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.

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.

The prosecution's case appeared weak: MacDonald had initially described a woman present during the attack; a woman fitting that description was seen by military police on their way to the scene; a woman fitting that description, Helene Stoeckley, was known to police and confessed to her presence at the murders on numerous occasions over the years to numerous people. One year after the crime, she passed a polygraph test at which she acknowledged her presence.

But the jury never heard evidence of Stoeckley's many confessions, or the confessions of an ex-boyfriend implicated in the murders. The trial judge (whose former son-in-law had participated in the prosecution) excluded it. Stoeckley testified at trial but, to the defense team's surprise, denied being present at the murders or ever acknowledging her presence.

Years later, retired federal marshal James Britt submitted an affidavit swearing that the prosecutor, James Blackburn, met with Stoeckley before her testimony and threatened to indict her for murder if she acknowledged being present at the scene. Britt's affidavit is part of the basis for MacDonald's current appeal. Britt died in 2008. Blackburn, who has denied the accusation, was disbarred after pleading guilty to multiple counts of fraud and embezzlement in 1993.

Blackburn and his co-counsel also denied MacDonald's defense attorneys meaningful access to forensic evidence. The defense discovered exculpatory evidence years later, partly in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. DNA tests were conducted in 2006 after a eight year delay. (Samples were submitted to an Army lab for testing in 1998.) The tests shed further doubt on the government's case, and that evidence, too, is part of the current appeal.

But procedural obstacles to overturning convictions in federal court are Dickensian. Post-conviction, the rules favor prosecutors and judges who don't generally like to admit error, much less bias or misconduct. Prosecutors have stonewalled, and the District Court has repeatedly refused to consider all the exculpatory evidence accumulated by MacDonald's defense over the years.

The 4th Circuit, however, has given him another, better chance at obtaining a fair hearing. It ruled that the District Court erred when it refused to consider the body of exculpatory evidence "as a whole." Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck explains the significance of this ruling for MacDonald and others with strong post convictions claims of innocence:

Far too often the people who have been wrongly convicted uncover evidence of their innocence bit by bit, slowly over time. Courts reject this evidence claiming it wouldn't have made a difference in their cases and then refuse to look at it again when more evidence is discovered. With this decision, courts will have to look at all the evidence as a whole when considering innocence claims.

The burden on MacDonald remains "daunting," as the 4th circuit stressed. He will have to show a constitutional violation, coupled with clear and compelling evidence of his "actual innocence."

That is the standard dictated by federal law. Is it fair? The "clear and compelling" truth about the crime, and MacDonald's guilt or innocence, is lost in time and a fog of mistakes and misconduct. But, as Morris demonstrates, the truth about the trial remains accessible. Shouldn't it matter? Shouldn't proof that MacDonald was "railroaded" be sufficient to set aside the inherently unreliable conviction in his grievously unfair trial?

A trial is supposed to be a search for truth, although it might be more accurately characterized as an interrogation of doubt. In MacDonald's case, it was a campaign to confirm belief. That belief and the "story created around" MacDonald portrayed him as a diabolically disguised psychopath who butchered his family. This was supposed to be a case about monstrous, individual evil, but the evils it reveals are institutional, and frighteningly banal.