcastic in the withering way that teenagers always are. In this case, it got them railroaded into a conviction for the murder of three young boys, and a death sentence for the “leader,” Damien Echols. The conviction was largely due to the confession of one of the alleged killers, which was obtained in the same coerced manner that Brendan Dassey’s was in Making A Murderer. (Both were teenagers with intellectual disabilities.) No one doubts that the Paradise Lost films brought the attention to the West Memphis Three that eventually freed them, and there’s obviously hope that Making A Murderer will have the same effect on public outrage that Paradise Lost did. (For a quicker overview of the whole West Memphis case, there’s West Of Memphis, which points definitively at another suspect, which Paradise Lost doesn’t quite do.) [Josh Modell]

9. Kids For Cash (2013)

Disgraced Pennsylvania juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella absolutely hates when the phrase “kids for cash” is tossed around in reference to the scandal that ended his reign, and argues the term stuck because it’s a catchy media soundbite, not because it describes his actions. Ciavarella’s right on the former point—“kids for cash” does sound like the macabre equivalent of a payday loan in a gothic fairy tale. But it’s a perfectly apt summation of a racket he carried off with his colleague, ex-judge Michael Conahan, to accept $2.6 million in cash bribes in exchange for sending wayward youth off to a for-profit detention facility. Robert May’s documentary Kids For Cash meticulously presents the damning evidence that got Ciavarella sentenced to 28 years in prison, while a more cooperative Conahan was sentenced to 17.5 years. The prison time is cold and weak comfort, considering the men sentenced hundreds of kids to unconscionable sentences for such offenses as mocking a vice principal on Myspace and trespassing in an unoccupied building. Years after their releases, the young adults talk about their enduring emotional and psychological scars. In one case, a young man’s heartbroken mother has to speak for him, as her once happy-go-lucky son shot himself in the chest after completing a sentence handed down by Ciavarella. Meanwhile, Ciavarella remains fixated on the semantics and still refuses to admit his guilt, probably because he’s been lucky enough to stand before judges who have the basic human decency he lacks. [Joshua Alston]

10. Ticket Masters: The Rise Of The Concert Industry And How the Public Got Scalped (2011)

Complaining about the exorbitant price of concert tickets now comes with the territory of tour date announcements. The well-researched Ticket Masters: The Rise Of The Concert Industry And How The Public Got Scalped details how exactly we got to the point where a secondary-market ticket will set you back nearly an entire mortgage payment. As the book details, the number of laws skirted or simply flouted is infuriating—promoters selling tickets to brokers on the sly at above face value, Ticketmaster itself holding back certain tickets for its resale sites—while ethically suspect (yet technically legal) business maneuvering runs rampant. The chapter on the 2010 Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger is particularly galling: Not only did it emerge that both companies dropped $1.62 million in Congressional lobbying in 2009, but Live Nation’s Michael Rapino and Irving Azoff received hefty, multimillion dollar bonuses after the merger. Ticket Masters again underscores that once vast amounts of money are involved, morals tend to fly out the window. [Annie Zaleski]

11. Gideon’s Army (2013)

The television cliché of the incompetent, indifferent public defender has been around since the invention of the cop show, but Dawn Porter’s simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking documentary makes the case that, for poor defendants, even having the rare dedicated P.D. often makes no difference. Following two such dogged lawyers as they do everything in their power—including gaming the system that assigns them over 100 clients at a time—to fight for the freedom of their young, impoverished, mostly black clients, Gideon’s Army wrenchingly depicts how an overburdened public defender system and years of bluntly unjust mandatory sentencing guidelines have forced indigent defendants into a no-win situation (with their very lives on the line). The two lawyers featured in the film, Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander, live and die with their clients (Williams going so far as tattooing the names of those he’s unable to free on his back), even as they register how little they can ultimately do in a system rigged against those without the cash to guarantee a fair trial. [Dennis Perkins]

12. Deliver Us From Evil (2006)

Spotlight got a lot of people talking about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal again, but that’s a journalist-focused story. The actual scandal is absolutely horrific, with Amy J. Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil one of the most direct and disturbing accounts from that time, told primarily through the interview of one of the abuse perpetrators himself. Father Oliver O’Grady speaks to Berg and her camera crew in wily, ambivalent, and ambiguous tones, while not-at-all subtly alluding to the terrible acts he committed toward the children in his care (he admits to this in a 2005 deposition). Berg then overlays this interview with police reports, victim confessions, and trial documents, along with interviews with various lawyers, psychologists, and religious scholars, documenting the lengths to which the Church and its adherents went to cover up O’Grady’s actions, including simply moving him to different dioceses. It was a massive breach of trust by one of the most powerful and personal institutions in the world—and an act that even the then-pope would have to step away from in 2013. [Kevin Johnson]

13. “Why The NFL Decided To Start Paying Taxes,” The Atlantic (2015)

From the sport’s inception, football has taught players and fans alike that true power comes from hard work, determination, planning, and teamwork. But the NFL also broadcasts a different message every fall: real power is being rich enough to decide for yourself whether or not to do things like pay taxes. Since the ’60s, the league, which now rakes in $10 billion annually, has been classified as a tax-exempt nonprofit thanks to some creative lobbying. An article in The Atlantic laid bare why its decision last year to actually start paying up to Uncle Sam is a PR move that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the league’s massive revenues, not to mention the unending torrent of taxpayer money. The NFL’s 32 teams receive roughly $1 billion a year between them in stadium construction and tax breaks, which means even the non-fans among us are subsidizing every game. Even as football remains America’s most popular sport, it becomes harder with each passing season to ignore what the league can get away with simply because it has the money and influence to. [Mike Vago]

