Michael Peterson in The Staircase. | Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix has an overwhelming number of true crime shows. Here are the best series on the list.
As the true crime boom spawned by Serial in 2014 has continued apace, plenty of cultural observers have predicted it will start to wane soon enough. Instead, there seems to be no end to the release of exciting new true crime podcasts, documentaries, and TV series — perhaps because there’s just no end to true crime itself.
Another likely factor is the ongoing expansion of streaming, as competing services stock their virtual shelves with a sea of documentaries and series. Many of these projects feature high-profile cases that have received plenty of media attention, sometimes directly due to the projects themselves. And many are also the result of Netflix’s entry into the genre; think back to 2015’s Making a Murderer or 2020’s Tiger King.
Netflix, which now boasts an extensive true crime catalog, continues to mine case after case in the name of content. But as we’ve seen with some of the network’s buzzier titles — such as the Ted Bundy docuseries Conversations with a Killer, which glorified its subject — having a high-profile subject isn’t always synonymous with a quality show.
Still, there are enough worthwhile options to please even the most discerning true crime connoisseur. Here are our picks for the 11 best true crime titles currently streaming on Netflix, from well-known cases to niche subjects that deserve more attention.
In American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020), a family narrates its own demise
The 2018 murders of Shanann Watts and her two daughters, Bella and Celeste, became one of the most-publicized and well-documented cases in recent memory. In addition to reams of media coverage, police from the Watts family’s small Colorado suburb released hours of footage and a 2,000-page case file to the public. So it’s valid to wonder what, if anything, a docuseries covering such a widely publicized tragedy could add.
The answer is simple but profound: American Murder gives Shanann her own voice, allowing her words and the narrative of her life to serve as the audience’s guide throughout the show. As I wrote in Vox’s review, “American Murder consists solely of archival footage; there’s no narration, no new interviews, no solemn voiceovers. Instead, a family tragedy unfolds through glimpses of people, secrets, and dashed hopes, all caught on camera or captured via texts and DMs.“ It all adds up to a portrait of a family on the brink of its own undoing, and a woman trying desperately to figure out what kind of story she’s in, even as her fairy tale collapses around her.
In The Staircase (2004–2018), an open-and-shut case falls apart in real time
Before true crime docuseries exploded in popularity, The Staircase was one of the OGs beloved by true crime fans, a standard-setter in the genre. Whatever your feelings about enigmatic author Michael Peterson, accused of brutally attacking his wife and leaving her body at the bottom of a staircase, it is undeniable that his defense attorney, David Rudolf, steadfastly believed in his client’s innocence, and his commitment to the case is one of many things that makes The Staircase a must-watch.
Filming began in February 2002, two months after Peterson’s indictment, and continued through 2004 (the series was later updated in both 2013 and 2018 with several new, eye-popping developments). The 13-episode series begins with Peterson’s now-infamous 911 call and takes you behind the scenes of both sides of the investigation, prosecution, trial, and lengthy aftermath. It serves as a rare and unforgettable look at the inner workings of a dogged prosecution and a sterling defense that systematically undermines the state’s arguments and introduces reasonable doubt everywhere, until what seemed initially like an open-and-shut case becomes a true mystery. The final update episodes, which explore the impact of shoddy and corrupt investigation techniques used in Peterson’s case, cast crucial perspective on not only his trial but also the entire justice system. (And when you’re done with The Staircase, be sure to check out Netflix’s short follow-up clip, “The Owl Theory,” for the bonkers cherry atop the whodunnit cake.)
The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo (2020) doubles as the ultimate victim impact statement
This documentary (filmed in Spanish with English subtitles) is, unfortunately, as little-known as its harrowing subject, but the story of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz is one you won’t soon forget. Mother to one of the many missing and murdered women of Juárez, Mexico — a phenomenon that’s become known as femicide, or gender-focused killing on a widespread scale — Ortiz essentially went rogue in her pursuit of justice.
Bucking the police system and putting herself at great risk from the many drug cartels that are most likely behind the majority of Juárez femicides, Ortiz spent years tracking down her daughter’s murderer, seeking out and confronting suspects and, ultimately, delivering the killer to authorities. The result is heartbreaking but heroic: Ortiz drew national attention to not only her daughter’s killing but also the flaws of a justice system too often on the side of criminals.
In Wild Wild Country (2018), tensions within a cult escalate and lead to an unprecedented crime
In the ’80s, a unique thing happened: Hundreds of Indian immigrants moved to a tiny rural Oregon community to practice their religion. The Rajneeshpuram was a commune created by the followers of Osho Rajneesh, an Indian mystic who emphasized meditation and whose teachings continue to circulate today. By all accounts, Rajneeshpuram was a peaceful community whose extremes were exacerbated by one small group of tyrannical leaders that constantly clashed with the local populace — and each other. These tensions escalated throughout the decade and finally culminated in a heinous climax: One commune leader and her loyalists wreaked vengeance upon the surrounding locals of Dalles, Oregon, in what would become the largest bioterrorist attack in US history.
Netflix’s engrossing six-part documentary series Wild Wild Country put this bizarre story on the radar of true crime fans. The narrative balances an impressive amount of archival footage with an equally impressive number of contemporary interviews with key Rajneeshpuram figures. It’s a fascinating close read of a cult whose devotees are anything but the meek, browbeaten stereotypes often expected in these cases. Instead, cult members with fiery personalities clash memorably with one another, all the while manipulated by a stone-cold Rajneesh himself.
See also: Netflix’s companion podcast about the cult and the docuseries.
The Keepers (2017) chronicles the fight to crack a potentially decades-long cover-up
A staple moment in a lot of Weird horror fiction is the moment when the protagonist receives a brief glimpse of a vast, immeasurable, and unknowable horror that’s almost beyond his ability to comprehend. That’s basically how I feel whenever I think about The Keepers’ central subject: the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, which may have happened because of her attempts to expose sexual abuse by a priest employed at her local Baltimore Catholic high school.
