A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald | By Errol Morris | Penguin Press | 544 pages | $29.95
Final Vision: The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald | By Joe McGinniss | Byliner, Inc. | $2.99
In 1970, 26-year-old Colette MacDonald and her two daughters were found stabbed to death in their Fort Bragg, NC apartment. Colette’s husband, 26-year-old Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, claimed that a band of hippies, including a girl with long blonde hair and a floppy hat, burst into his apartment and murdered his family. He was acquitted by an Army tribunal, retried by a civilian court, and convicted of murder in 1979. He has spent the last 33 years proclaiming his innocence from a prison cell.
In his new book, A Wilderness of Error, filmmaker Errol Morris sets out to prove that Jeffrey MacDonald is, if not an innocent man, at least a victim of the criminal justice system. Morris is best known for The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that got an innocent man off death row. This September, a New York Times book critic raved that A Wilderness of Error would leave the reader 85 percent convinced of MacDonald’s innocence.
In Morris’s telling, MacDonald is also a victim of unscrupulous journalism. In 1983 journalist and author Joe McGinniss published Fatal Vision, which would become the definitive popular account of the MacDonald murders. Morris argues that Fatal Vision distorted the facts of the case and poisoned public opinion against the doctor.
MacDonald has every reason to loathe McGinniss. In 1979, MacDonald made McGinniss a full-fledged member of his defense team in exchange for a cut of the book’s future profits. McGinnis even lived with MacDonald and his lawyers at a frat house in North Carolina. Over the course of the trial, and during his jailhouse correspondence with MacDonald, McGinniss became convinced that MacDonald was guilty, but he kept telling MacDonald that he thought he was innocent. MacDonald only learned otherwise when Fatal Vision was published.
(Update, 01/08/13: This afternoon, Joe McGinniss left a message on my Facebook page clarifying his original arrangement with Jeffrey MacDonald’s defense team. McGinniss writes: “MacDonald’s lawyer realized that prosecution could subpoena me during trial and force me to testify about inner workings of defense. Being a journalist did not provide immunity. To eliminate the risk he paid me one dollar and named me ‘investigator.’ It was a ruse, and not necessary because prosecutors had no interest in me. Obviously, I did no investigating for the defense. My role was clear. But for many years after The Selling of the President, some people thought I’d worked for Nixon. Since I left the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1968, except for a couple of teaching gigs, I’ve never worked for anyone but myself.”)
Last month, McGinniss released an ebook called Final Vision: The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald. In it, he summarizes the post-conviction history of what has become the longest-running criminal case in US history and explains why Morris’s claims of startling new evidence are really old news. McGinniss scoffs at Morris’s claim that Fatal Vision sealed MacDonald’s fate, noting that the book came out after the doctor was convicted and that the courts began rejecting MacDonald’s appeals before Final Vision saw the light of day.
Read side-by-side, A Wilderness of Error and Final Vision amount to a journalistic sumo match in which two heavyweights grapple for control of the MacDonald narrative. In order to assess Morris’s book, we must lay out the case made by the prosecution at trial and reported in Fatal Vision.
Jeffrey MacDonald looked suspicious from the outset. He was in the apartment that night, and he was a Green Beret, trained to kill hand-to-hand. He was barely injured, and injured in ways that could have been self-inflicted, or inflicted by his wife, Colette, in self-defense. His cover story was preposterous. “Drug-crazed hippies killed my family” is “The dog ate my homework” of murder.
Upon closer examination, MacDonald’s cover story didn’t match the physical evidence at all. For example: He claimed he was attacked in the living room, where he held up his pajama top to ward off the blows of an ice pick-wielding hippie. According to MacDonald, after being clubbed unconscious, he awoke to find the attackers gone and his wife dead on the floor of the master bedroom. MacDonald said he covered his wife with his ripped pajama top before going to check on the girls. Yet investigators found no pajama fibers in the living room—meaning it couldn’t have been ripped there, as MacDonald claimed—and lots of pajama fibers and threads in the master bedroom, including several under Colette’s body.