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5 Cases That Would Make for Great Criminal Justice Documentaries

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 12, 2016 12:57 PM

We've binged our way through 'Serial,' 'The Jinx,' 'Making a Murderer' and we still want more. The massive success of these criminal justice documentaries shows that there's a huge audience for stories that track the often-overlooked workings of our criminal justice system.

Since we're not willing to just sit and wait for the next great story, we've decided to throw out some ideas of our own. (Documentarians, contact me and we'll discuss royalties.) Here are five cases we think deserve some major public attention.

1. Kalief Browder: Teen Held for 3 Years Without Trial

Kalief Browder was arrested when he was just 16-years old, as he was walking home with a friend. Despite no evidence of crime -- arresting officers thought he had stolen a backpack -- Browder was detained for prison in three years, without trial and without a conviction. The teen wasn't held in just any jail, however. He was thrown in Riker's Island, the notoriously dangerous and mismanaged New York jail, and spent two years in solitary confinement.

Browder was released after being featured in The New Yorker, but the damage was largely done. He committed suicide shortly thereafter.

2. Barry Beach: Released After 32 Years in Jail

In 1984, Beach was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of 17-year-old Kimberly Nees in Poplar, Montana. If you've watched 'Making a Murderer,' the outlines of Barry Beach's story will seem familiar to you. There's a recanted, inconsistent confession (Beach not only confessed to Nees' murder, but to three others -- though he wasn't even in the state at the time of the other crimes), questionable use of evidence, a strong-armed prosecution, release and reincarceration. Don't worry though, Beach's story comes with a happier ending than most.

3. Dwight and Steven Hammond: Before Y'All-Queda

To hear them tell it, Dwight and Steven Hammond are simple ranchers who, in the face of spreading wildfires, took action to protect their home and livelihood. In the eyes of federal prosecutors, they were lawless arsonists, whose illegal "back burns" destroyed hundreds of acres of public land and threatened the lives of others.

After what some call an overly aggressive prosecution, the Hammonds were sentenced to short prison terms -- only to be reimprisoned after their release when the Ninth Circuit ruled their crimes required a minimum five-year sentence. That reimprisonment led to the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters outside Burns, Oregon, and incensed insurrectionary ranchers -- dubbed by detractors as Y'All-Queda and Vanilla ISIS.

4. Sandra Bland: Unexplained Suicide?

Sandra Bland, regrettably, became one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop and found dead in her cell a few days later. Investigators have ruled her death a suicide, but her family rejects that determination. To many, the circumstances surrounding Bland's death still remain unexplained. Just last week, her arresting officer was indicted on charges of perjury.

5. The Brooklyn Playground Rape

It was a violent, shocking crime and one still being investigated. Last Thursday night, a group of teenage boys came across a father and daughter drinking together in a neglected playground in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The boys drove the father away at gunpoint, then gang raped the daughter.

Since then, five teenagers have been arrested, but questions have already been raised about the details and handling of the crime. Why, for example, did it take the father 20 minutes to locate authorities? Why did the police wait for days to release details of the crime? Why had the dangerous playground been forsaken by city authorities? How can justice be done, for the girl, for her father, and for the accused who are bound to face an unprecedented amount of public scrutiny?

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