Last updated: 6/20/18

People who follow the news in the United States are not strangers to disturbing legal stories that often dominate the headlines. From the Casey Anthony trial, to the Scott Peterson verdict years before, and even the controversial O.J. Simpson murder case nearly 20 years ago, it’s often difficult to avoid the day’s most followed legal stories.

But there are thousands of legal stories that go unnoticed each year by much of the general public, or are nearly forgotten years later. In the 10 following examples, documentary filmmakers have exposed and revitalized those stories to create powerful documentary films discussing a variety of troubling legal issues.

We’ve compiled the trailers for the films Hot Coffee, Capturing the Friedmans, Deliver Us From Evil, and Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, along with short descriptions and reviews for all 10 films. Take a look, and let us know some of your favorite legal documentaries in the comments section, or on our Facebook page.

1. Hot Coffee

Hot Coffee begins with the notorious Liebeck v. McDonald’s, in which 78 year-old Stella Liebeck won a $2.7 million verdict from the fast food mega-chain after it sold her scorching hot coffee which caused second and third-degree burns over much of her body. The lawsuit became the instant poster child for frivolous lawsuits and a centerpiece in the case for tort reform here in America. It was also the basis for the Seinfeld hot coffee lawsuit episode. Hot Coffee has earned glowing reviews in major national publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but we’re going to focus on what law blogs have said about the Hot Coffee.

The documentary emphasizes that the attorneys defending McDonald’s capitalized on the fact that the American public is dumb, writes Staci Zaretsky for legal tabloid Above the Law. The defense spun the story that Liebeck was trying to bilk McDonalds out of money she didn’t deserve, but Zaretsky describes the images of Liebeck’s injury as “one of the grossest, most disgusting things I’ve ever seen.” The film uses this as a launching pad to document the “evils” that the tort reform movement has perpetrated against countless other Americans. “I legitimately felt bad for these people,” writes Zaretsky, “Hot Coffee made me want to go out and protest and do community service.”

While Hot Coffee is clearly a powerful legal documentary, it’s not free from criticism, writes Nick Farr for the Abnormal Use blog. After all, the film’s director Susan Saladoff is a trial lawyer herself, and has a clear interest in exposing the “evils” of the tort reform movement. “The larger the verdict for the plaintiff, the larger the payday for the trial lawyer,” writes Farr. “It is noble to stand up for those who may have been wronged, but don’t present yourself as a disinterested party and cloak yourself in the guise of pure altruism when doing it.”

2. Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans essentially tells the story of a normal American family gone horribly wrong, and the legal battle that followed. The family became the center of a massive media firestorm after police began investigating Arnold Friedman for charges of child molestation after discovering a large collection of child pornography at his home in Great Neck, New York. After initially denying the charges, Arnold Friedman pleaded guilty to sodomy and sexual abuse. He died in prison in 2005, leaving a $250,000 life insurance policy to his son Jesse, who left prison in 2001 after serving 13 years for the same crimes as his father. Capturing the Friedmans won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Despite Friedman’s guilty plea, the film unearths mounting evidence that he may have been wrongly convicted, which led veteran film reviewer Roger Ebert to write that it offered “an instructive lesson about the elusiveness of facts” in the American legal system. But despite this evidence, director Andrew Jarecki has caught criticism for keeping his own view of the Friedman debacle out of the film. In fact, Friedman’s case was very similar to multiple 1980s sex abuse convictions that were later proven to be false. “These spectacular allegations have since been exposed as utterly false,” write lawyers Harvey Silvergate and Carl Takei for Slate Magazine. “The convictions lacked physical evidence and relied on children’s testimony obtained by discredited investigative techniques.”

Jarecki seems to have gotten the message, and included additional evidence questioning the prosecution of Arnold and Jesse Friedman with the DVD release of the film.

3. Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us From Evil provides a portrait of Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady, who was convicted of molesting and raping more than two dozen children in Northern California in the 1980s and 1990s. O’Grady served seven years in prison for his crimes, but this 2006 award winning documentary film focuses on the Catholic Church’s policy of lying for priests in order to maintain a semblance of propriety. The film interviews victims of O’Grady’s abuse, and even the priest himself, who readily admits to being aroused by children and even declares callously “let bygones be bygones” of his crimes.

The trailer shows a prominent church Cardinal responding to the question “he had sexual urges toward a nine year old, is that cause to remove him from ministry” with a simple “no.” The film also takes issue with the role of gender when it comes to the acceptability of child abuse in the church, suggesting that priests are less likely to condemn molestation when it happens to girls, rather than boys. The trailer poignantly concludes with an attorney asking a Church big wig “do you think if a child were raped, that would be something that you would forget?” The priest’s attorney objects to the seemingly obvious question and instructs the witness not to answer.

4. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

This 2008 documentary, Dear Zachary, focuses on the ramifications of a legal system that fails to provide justice. After the charismatic future doctor Andrew Bagby was murdered, it wasn’t long before his former girlfriend was charged for the crime. It was enough time, however, for her to flee to Canada, leaving American courts unable to hold her accountable. The suspected murderer was pregnant with Bagby’s baby, which forced his parents to continue a civil relationship with the mother in order to stay connected to their only grandchild. Distraught, Bagby’s best friend – a filmmaker – decided to interview anyone who ever knew the victim, as a letter to the son he would never meet, Zachary.

