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.
As McGinniss explains in Final Vision, most of the putative miscarriages of justice that Morris cites in his book have been exhaustively reviewed by appeal courts and rejected. A pattern emerges. The defense got the original crime scene investigation file through a FOIA request, and they’ve since insisted that every scrap of debris that can’t be traced to something in the house is proof of invaders, proof that should have been turned over to them earlier.
Morris doesn’t give us enough information to assess the procedural merits of their claims. Just because MacDonald’s lawyers say evidence should have been turned over to them doesn’t mean that they were entitled to it, let alone that the prosecution committed malfeasance by not turning it over. One might infer from MacDonald’s more than 30-year losing streak that his case lacks merit; but Morris considers it further proof of the system’s bias against MacDonald.
As far as the probative value of the “withheld” evidence, it’s pretty much a bust. Any occupied home will contain hairs and fibers that can’t readily be sourced, especially transient housing like the MacDonalds’ apartment.
In 2012, the defense shamelessly trumpeted the results of DNA testing released in 2006 as “new evidence” of MacDonald’s innocence, even though none of the three untraced hairs matched Helena Stoeckley or her boyfriend Greg Mitchell, whom she named as an accomplice.
Morris tries to blame McGinniss for poisoning the well against MacDonald, but Fatal Vision mostly reported the facts as they were presented at trial. The disappointing truth is that MacDonald was proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in 1979 and his lawyers have been grasping at straws ever since. Joe McGinniss’s Final Vision should indeed be the last word on the subject.