Where is the Truth in True Crime Documentaries?

Twenty years on from the death of 6 year-old JonBenét Ramsey in her Colorado home on Christmas night, no one has been brought to justice.

Watching the recent two-part documentary The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, you could believe you know who the culprit is. Unlike previous documentaries, The Case of leans toward the insider (family member) theory rather than the intruder theory. Countering this is Killing of JonBenét: Her Father Speaks, and naturally in this recent documentary you could doubt the insider theory.

But both documentaries leave glaring omissions while including questionable details, leading me to trust neither completely.

John Ramsey believes people will think what they want to about his daughter’s death, and that it says a lot about society that people view murder cases as a source of entertainment. And as a writer who leans to the dark side, I’m thinking about this comment.

It is certainly true – and observed by former Scotland Yard criminal behaviour analyst Laura Richards in The Case of – that JonBenét became a footnote in her own murder. In the years that came after, the media had a field day with misconstrued pathology results, leaning far too heavily on the child’s beauty pageant hobby, turning the tragedy into a series of seedy and attention-grabbing headlines, and making John Ramsey’s comments entirely valid.

In The Case of, before the end credits roll, we are told to come to our own conclusions, but we are still told. I mean, what else can we conclude when faced with a table of esteemed professionals who have all reached the same theory?

But since watching The Jinx last year, and Making a Murder at the start of 2016, and a few more documentaries highlighting historic criminal injustices, can we really take what the professionals say at face value anymore?

And that is part of what is terrifying about these shows.

They kind of leave you faithless in everyone, including yourself.

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Where both The Jinx and Making a Murderer succeed is in their lengthier, more detailed unravelling. There are always going to be two sides of every story, but to me MaM feels like the best balanced crime biopic yet. The producer/directors say they have not set out to prove Steve Avery’s innocence, keeping us trusting what we are being told. Though my one criticism is that even though we are watching Avery’s story, the viewer is told very little about the woman who lost her life.

The counter documentary was Steven Avery: Innocent Or Guilty, which promised to tell the real story in a mere fraction of the time. But the style felt like an episode of Cheaters and its tone implied that we’d be stupid to think that the murderer of 25 year-old photographer, Teresa Halbach, could still be walking free.

Then Amanda Knox aired: a documentary about the young American who was twice convicted and acquitted of the 2007 murder of 21 year-old student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. Again the murder victim has become a footnote, and the style too light to begin. Plus I get the feeling that I’m supposed to be angriest at the oily journalist who talks about the murder like it’s a paper-selling magic formula. Then the Knox media circus takes on the same sleazy angle that once dominated JonBenét’s murder coverage.

And like the Ramsey case, in Italy there are massive disruptions to the crime scene that have me – who can only boast a short online course in forensic science – shouting at my screen, WTF are those police doing! By now my faith in anyone doing what they should be is just about shattered.

And there is something else: an appropriate way people on the periphery of crime scenes are supposed to act, and if you don’t…well, then you’re screwed.

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But these documentaries are not macabre entertainment as far as I’m concerned. We have learnt. We have seen how Knox is maligned and slut-shamed by the media for being female.

We may not have all the important answers by the end but we do have an understanding we maybe didn’t have before.

In Amanda Knox we are told we should like Knox, but if someone else had made the documentary you can be assured it would be entirely different. And we need counter documentaries so that we don’t just accept.

It seems the only thing you can trust is that true crime documentaries can’t be trusted.

Again, the only one I have much confidence in is Making a Murderer. I’ll never forget Brendan Dassey’s false confession, and the evolution of a you-couldn’t-make-this-shit-up miniseries, into the most depressingly heart-wrenching piece of TV.

I do believe that most people watch true crime documentaries with empathy, and they see that brutal crimes leave many, many victims in their wake. Viewers think, there for the grace of god go I!

It’s only human to want to hear the end of the story; hoping that one day soon there will be a just result for the victim.

 

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