Best true crime documentaries

From the shooting of John Lennon and the killing of Dr Brenda Page to the first high-profile fraud case of the crypto era

Ray Trapani in Netflix documentary Bitconned
Ray Trapani in the Netflix documentary Bitconned
(Image credit: Netflix)

The popularity of crime stories shows no sign of diminishing.

"Bookshop shelves and TV schedules are heaving with murder mysteries and whodunnits," said Holly Spanner at BBC Science Focus.

There are plenty of new fictional crime thrillers and crime dramas coming in 2024, but the true crime genre has also "been given a new lease of life in recent years", with several "smash-hit documentaries". 

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Here are some recent ones that have shed light on some tragic real-life stories.

The Murder of Logan Mwangi

In 2021, the body of five-year-old Logan Mwangi was found in a river near his home in Bridgend, South Wales. This harrowing documentary "follows the investigation from the moment Logan was reported missing", said Stuff, to the arrest and conviction for murder of Logan's mother, Angharad Williamson, her partner John Cole and his son Craig Mulligan, who were jailed in 2022. 

"There's a tricky balance in true crime storytelling," said the website, "between information, entertainment and exploitation – that is missed all too often." The sad story is "told with actual footage rather than dramatisation or excessive interviews" and provides an "important watch, without any ruse of entertainment". 

In the hour-long programme, Logan's biological father, Ben, said: "One of the biggest questions in my whole entire life that I will always be asking myself is why? Why did this happen? Why did Logan have to die?" said The Sun.

Where to watch: ITVX 

Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal

"The odd thing about the characters" in this saga is "how familiar they are from fiction", said The Telegraph: "a powerful family ruling over a small town. An indulged and entitled son who thinks he's above the law. Corruption and murder in a Deep South setting." 

This is the second season. The first featured a fatal boating accident: the wife and younger son of disgraced lawyer Alex Murdaugh were found dead. In March last year Murdaugh was found guilty of the murders "one week after Season 1 of the docuseries dropped", and was given two consecutive life sentences. So season two's timing "is either incredibly timely or brazenly opportunistic – or, most likely, both", said Rolling Stone. And the filmmakers "do a fine job spinning the yarn, pulling the viewer this way and that, and letting the 'Can you top this?' details slowly pile up."

Where to watch: Netflix

John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial

The shooting of John Lennon outside his New York home in December 1980 by Mark Chapman is "so well known that it's extraordinary to realise how much has never been revealed till now", said the Daily Mail, "and how many people have not been asked for their testimony". And the reason could be that "Chapman pleaded guilty to murder, surprising his own defence team, who expected him to claim he was 'not guilty by reason of insanity'" so "he never stood trial".

This "tense and economical documentary" has an "emotional punch", said the i news site, which "comes from the unflinching fashion" in which many of the eyewitnesses speak for the first time and "share their recollections, along with flinty narration by Kiefer Sutherland".

Where to watch: Apple TV+

Bitconned

"Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a criminal," says Ray Trapani in this "mesmerising documentary" featuring interviews with friends, family and "the journalist who exposed Centra Tech as the first high-profile fraud case of the crypto era". It charts the "founding, rise and crash of Centra Tech, the fraudulent firm of which he was CEO", said Mail Plus

The "alluring pitch" of the company was the creation of a "debit card that allowed you to spend all your cryptocurrency in one place". After learning the "true story of the sheer illegality" that Trapani and his associates indulged in, "convincing investors to part with money under the guise of bitcoin smoke and mirrors", said Digital Spy, "it's hard to believe they got away with their Centra Tech scheme for as long as they did". 

Where to watch: Netflix

The Killing of Dr Brenda Page

Almost 45 years after the crime, retired research scientist Christopher Harrisson was found guilty of the murder of his ex-wife, genetics expert Brenda Page, in Aberdeen. In 1978 there wasn't enough evidence for him to be brought to trial, but advances in forensics made it possible in February 2023. 

Avoiding sensationalism, "it takes time for a show as demurely presented as Murder Trial to reveal its worth", said The Guardian. The case is based on circumstantial evidence, with plenty of "back and forth between prosecution and defence as the crown presents its case" and then "we can enjoy one of the staples of a good true-crime documentary: a fascinatingly eccentric chief suspect". 

When "the cravatted, octogenarian academic Harrisson" takes the stand, he is "introduced by the prosecution with footage of a bizarre police interview in which, when asked to describe his temper, he replies: 'Even. Like the snow in Good King Wenceslas.'"

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

Shadow of Truth

"What appears at the beginning to be an open-and-shut case turns out to be anything but," said The Telegraph. When 13-year-old Tair Rada was found dead inside a locked toilet cubicle at her school in northern Israel, a contractor working there was arrested. But then we see the "oppressive methods by which the Israeli police gained that confession", and "every piece of evidence you saw in episode one is reappraised".

"Shadow of Truth" originally aired on a small cable channel. But it "immediately became a smash hit, one of the most watched Israeli programmes", said The Times. It "seemingly proved the power of true crime documentaries to make the justice system accountable". However, "in fanning murder fandom, it also brought out the worst of armchair detectives" in the quest to find the real killer.

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey

Warren Jeffs led the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an extreme sect of the Mormon faith, in Utah, having succeeded his father in the role in 2002. Jeffs began to impose new rules on followers, gradually turning the FLDS "from a fundamentalist Mormon sect to what the average person would recognise as a cult", said the i news site. 

These new rules, covering underwear, hairstyles and wearing red, "bore most heavily down on the women". And "as the restrictions became harsher, Warren's wives (he has at least 69) got younger and younger. Women started to become currency." 

This documentary is "compelling" because of its interviews with these women, "victims of circumstance forced into marrying older men under the guise of religion". Some were extremely young: one "was married off to a man at just 14" and Jeffs himself married a 12-year-old. 

After the authorities heard about the events, Jeffs went on the run, but was caught and is now "serving life plus 20 years". It's an "astounding" account so it's hardly surprising that "we're so enraptured" by this story of the church and its criminal leader.

Where to watch: Netflix

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