The film was a critical success in the United States, and attracted best documentary nominations from the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, among others. The New York Times praised Dear Zachary as “at once a personal documentary about the murder of [the director’s] best friend and a polemical rant against the Canadian justice system for coddling a dangerous sociopath.” The film also targets the political nature of custody battles, which left Bagby’s parents unable to take responsible for their grandson, despite mounting evidence that his mother was dangerous and had possibly murdered the father.

5. Making a Murderer

One of the best present-day documentaries that is informative and enthralling for both legal professionals and everyday people alike is the Netflix documentary Making a Murder. The documentary follows the real-life story of Steven Avery, who was convicted of rape and murder and served a 32-year sentence before being exonerated thanks to DNA evidence.

After his release, Avery was once again arrested and convicted on separate murder charges. The documentary highlights the potential of wrongful conviction, police tampering with evidence, and a justice system that isn’t really just at all. In short, the film focuses on the uphill battle that those charged with serious crimes face, especially when police and the prosecution are convinced of their guilt and the accused have few resources with which to defend themselves.

Netflix is currently working with the producers of season one and will be releasing season two soon as new evidence comes to light.

6. Indivisible

One of the the most controversial topics in the United States today is that of immigration, with lawmakers and citizens on both sides of the aisle maintaining strong feelings about illegal immigration to the United States, a border wall, the rights of immigrants within the country, deportation, Deferred Action, the separation of children of illegal immigrants from their parents, and more.

Indivisible focuses on families who have been torn apart by anti-immigration policies, driving home the heartache that these families experience when searching for a better life. The film specifically focuses on Dreamers, and takes a deep look into the complex issue of immigration from both a humanitarian and legal perspective.

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

The Scottsboro story is infamous: In 1931, nine teenagers–all of whom were black–were wrongly accused of raping two white women. When charges were brought against the boys, there was uproar amongst whites in the community; an angry white mob even surrounded the jail, prompting the sheriff to obtain the protection of the Alabama National Guard.

At the conclusion of each of the boy’s trials, all but one of the boys was found guilty and sentenced to death. The trial of the other boy–who was 13 years of age at the time–was declared a mistrial as a result of a hung jury, and he spent the next six years of his life in jail awaiting a final verdict.

The documentary follows the trials, including the two landmark Supreme Court decisions, and touches on the sentiment of the time and the operation of the justice system. The case remains to be one of the most notorious today, and is often referenced when speaking about racial injustice in the U.S.

8. Cleanflix

For those who are interested in copyright laws, Cleanflix is the documentary to watch. The film tells the story of the Utah-based movie-editing company Cleanflix, which sought to clean up already-made movies with foul language, nudity, violence, etc. so that the movies were family-friendly. While the idea might sound nice in theory, Hollywood filmmakers were outraged by the unauthorized editing of their work. In response, Hollywood fought back, ultimately leading to a six-year battle. The movie not only delves into copyright laws, but also the moral conflict that raged within the company and between Cleanflix and Hollywood filmmakers.

9. Presumed Guilty

Another story about the presumed guilt–rather than the presumed innocence, as it should be–of an individual convicted on murder charges is Presumed Guilty. Telling the story of Tono Zuniga and set in Mexico City, Presumed Guilty shares the bone-chilling tale of a man being picked up off the street, told he has committed a murder, and then being convicted to 20 years behind bars. The film closely follows the two lawyers who fought for Zuniga, Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete, trying to expose a failed Mexican justice system and a “medieval concept of guilt and innocence.”

10. The Central Park Five

To round out the list of 10 must-see legal documentaries is The Central Park Five. Sharing many similar themes to a handful of documentaries listed above, The Central Park Five is a documentary that takes a look into the case of five black teenagers (all of whom were either black or Latino) who were convicted of raping a woman (white) who was jogging in Central Park, NY in 1989. Despite a lack of matching DNA, the five each spent a number of years in prison (up to 13) before they were exonerated when a convicted murder and serial rapist who was also in prison confessed to the rape of the jogger. DNA evidence confirmed the confession, and the five men were released. Following the release, the men sued the City of New York, which ultimately settled the case for more than $40 million.

The List of Great Legal Documentaries Is Long

While the above are some of the best legal documentaries out there today that focus on everything from racial bias to injustice to personal injury lawsuits and more, they are by no means the only legal documentaries worth watching. The Witness, Brother’s Keeper, Into the Abyss, and Valentine Road are a few more that are extremely informative and telling.

Watching legal documentaries can be helpful for lawyers and paralegals who want to gain insight into the complex system of laws in America, but also for those charged with a crime, those facing civil charges or wishes to pursue civil charges, and everyday people without any involvement in the law. The movies above are entertaining, but also offer some truth about what really happens in the courtroom and behind closed doors.

Call Our Lawyers Today if You Have a Legal Question

While watching movies can be great and informative, films are not the best source of information if you have a legal issue. At the law offices of GJEL Accident Attorneys, our lawyers are skilled in insurance company litigation, personal injury claims, sexual abuse cases, and more and can provide you with the high-quality legal representation.

To schedule a free consultation, please call our law office directly or send us a message using the form found on our contact page.

Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.