14. The Central Park Five (2012)

Ken Burns made his name as a documentarian with fusty, exhaustive PBS history lessons, so it was genuinely surprising to see his byline pop up on a scathing polemic about five teenagers—four of them black, one Latino—railroaded by the legal system. The Central Park Five, which Burns made with longtime collaborator David McMahon and daughter Sarah Burns, revisits the case of a Central Park jogger who was raped and beaten into a coma in April of 1989. Under intense pressure to apprehend the guilty party, the NYPD rounded up a group of Harlem teenagers and coerced confessions out of five of them; the young men were all convicted and ended up serving between six and 13 years, only to be retroactively exonerated some time later when new evidence was discovered. The Central Park Five is basically a making-of doc for a miscarriage of justice, using the actual videotaped confessions, snippets of blatantly racist media coverage of the trial, and telling talking-head interviews—including one from a juror who confesses that he eventually voted guilty, despite doubts, because the other jurors were coming down on him hard—to demonstrate how easy it is for innocent people (especially those of color) to get ground up by the mechanizations of a heavily publicized case. It’s enraging, and in a quite a different way than The Civil War. [A.A. Dowd]

15. Concussion (2015)

Every Sunday, millions of Americans crowd around their televisions to watch muscle-bound modern-day gladiators bash their heads in, all in the name of sport. It’s the National Football League, and it’s great, but all that bashing, well, that’s probably killing the same athletes we love and admire. That’s the message of Concussion, the 2015 Will Smith movie that looked at the plight of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh pathologist who discovered CTE, a kind of neurological disorder that’s similar to Alzheimer’s and is caused by the tens of thousands of blows to the head professional football players take over the course of their careers. In the film and in life, Omalu faced down the evil NFL who, by virtue of doctors on its own payroll, insisted that getting your bell rung 10 times a day every day for years on end will do absolutely no damage to the human body. The NFL has since walked that thinking back a little, enacting reforms like the modern concussion protocol we see today, but still, both in Concussion and in life, all those big hits have since gotten a lot less fun. [Marah Eakin]

16. Captivated: The Trials Of Pamela Smart (2014)

Nearly five years before the O.J. Simpson murder trial, another sensational murder trial gripped the country. Pamela Smart stood accused of conspiring with her 15-year-old lover to off her husband, Gregory Smart. This was the first courtroom drama covered “gavel to gavel” on television, and reporters fell over themselves to tell the story of this attractive young “ice queen” who seduced some wayward teenagers and showed no remorse for what she had (allegedly!) done. Today, more than 25 years later and still in prison, Pamela Smart maintains her innocence, even as the young men who actually killed her late husband are now free. While the question of Smart’s innocence or guilt is certainly fair game for debate, what’s not in dispute is how the sensationalized nature of the trial and the breathless, preconceived media narratives did not allow for a fair trial. (Full disclosure: My wife Stacey Toal is an associate producer on the aforementioned film.) Journalists hungry for ratings and personal glory seized on her youth, the salacious nature of the crime, and how “remorseless” she appeared, passing judgement before the jury had even heard opening arguments. [Drew Toal]

17. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008)

It’s difficult to watch Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father. This soul-crushing documentary begins with the murder of Andrew Bagby, an American medical student, at the hands of his troubled ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, who flees to Canada to avoid arrest. While there, awaiting extradition, she announces she’s pregnant with Bagby’s child. Bagby’s parents, David and Kate Bagby, immediately move to Canada with the expressed purpose of being awarded custody of the baby boy, named Zachary. Ostensibly, the film is Bagby’s friend (and filmmaker) Kurt Kuenne’s attempt to document the life of a father for the child who will never know him. However, as the film progresses the My Life-style time capsule gives way to a powerful call to action regarding the molasses-like pace of Canada’s judicial system, the shameful state of its bail policies, and spotlights the woefully inept judges who allow a woman with a history of stalking (and several restraining orders to her name), repeated suicide attempts, and pre-meditated murder to roam the streets a free woman. All which force the saintly elder Bagbys to spend time with their son’s murderer in order to be involved in their grandchild’s life. The entire ordeal is maddening, leaving viewers feeling like withered husks and/or vats of rage. It bears repeating: It’s difficult to watch Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father. [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]

18. The Newburgh Sting (2014)

“I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.” That’s a quote from U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, who presided over the case explored in The Newburgh Sting, a documentary about four men who were ensnared in the FBI’s misguided efforts to burnish its reputation for proactive counterterrorism. Judge McMahon still handed down 25-year sentences to the four men, the mandatory sentencing minimum for their alleged plan to set off bombs at Jewish community centers and fire rockets at military planes. But by the end of Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s film, it’s obvious why the judge was so vocal in her opposition to the case, even as the law limited her options. The Newburgh Four, as they became known, were just four impoverished men living in upstate New York, and hadn’t even met each other until a Pakistani FBI informant dangled a quarter-million dollars to entice them into committing terrorist acts. They lacked the ideology, the means, and the expertise, but the FBI provided all three, and all the feds ever really proved is the means to which desperately poor people will go to get a life-changing payday. But it was still a win for the FBI, which got to crow about its disruption of a homegrown terror cell just a stone’s throw from Ground Zero. [Joshua Alston]