From the doubt-casting phenomenon Making a Murderer to the excellent serial killer series Mindhunter, Netflix is up to its ears in crime shows. Now they’re out to prove that there is apparently no such thing as crime fatigue with the release of 10 episode docuseries I Am A Killer.
Using a bit of a broad brush, each episode of I Am A Killer focuses on a different death row inmate. All the men on the show have been convicted, sentenced to death, and fully admit to their crimes (although to what degree some of them admit to being involved is called into question) and they all discuss their crimes frankly, in their own words. While some episodes are more compelling than others, even the weaker ones are still interesting and easily watchable for fans of true crime.
One of the better episodes of the series tells the story of Justin Dickens, an addict who killed a customer during the attempted robbery of a jewelry store. He claims the customer charged him and fought for his gun—he shot the customer once in the torso, then the customer yanked on the gun once more, causing the gun to go off and deliver a fatal head shot. The prosecution in the case presented a vastly different version of events, and painted Dickens as a cold-blooded, calculated killer, claiming forensic evidence proved Dickens was lying. The other victim from the jewelry store, however, provides an eyewitness account that matches up exactly with Dickens’ version.
Why does this matter? Because in a crime of this type, if the victim provokes the perpetrator, the death penalty is taken off the table. The prosecution claimed Dickens shot the customer without a struggle, and succeeded in getting the death penalty for Dickens.
Another standout is the story of Kenneth Foster, Jr., who received the death penalty after a friend he was riding in a car with shot and killed a man; he was convicted and sentenced under Texas’ Law of Parties, which states a person is equally responsible in the committing of a crime if they are believed to have solicited, aided, or encouraged the person who physically committed the crime.
Possibly the most thought-provoking episode features Joshua Nelson, who, at two months past his 18th birthday, teamed up with his 17 year old best friend to brutally murder a mutual friend in order to steal his car. Now 40, Joshua makes a compelling argument regarding the notion that he, despite what he’s done, is on some level deserving of forgiveness, and that he is redeemable. It’s an argument the victim’s mother (who still vividly remembers the chilling smirk Nelson gave her in the courtroom during the trial) doesn’t buy for a second.
And that’s exactly what makes the show so interesting. The team behind it does their best to show each case from all angles: the prosecution and defense, the victims’ families, even the criminals’ families and friends. Some may argue this makes it an attempt to humanize people who deserve no sympathy. I would argue that the only ones humanized in the series are the ones who can be.
James Robertson, for example, featured in Episode 1, comes off as an unfeeling monster as he recounts coming to the conclusion that the only way to improve his situation in prison was to murder his cellmate. His reasoned that the act would move him out of the unsatisfactory living conditions and frequent solitary confinement he’d been dealing with, and get him what he considered an upgrade by putting him on death row.
The show is not perfect; the weakest episodes come close to being boring, and the good ones leave you wishing they’d have spent more time examining their subjects. Either way, while I Am A Killer may not change anyone’s view on capital punishment, it is almost certainly guaranteed to make you stop and think.