The Devil's in the Details: Errol Morris on the Jeffrey MacDonald Case

After 30 years, a man notoriously convicted of murdering his family may be freed from prison. A celebrated filmmaker explains why he believes in MacDonald's innocence.

errol-morris-art2.jpgFilmmaker Errol Morris (center) believes the MacDonald case represents a miscarriage of justice "even more severe" than the one featured in The Thin Blue Line. (Image adapted from Pentagram and Reuters)

Updated*

Could freedom be around the corner for convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald? 

Sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the 1970 killing of his wife and two children, the former Army physician and Green Beret has been the subject of numerous articles and at least three books over the years. Some analysts have long believed MacDonald might be innocent, and last year new evidence emerged that convinced a federal judge to re-open the case. That decision prompted a 6,500-word deconstruction in the Washington Post magazine last December by Gene Weingarten, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, who argued that the accounts constructed by MacDonald's champions are "deeply flawed" -- even "manipulative."* 

The spotlight now turns to U.S. District Court Judge James Fox, who convened the hearing six months ago to hear new evidence. Last week, MacDonald's lawyer filed his brief, and the prosecution will soon follow. Anytime after that, Fox could either decide to vacate MacDonald's convictions, or order a new trial to try to determine whether MacDonald is the real culprit behind his family's massacre.

There was rain during the early morning hours of February 17, 1970, on the Ft. Bragg military base in Fayetteville, N.C., where Jeffrey MacDonald, a 26-year-old Princeton-educated Green Beret surgeon, lived with his wife, Collette, and their two daughters, Kimberely, 5, and Kristen, 3. Shortly after 3:30 a.m., MacDonald dialed a telephone operator for help. When the military police arrived, they found a horrific sight. MacDonald himself had been stabbed. His 28-year-old wife, pregnant with a son, had also been stabbed in her torso, approximately 24 times with an ice pick. Her arms were broken and her skull fractured. Both girls had been stabbed to death; Kimberely's head was crushed. The scene looked similar to what cult leader Charles Manson's followers left behind when they went on a killing rampage in Los Angeles a few months earlier. Even the word "pig" was written in blood on the MacDonalds' headboard.

When MacDonald gave authorities his account of what happened, he recalled four intruders, three men and a "woman with a floppy hat." One detective thought the woman described by MacDonald matched a drug informant he'd been working with: 18-year-old Helena Stoeckley. As it turns out, that woman is now the lynchpin of MacDonald's defense. Helena Stoeckley died in 1983, but not before repeatedly confessing to family, friends, and law enforcement officials that she was part of the gang that broke into MacDonald's house.

At the start of the investigation, MacDonald wasn't under suspicion. It was only after he gave an interview to Army investigators months later that he became the target. An initial military Article 32 investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, but federal prosecutors nevertheless pursued him. Along the way, MacDonald damaged his case. He admitted to cheating on Collette early in their marriage. ("My great sin in life is I had a couple of one-night stands," MacDonald said in an interview. "Who didn't in the sixties?") He appeared on Dick Cavett's TV show and came off with a cavalier demeanor. He also lied to his father-in-law that he had tracked down one of the intruders and killed him. Finally, in August 1979, MacDonald was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

Earlier that year, MacDonald and Joe McGinniss negotiated an access-for-royalties deal to enable McGinniss to write a book about MacDonald and the trial. MacDonald hoped it might win him support.* The result, Fatal Vision, published in 1983, turned the tables on MacDonald and embellished the prosecution's case. Its success was reminiscent of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and like that "nonfiction novel" about a grisly crime and its aftermath, was adapted by Hollywood. In 1984, MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of contract and distorting the facts.*

Yet Fatal Vision remains the prevailing narrative about Jeffrey MacDonald. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris discovered this when, after more than a decade of tracking the case, he tried to get Hollywood to give him the money to make a film about it. Even though Morris had won the Academy Award for The Fog of War, he couldn't convince a studio executive to green light the MacDonald project. "We can't make that," Morris was told. "He's guilty. The man killed his family." This attitude was a "recurring theme" whenever Morris discussed the project.

Despite those setbacks, Morris has issued a clarion call in the MacDonald saga. His book A Wilderness of Error, published last fall, shows that the evidence runs counter to what the prosecution and McGinniss allege. Morris has the credentials for such an argument: his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line helped free a man wrongly convicted of killing a police officer.

While awaiting Judge Fox's decision, I visited with Morris to get his take on a case that has consumed federal law enforcement authorities for almost four decades.

Who do you believe killed Colette, Kimberley, and Kristen MacDonald?

I believe there were intruders that night. One was Helena Stoeckley, and one was Greg Mitchell. I'm not sure about the others.

What's the most important information to emerge from the hearing?

Judge Fox essentially unmuzzled Helena Stoeckley's lawyer, Jerry Leonard, from the attorney-client privilege after more than 30 years. Leonard said that Helena confessed that she was in the house with three of her friends. She said they'd gone there to "teach MacDonald a lesson" because he was involved in a number of drug busts. She said MacDonald was known on the base as a hard-ass about drugs. She said things got out of hand.

And her story wasn't disclosed in the 1979 trial?

That's right. I would say that Helena Stoeckley confessed to no fewer than a dozen people in the week leading up to her appearance on the witness stand in 1979. The jury, however, heard none of it. I don't know for certain if Stoeckley was in MacDonald's house on the night of the killings. But her repeated confessions are real evidence, and should have been heard by the jury.

