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'The Jinx' joins list of documentaries intervening in legal cases

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Robert Durst in HBO's "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst."
Robert Durst in HBO's "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst."

The developments in the HBO series highlight the critical role that documentary producers and filmmakers have played in criminal cases.

Andrew Jarecki, director of HBO’s documentary series, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," spoke to ABC’s “Good Morning America” Monday about a scene in which Durst appears to admit to three killings in Sunday’s final episode of the series.

After appearing on a couple of network morning shows Monday, Jarecki and his co-producer, Marc Smerling, issued this statement:

Given that we are likely to be called as witnesses in any case law enforcement may decide to bring against Robert Durst, it is not appropriate for us to comment further on these pending matters.

Durst, an estranged member of a New York real estate dynasty, was arrested in New Orleans on Saturday in relation to the death of his friend, Susan Berman, in Los Angeles in 2000.

The developments in "The Jinx" series highlight the critical role that documentary producers and filmmakers in recent years have played in investigating unsolved cases, or helping free people who were wrongly convicted.

In the final episode of "The Jinx," Durst — who also is a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife and was acquitted of killing a neighbor in Texas — was heard seemingly confessing to the murders.

After finishing a videotaped interview for "The Jinx," Durst was recorded muttering to himself in a bathroom, apparently unaware that he was still wearing a wireless microphone.

Durst will soon be brought to Los Angeles, where he has been charged with murder in the Berman case. His lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, told the Los Angeles Times:

There has been rumor, innuendo and speculation for a number of years, and now we’re going to get our day in court on this.

While it is far from clear what will happen to Durst in the Berman case, or in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie Durst, "The Jinx" is the latest example of journalists and filmmakers intervening in legal cases.


Most recently, Sarah Koenig, the host and co-producer of the podcast, “Serial,” helped a man convicted of murder in Maryland get a chance to appeal his case. 

Adnan Syed is serving a life sentence for the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend. The series — a spin-off of "This American Life" — re-examined Syed’s case and uncovered evidence that wasn't used in his defense.  The deadline for Syed to file his arguments for appealing his conviction is March 23.

"The Thin Blue Line"

One of the first examples of a documentary affecting a legal case is “The Thin Blue Line,” Errol Morris’ landmark 1988 feature documentary.

“The Thin Blue Line” looked at the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murdering a Texas police officer. But Morris’ film suggested that witnesses in Adams’ trial committed perjury. Adams — who came within a few days of being executed — was released from prison about a year after the film came out, after serving 12 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”

“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” is one of a series of documentaries made about a killing in Arkansas. The 1996 film, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, examined the murder of three eight-year-old boys, and the teenagers convicted of killing them in what was alleged to be a Satanic crime. Each was sentenced to either death or life in prison. The “Paradise Lost” films highlighted problems with the forensic evidence used to convict the teens. In 2011, all three were released.

“Capturing the Friedmans”

Long before he directed “The Jinx,” Andrew Jarecki made a documentary called “Capturing the Friedmans.” The 2003 film profiled a New York man named Arnold Friedman, and his son, Jesse, who were convicted of child molestation in the 1980s. Arnold Friedman committed suicide in prison. Meanwhile, Jarecki maintained that Jesse, who pleaded guilty, was innocent. Jarecki used his research, long after the film was released, to make his case. Jesse Friedman was freed on parole in 2001 after serving 13 years. Jarecki is still fighting to clear Friedman’s name.

But Andrew Jarecki’s series about Robert Durst is different. In this case, the film could help bring charges against the subject of the series. It also raises questions about what information a filmmaker should or should not share with law enforcement officials, and when in the process that should happen.

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