Errol Morris Takes on the Jeffrey MacDonald Case

Forty years after his murder conviction on flimsy evidence, the former Army doctor's case is reopened. Not only by the courts -- by a filmmaker searching for the truth.

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Errol Morris at a news conference in 2008. (Reuters)

It was not quite the case of the century, but Americans of a certain age are likely to remember the savage, 1970 murders of Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald's wife and daughters and his subsequent convictions on first and second degree homicide. Or, they remember the story of the case popularized by Joe McGinniss in Fatal Vision and, perhaps, the story of McGinniss and MacDonald, told by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer.

Now comes documentary filmmaker Errol Morris with his new book A Wilderness of Error, a devastating expose of the incompetence and corruption that enabled MacDonald's conviction and continues to obstruct his appeals. MacDonald, now 68, has been imprisoned for 30 years, denied parole because he continues to deny his guilt, as his efforts at exoneration continue, decades after conviction. Last April, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new hearing in his case, scheduled in September 2012.

As Morris observes, it's impossible to know "with absolute certainty" whether MacDonald is guilty or innocent. But evidence of innocence wrongly excluded from his trial, including multiple confessions from other suspects, seems considerably stronger than evidence of guilt, and Morris, a dogged, discerning investigator, makes clear that MacDonald was "railroaded." Personally, I don't have a shadow of a doubt that in a fair trial, a relatively unbiased jury would not have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (and I've contributed to his defense fund).

What went wrong in this case? The short answer, Morris suggests, is that military police and, eventually, civilian prosecutors assumed a conclusion and selected evidence to support it. "When police arrive at a scene, like any of us, they try to formulate an idea of what happened ... they take the seeming chaos of a crime scene and interpret it. Often the explanation is based on convenience. It's easier to pick one narrative about an explanation than another."

The justice system became wedded to the narrative of MacDonald's guilt. The public adopted it as well with the publication (and TV movie production) of Fatal Vision, by the "deeply disingenuous" Joe McGinniss. "Jeffrey MacDonald was condemned to the story that had been created around him."

That's Morris's short answer to "what went wrong?" It's a conclusion he reached after the fact, on the basis of a painstaking, 20-year exploration of a torturous, 40-year litigation history and a tangled web of facts and factoids. The long answer is his engrossing, 500-page book.

It deconstructs the narrative of MacDonald's guilt, beginning with a sloppy investigation of the bloody crime scene by military police and the despoiling of evidence. MacDonald's wife and two young daughters were dead; he was seriously injured and told police he had fought with three men, that he saw a woman present and recalled her saying, "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs." The crime occurred shortly after the Manson murders and appeared to be a copycat. Investigators decided that MacDonald, the sole survivor, was the copycat, not the "hippie" assailants he described.

The case against him was initially considered at a military hearing. The presiding officer recommended dismissal, finding that the charges were "untrue." The commanding officer at Fort Bragg dismissed but characterized the charges as based on "insufficient evidence."

MacDonald and his father in law complained of the Army's mismanagement of the case. The Army cleared itself of misconduct and re-opened the investigation of MacDonald. His in-laws, who had vehemently supported him at first, soon vehemently turned on him and were instrumental in securing his indictment for murder in federal court, four years after the murders, in 1974.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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