In 1970, the wife and daughters of a Green Beret doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald were stabbed to death, and MacDonald himself was found guilty of the crime. In his new book A Wilderness of Error, Errol Morris writes a revisionist history of the case, suggesting that MacDonald may actually be innocent. Brooke speaks to Morris about why, for him, the facts of the original case just didn't add up.
UNKLE - Cut Me Loose
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On February 17th the wife and two daughters of a Green Beret doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald were stabbed. At about 3:40 a.m. emergency dispatchers at Ft. Bragg received his 911 call. This is from the mini-series about the killing.
[“FATAL VISION” CLIP]:
911 OPERATOR: Can I help you?
GARY COLE AS JEFFREY MacDONALD: I need – an ambulance.
911 OPERATOR: Yes?
GARY COLE AS JEFFREY MacDONALD: Medics, medics, hurry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Military police arrived to find mother and daughters dead and MacDonald wounded. He said he’d fallen asleep on the couch and woke to find his home under attack by a group of hippies who chanted “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” Prosecutors decided that MacDonald had invented that alibi and was himself the murderer. His trial made national headlines and spawned a bestselling book by Joe McGinniss called “Fatal Vision.”
Forty-two years later, filmmaker and writer Errol Morris has written a revisionist history of the case and its coverage, called “A Wilderness of Error.” Morris is perhaps best known for his 1988 film, “The Thin Blue Line,” in which he delved into the case of a death row inmate named Randall Adams. As a result of Morris’ reporting, Adams was exonerated and freed. Morris believes Jeffrey MacDonald is also innocent and that, unlikely as his story sounds, the evidence supports it.
ERROL MORRIS: The first responder, Ken Mica, an MP who answered this 911 call, on his way to the MacDonald house he sees a woman in a floppy hat standing in a deserted area of the base of Ft. Bragg, outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, arrives at the MacDonald house, finds MacDonald alive but injured, three members of his family brutally murdered, bludgeoned to death. MacDonald tells the story of the four intruders, one African-American male, two white men and a hippie chick with a floppy hat. The minute he hears this description, he thinks, oh my God, that’s the woman I saw a couple of blocks away from this house.
It’s put out on the radio. A narcotics cop in Fayetteville hears the description and says to himself, I know who that is, that’s Helena Stoeckley, that’s one of my narcotics informants. And he goes to pick her up. Within a day or so, she starts implicating herself in the crime, telling people that she thinks she might have been there. Ludicrous, ridiculous, unbelievable, but wait one second. Is there evidence to suggest that is what really happened?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reporter Joe McGinniss mostly dismisses Stoeckley in his book about the case, “Fatal Vision.” Meanwhile, McGinniss is allowed to embed with MacDonald’s defense team because MacDonald thought the reporter was on his side. The way McGinniss betrayed his source made people uncomfortable, including Janet Malcolm, whose book, “The Journalist and Murderer” opens with that famous, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
ERROL MORRIS: Yeah, it was bad that he betrayed his subject and never confronted MacDonald with the reality of what he was writing. The real crime was he betrayed the facts of the case; he betrayed the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give some examples.
ERROL MORRIS: There was a problem all along coming up with a motive. Here’s a guy who went to Princeton, Northwestern Medical School, for all intents and purposes a loving father and devoted husband, no evidence of any kind of psychopathology. He wasn’t the kind of person who would have done this. One of the prosecutors at the very end of the Federal trial admitted as much, saying we don’t have to show you that he was the kind of man who could have done it. All we have to do is show you he did do it. Well, I don’t believe they did that.
And then McGinniss felt he needed to give MacDonald a motive, and so he came up with this oddball equation: Diet pills plus psychopathology [LAUGHS] plus bedwetting equals mass murder. MacDonald sued, and in the lawsuit it was revealed that a lot of this evidence was stuff that McGinniss just made up. That is a journalistic crime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it was that ultimate crime that Janet Malcolm overlooked. In fact, she writes that Jeffrey MacDonald would send her, from prison, mountains of supposedly exonerating evidence. Malcolm said I don’t want this information. The story of the murders has been told by Joe McGinniss and it has acquired the aura of definitive narrative. Case closed.
ERROL MORRIS: I make a comparison between say a 19th century miscarriage of justice story, fiction, the Count of Monte Cristo, where a man is imprisoned in what seems to be an impregnable fortress. Here we’re talking about a much darker, deeper prison. What if you create a false narrative and the narrative is distributed to tens of millions of people? You write a book, you have a show on “60 Minutes” and then you put out a mini-series starring Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint as the crusading in-laws who bring Jeffrey MacDonald to justice. And here is the narrative prison that Jeffrey MacDonald is in. Everybody thinks they know the story! They’ve seen it. They’ve seen him killing his family. He must be guilty!
The only problem is that the narrative provides a screen from the truth. And here I respectfully disagree with Janet Malcolm. Janet Malcolm, who is someone I vastly admire – I’ve read almost everything she’s written. I respectfully disagree. There is an escape from narrative. Any investigator believes that evidence can lead us out of a narrative prison to the world out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How was it that you escaped from this narrative prison?
ERROL MORRIS: I can be as much a prisoner to false narrative as anyone else. I’m a persnickety kind of person. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me. But I do know that 25 years ago, when I encountered a prisoner in Texas who had been sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer, he told me he didn’t do it. I didn’t believe him. Months later I read the transcript of his trial. There was something about it that wasn’t right.
Whatever you might think ultimately about Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt or innocence, there is something that – to me is undeniable. The trial was unfair. Evidence was withheld, evidence was suppressed. A lot of evidence was lost. There was no due process in this trial, and he most certainly – if all of the evidence had been presented to the jury – would never have been convicted of these crimes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think there’s a possibility you might be able to help spring him, like you sprang Randall Adams in the “Thin Blue Line?”
ERROL MORRIS: The answer is yes. As we speak, for the first time since the original trial – we’re talking over 30 years now – there is a hearing in Wilmington, North Carolina and the evidence will be presented as a whole. It is my hope that either the judge presiding over this hearing or the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn the 1979 conviction. If that happens, then Jeffrey MacDonald will walk out of prison a free man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Errol, thank you very much.
ERROL MORRIS: Well, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Errol Morris is the author of “A Wilderness of Error.”
We asked Joe McGinniss, the author of “Fatal Vision” for comment and he gave us the following statement: “Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of the murders of his wife and two young daughters in 1979. In all the years since, every court that has considered the case, including the United States Supreme Court, has upheld that verdict in every respect. MacDonald is guilty, not simply beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any doubt. No amount of speculation, conjecture and innuendo can change that.”