Juxtaposed against a backdrop of widespread abuse and subsequent cover-ups within the Catholic Church, The Keepers connects Cesnik’s mysterious disappearance in 1969 — and the subsequent discovery of her battered body months later — to what seems to be layers upon layers of systemic corruption that extends well beyond a single, potentially murderous priest. It’s especially pernicious when you consider how the church itself seems to have spent decades obstructing a thorough investigation into Cesnik’s death.
Given all that, what’s perhaps most memorable about The Keepers is how hopeful it is. The titular “keepers” are former students of Cesnik’s high school, women who not only keep the investigation alive but also uphold Cesnik’s legacy and love for her community. By the end, even though the series offers little in the way of answers, it’s impossible not to feel like you’ve been handed a torch to shine into the abyss.
The Ripper (2020) refutes the problematic narrative around a serial killer
The crimes of “Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe, and the long-suffering five-year police manhunt for him, have become one of the most notorious criminal cases in British history. Early on, the investigation went off the rails and stayed there — and the primary reason for its derailment was misogyny.
The Ripper repeatedly calls attention to the West Yorkshire Police’s inherent victim-blaming throughout the case. Early on, police actually offered a distinction between the Yorkshire Ripper’s “respectable” victims and the other sort. Misogyny is a well-known facet of the case, but misogyny frames the entire narrative in this series, and the result is an excellent overview of the kinds of shortsighted assumptions and prejudices that can torpedo even the most well-meaning investigation.
Evil Genius (2018) centers on the strangest of criminal masterminds
The true crime genre loves little else more than it loves the particular combination of four elements: an off-the-wall crime, a convoluted criminal plot, a bunch of quirky characters, and an arrogant female killer. Given all that, it’s odd to me that Evil Genius, which includes all of the above, has garnered relatively little attention compared to other higher-profile true crime docuseries.
It could be that the premise of this one is hard to even summarize, let alone wrap your head around: In 2003, an innocent pizza delivery guy became ensnared in a complicated plan involving family tensions, greed, bank heists, at least two megalomaniacs, and the world’s most morbid treasure hunt. It all culminated in a galling incident in which the pizza guy, Brian Wells, allows himself to be placed into a locked neck collar with a bomb attached to it. Wells was most likely unaware the bomb was about to go off — but it did, in a grisly explosion broadcast on live television as police and local media swarmed the scene.
Evil Genius tries to make sense of this case. While the documentary is almost too in love with its subjects — particularly mastermind and possible serial killer Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong — it’s an understandable flaw. The whole case, and the series of events (and deaths) surrounding it, are so confusing and confounding that Evil Genius winds up serving as a reflection of the audience’s own disbelief.
See also: Netflix’s companion podcast about the case.
In The Confession Killer (2019), a malicious serial killer meets an overeager justice system
If you ask a true crime junkie to compile a bingo card for recurring elements seen throughout the genre, there among the dog walkers and “it’s always the husband,” you’re likely to find a slot for Henry Lee Lucas — the serial killer who makes a cameo in case after case.
The Confession Killer underlines how Lucas became a throughline in cases spanning time and geography, confessing to hundreds of murders committed across the US over two decades. But only 11 murders have been confirmed, including that of his own mother, who was likely his first victim, in 1960. Many true crime fans know about Lucas’s spree of false confessions after his eventual arrest in 1983, most of which he retracted before his death in 2001. But what you may not realize is that Lucas’s confessions came about as a delicate dance between a manipulative killer and a police force so eager to find a one-stop solution to dozens of cold cases that investigators goaded Lucas into telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. The Confession Killer is thus a unique look at how a false confession comes about — in the rare case where the confessor isn’t a victim of the system but a skilled exploiter of it.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal (2020) shows how one bad actor can derail an entire justice system
This riveting four-part series walks us through not one but two near-simultaneous Massachusetts drug lab scandals involving two different Boston-area chemists who contaminated lab results for literally thousands of cases.
Though each chemist had different motivations, the result was the same: a massive slate of wrongful convictions, all of which were overturned once the truth about the lab results came to light. How to Fix a Drug Scandal explores the psychology of the chemists, their trials, and the institutional failures that allowed them to get away with their crimes for years.
Exhibit A (2019) explores how the procedural evidence we trust can’t actually be trusted
This four-part series warms my skeptical little heart, but it may break yours — or at least cause you to question everything you know, or think you know, about forensic criminal science. (Fans of TV crime procedurals, take heed.) Using four real examples of injustice or wrongful convictions brought about by a case that relied too heavily on shoddy science, Exhibit A systematically and ruthlessly undermines several familiar and common tools of forensic analysis. These include the use of touch DNA, blood spatter analysis (which has essentially been discredited as an investigative technique), and — sorry to have to be the one to tell you — sniffer dogs.
Each episode of Exhibit A could probably fuel its own documentary feature film. But taken all together, they stack up to a damning look at the flimsy, or at least malleable, foundations upon which our faith in forensics all too often rests. I’m hopeful for a second season that explores even more examples of unsound science.
13th (2016) traces the deep-seated roots of criminal injustice
At a glance, Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2016 documentary on the US school-to-prison pipeline may not seem like a true crime story, but 13th embraces the essence of modern true crime by drawing attention to both individual cases and the broader societal and political context. It dares to confront America’s thoroughly broken justice system, the way it has particularly failed Black citizens, and the connections between the current carceral system and slavery.
13th — a reference to the 13th Amendment — should be required viewing for every American. And since Netflix released the entire film on YouTube last year, you don’t even need a subscription to see it.