During the summer of 1976, New York City was terrorized by a man who called himself The Son of Sam, a vicious murderer who shot people seemingly at random. By the time he was done, David Berkowitz killed six people and wounded seven others, and the city breathed a sigh of relief when he was behind bars and the killings stopped. Well, most people did. Spawned in part by the fact that the suspect sketches drawn by witnesses didn’t look much like Berkowitz, Maury Terry started to dig deeper, becoming increasingly convinced that Berkowitz didn’t commit all of the crimes himself. This theory was fueled greatly by correspondence from Berkowitz himself, including a letter in 1981 that said, “I am guilty of these crimes. But I didn’t do it all.”
Terry’s descent down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories around David Berkowitz fuels “Sons of Sam,” but it’s handled in such a tabloid, sensational way with the kind of logic that makes real journalists furious. Zeman only occasionally gives screen time to the investigators who believe the case was solved correctly, devoting much of his energy to unpacking the tiny bits of evidence that Terry built his life around like the sketches, a possible nickname in one of the Son of Sam letters that pointed elsewhere, and signs of satanic activity in the area—Terry clearly fell into the trap of “Satanic Panic” that influenced crime journalism and investigation in the ‘80s. And Zeman is constantly presenting infuriating logic like “Well, you can’t prove that he didn’t have an accomplice.” That’s not how it works. You can’t prove a negative. That’s the logic that leads to Pizzagate because we can’t prove conclusively that babies aren’t being eaten in a pizza restaurant basement.
The most frustrating thing about “Sons of Sam” is that the real story of what happened to Maury Terry is constantly overshadowed by the sensational “What If” presentation. The truth is that the cops bungled elements of this investigation, rushing to a conclusion before all the loops were closed. However, that doesn’t mean they reached the wrong conclusion. They could have been incompetent in places but still got the right man. And Zeman doesn’t dig enough into how Berkowitz’s communication with Terry shaped his life. A charismatic sociopath derailed a journalist’s entire existence—that’s a hell of a documentary. Instead we get extended, repetitive sequences that most armchair detectives could refute in a sentence like “Witness sketches aren’t reliable. Next?”