A military policeman saw a young woman with long hair and a wide-brimmed hat standing on a corner near the MacDonalds’ home as he rushed to the scene. Neither the officer nor MacDonald could identify Stoeckley from a photograph, however.
For years, Stoeckley alternated between confessing to anyone who would listen and swearing she didn’t remember anything. When she was finally called to testify at MacDonald’s trial, she said she was so high on mescaline that she had no idea where she’d been.
Morris suggests that Stoeckley knew things she couldn’t have known unless she was in the house that night, but these claims are unconvincing. Stoeckley was interrogated so many times over the years, and the case received so much publicity, that it’s impossible to know which details she picked up from her interrogators. Like many who trust Stoeckley, Morris tends to seize on what she got right—when she got it right—and forget about all the errors and wildly implausible claims she made over the years. Morris omits Stoeckley’s most outlandish “confessions,” such as her claims that she applied to babysit for the MacDonald children, burglarized their house three weeks before the murders, and got high and had sex with Jeffrey MacDonald.
Morris makes a big deal out of the fact that Stoeckley passed various polygraph tests, which suggests she was sincere. As a champion of the wrongfully convicted, Morris should know that false confessions are surprisingly common. An estimated 15 to 25 percent of cases reversed by DNA evidence involve some kind of false confession or guilty plea. False confessions where the subject comes to believe the false narrative are unusual but hardly unheard of. Stoeckley had many risk factors for one of these so-called internalized false confessions. She was young, drug addicted, hallucinating on the night in question, suffering from a personality disorder that made it difficult for her to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and eager to please her police handlers.
Of all the claims of judicial misconduct in A Wilderness of Error, only one stands out as being both serious and credible. Morris suggests that Stoeckley clammed up because one of the prosecutors threatened to charge her with murder if she testified to being in the house that night. If Stoeckley had confessed and the prosecutor hadn’t told the defense, he would have been withholding exculpatory evidence, a serious form of misconduct. Morris takes it one step further and suggests the prosecutor’s behavior was akin to witness tampering.
Morris’s case centers on a 2005 affidavit from a now-deceased US Marshal named Jimmy Britt who claimed to have transported Stoeckley from South Carolina to North Carolina to testify. Britt swore that Stoeckley confessed to him en route and later to the prosecutor in a closed-door meeting. He claimed the prosecutor threatened to charge her if she told the truth.
At the evidentiary hearing in September 2012, after A Wilderness of Error had gone to press, the government demolished Britt’s affidavit. McGinniss enumerates the many defects of the document. The paper trail proves that Britt didn’t transport Stoeckley from South Carolina and that he was never alone with her for any extended period of time. It’s doubtful that Britt was in the meeting between Stoeckley and the prosecutor; US Marshals don’t usually do that. The prosecutor denied both that Stoeckley confessed to him and that Britt was in the meeting. Stoeckley told the judge that she gave the same story to both sides. We know she didn’t confess to the defense, because Joe McGinniss was there and reported the meeting in Fatal Vision. With that, Morris’s only substantial case for miscarriage of justice crumbles.
The most dramatic moment in Final Vision comes when McGinniss recalls his realization during the 2012 evidentiary hearing that MacDonald’s lawyer lied to the trial judge during a tête-a-tête at the bench in 1979. The lawyer claimed that Stoeckley said all kinds of incriminating things in their pretrial meeting to which she later refused to testify. McGinniss reported in Fatal Vision, and reiterated in Final Vision, that Stoeckley said nothing of the sort.