Warren Rock, an Army colonel who led the first inquiry into the killings, concluded in 1970 that MacDonald was innocent.

Yes, and there were two parts to Colonel Rock's recommendation. One was that the charges be dismissed. The second part was that Helena Stoeckley should be thoroughly investigated.

Were his wishes followed?

Helena Stoeckley was investigated, but it wasn't for the purpose of finding out what she knew -- it was solely to discredit her. If you want to make a case against Jeffrey MacDonald, Helena represents a fly in the ointment. Instead of being able to tie a neat bow around the case and say, Case closed, you have this woman who confesses again and again.

Helena Stoeckley confessed to being at MacDonald's house the night of the killings, but she would change details from time to time. Doesn't that undermine her confession?

I talked to Rex Beaber, a UCLA lawyer/psychologist, and he interviewed Helena in 1982. He explained the nature of memory to me by invoking The Sound of Music. "When Julie Andrews is on the mountain and she is singing 'The Sound of Music,' the big theme song, what color is her skirt? What's growing in the field?," he asked me. "You might give me an answer that would be your best recollection. And you probably would be wrong, half the time or more." He told me that there's a big difference between remembering whether you saw a film and recalling its content with any detail. Rex Beaber said crimes are like that. "A person could be an extremely impaired human being and can have all kinds of problems with the circumstances of viewing that event, and that basic fact would remain," Beaber told me.

The culture of Fayetteville in the 1970s was fascinating. It's a military town, but there were so many hippies and drugs present during this era that Fayetteville seemed more like a place on the West Coast than in Eastern North Carolina.

This was the height of the Vietnam War and social unrest. There were drugs in body bags coming back from Southeast Asia, and a drug culture around the base. I don't know if I would call it a West Coast --

I'm thinking Berkeley, circa late-1960s.

Well, the murders occurred in February 1970 and people said it was ridiculous that drug-crazed hippies killed MacDonald's family. Today, maybe that idea seems farfetched, but this happened just two months after the arrest of members of the Charles Manson family for murders in Southern California.

MacDonald's critics argue that he used the Manson murders as an excuse. They say he staged the crime scene to make it look like drug-crazed hippies were responsible.

That kind of logic fascinates me because I don't believe there's anything indicating Jeffrey MacDonald staged the crime scene. That's almost made up out of whole cloth. But if MacDonald was influenced by the Manson family killings, how come hippies in Fayetteville couldn't have also been influenced by the same killings?

If MacDonald is not guilty, what's your view of how something like this happens? How does a man who's not guilty go to jail for more than 30 years?

Once a mindset takes over, it's very difficult to ever dislodge it. It can happen quickly, and because of small details. A coffee table that is turned over in such a way as to make it seem like it was placed in that position, an upright flower pot that seemingly could have been knocked on its side, and on and on. These are seemingly meaningful details that are perhaps not so meaningful.

Is Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision accurate?

It's deeply dishonest. Everybody has their own sort of detail that bothers them about Fatal Vision. Last fall, David Carr of the New York Times came to see me. For David, the most appalling detail is that McGinniss never told MacDonald that he'd written a book portraying him as a psychopathic killer. McGinniss allowed 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace to do his dirty work and tell MacDonald that was the point of McGinniss's book.

There's a journalism scandal stemming from this murder case. Helena Stoeckley gave an interview to 60 Minutes where she says that she was in MacDonald's house the night of the killings with her fellow cult members. The CBS news program never aired her interview because executive producer Don Hewitt told the segment producer, "That's not the story. The story is McGinniss's book." Isn't it bizarre that the top show in network news didn't use her confession?

Is it bizarre -- or business as usual? If you want to believe something and have a narrative, then you chuck out all of that evidence which complexifies the story, or shows the story to be false. Helena Stoeckley's interview is an untidy addition to the story of Jeffrey MacDonald's guilt. People knew that there was this long confession by Stoeckley - I saw it on YouTube. What was so odd was the 60 Minutes clapboard was removed from the beginning of the interview. Then when I finally got the entire tape, it said "60 Minutes" on it. I still thought this had been done at the behest of one of MacDonald's investigators. But then I discovered that Joe Wershba, this legendary 60 Minutes producer, had been responsible for it. It was done for the program. It was done by the program. Wershba died shortly before I could reach him, but I was told he had a guilty conscience for many years about not including Stoeckley's confession in the segment that aired.

Your 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, is about a man wrongly accused. How did this case compare?

This was even more severe. On the Thin Blue Line, I had overwhelming evidence that there was a miscarriage of justice. Randall Dale Adams didn't kill the cop. I got the guy who I believed did kill the cop to confess. But I've never seen the level of rancor that the Jeffrey MacDonald case has produced. Fury. Bob Stevenson, Collette MacDonald's brother, hates MacDonald with this crazy passion. What angers him most of all is that MacDonald won't say he killed his sister.

You met MacDonald once and talked by phone to him many times. What's your assessment of him based on those contacts?

He's very bright, personable, and articulate. But this isn't a book about whether I like Jeffrey MacDonald. In fact, I do like him. To me, this story is almost independent of him.

You argue that he would have been up for parole if he'd confessed.

In order to get parole, you have to say, I did it and I'm sorry. And if you don't say that, parole's not an option. He's accused of killing his family but it's like a wound still open, festering on all these old men at the bench -- MacDonald, the lawyers. It's a remarkable thing. All I have is the evidence.



* This post has been updated in three places, both to better reflect the nature of the debate around this case and to clarify the nature of the agreement and subsequent dispute between Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald.

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John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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