Berlinger graduated from Colgate University in 1983.
In collaboration with Bruce Sinofsky, Berlinger created such documentaries films as Brother's Keeper (1992), Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996, about the West Memphis 3), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), Some Kind of Monster (2004), Crude (2009), Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011), and Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014).
Although Berlinger primarily is known for documentaries, he has made a number of films, such as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000).
The first film Berlinger directed was the documentary Brother's Keeper (1992), which tells the story of Delbart Ward, an elderly man in Munnsville, New York, who was charged with second-degree murder following the death of his brother William. Film critic Roger Ebert called it "an extraordinary documentary about what happened next, as a town banded together to stop what folks saw as a miscarriage of justice."
Berlinger's original plan for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was more of a psychological thriller and mystery that was intended to cause the viewer to question whether or not the characters in the film were insane, hysterical with hype or truly possessed, and to blur the distinction between fiction and reality. Prior to the film's release, the studio Artisan was not confident in the film's subtle approach, and forced Berlinger to add a number of random scenes of violence into the film. This led to significant criticism of the film—the film received a 7% approval rating from top critics, 13% from all critics, and 18% from the audience as reported by RottenTomatoes.com (as of May 2016).
Berlinger's film Crude (2009) focused on the lawsuit by Ecuadorean plaintiffs against Chevron Corporation, for its alleged responsibility for continuing sites of pollution in that country.
Berlinger is best known for the Paradise Lost trilogy— The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), 2—Revelations (2000), and 3—Purgatory (2011)—a series of three feature-length documentary films shot over two decades that led to the release of the West Memphis Three, after more than 20 years of wrongful imprisonment.
As of February 2014, Berlinger was committed to the production of The System, an 8-part series on the American criminal justice system, for Al-Jazeera America.
In collaboration with journalist Greg Milner, Berlinger has also written a book called Metallica: This Monster Lives (2004), which is about his journey in the documentary field through his time making Blair Witch 2 and up through directing and producing Some Kind of Monster (2004) with Metallica, the metal band.
Berlinger has also worked on TV series such as Homicide: Life on the Street, in 1999 D.C., in 2000 and FanClub in 2001.
Chevron Corporation subpoenaed the outtakes from Berlinger's 2009 film Crude. Berlinger fought the request, citing reporters' privilege, but in 2010 a federal judge ordered Berlinger to turn over more than 600 hours of footage created during the film's production. Berlinger appealed, but in 2011 the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling against Berlinger, though with a slight reduction in the total hours of footage required.
After spending $1.3 million on legal fees on the case, Berlinger has expressed concerns about being able to make documentaries about legal cases in the future.
Berlinger is best known for the film series Paradise Lost, which documents the murder trial and the subsequent legal battles of three Arkansas teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., wrongfully convicted of murder. The court convicted the youths (known as the West Memphis Three) of murdering three eight-year-old boys as part of a "ritual killing," although no physical evidence linked the three young men to the crime. Paradise Lost documents the 20-year ordeal of these three young men from arrest to conviction, through years of unsuccessful legal efforts, to a final successful appeal that resulted in their release in the summer of 2012.
The film series brought mainstream attention to the case, and many celebrities took up the cause of getting these young men out of prison and getting Damien Echols off of death row. The mainstream attention, brought on by the documentary series, allowed for a well-financed legal team to investigate every lead in the case. These subsequent investigations showed the incompetence of the West Memphis police, who had never dealt with this type of crime, and that the police let other suspects disappear from the community; for example, a man covered in blood used a restroom in a restaurant within walking distance of the murder scene shortly after the time of the murders. In addition to the failure to apprehend the suspect, the police lost the blood samples, even though this strange man left blood all over the bathroom. This mistake meant that the experts could never determine if this strange man was covered in the victims' blood.
Ultimately, the defense team hired DNA experts to test genetic material after fighting the prosecution for years to get access to it, and these tests again proved that no physical evidence linked the West Memphis Three to the murders; rather, a hair from one boy's stepfather was found tied into one of the shoelaces used to hogtie the victims.
After a 2010 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding newly produced DNA evidence, attorneys for the West Memphis Three negotiated with prosecutors an Alford plea allowing them to assert their innocence while acknowledging enough evidence to convict them; the result, on August 19, 2011, was acceptance of the pleas by Judge David Laser, and his reduction of sentence of the three to time served, and their release with 10-year suspended sentences (after 18 years, 78 days in prison).
Berlinger lives with his wife and daughters in New York City.