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a wilderness of error

11 december 2012

Yet another book about Jeffrey MacDonald, one might cry; but Errol Morris has written too few books, and they've been too fascinating, to scream "yet another book by Errol Morris!"

The definitive book on MacDonald long seemed to be Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision (1983). All the writing on the MacDonald case since has been a long series of footnotes to and rebuttals of McGinniss's work. Fatal Vision was one of the first true-crime books that I read, and just as narrative and psychological portrait, it is one of the classics of the genre. When I read it in the 1980s, it defined a certain kind of crime book for me, one laced with ironies and topped off with Schadenfreude. Princeton- and Northwestern-educated Green Beret surgeon, model family, fast track to the good life – and secret philanderer, prey to murderous drug-induced rages; commits the perfect crime of erasing his wife and children, moves to Malibu and leads the life of sports cars and casual sex as a hunky ER doctor – and would be leading it still, but for a crusading father-in-law and resourceful prosecutors. That's the horrific, utterly fascinating MacDonald of McGinniss's book. And, say Morris and others, mainly of McGinniss's imagination.

Despite the lurid scenario that McGinniss develops in Fatal Vision, even he makes clear that MacDonald was convicted of murdering his family on wholly circumstantial evidence. There were no other witnesses. Physical evidence connecting MacDonald to the killings was extremely tenuous. Worse yet for the prosecution, there was no motive for murder.

MacDonald seems, from various descriptions including Morris's, to be a bit of an asshole – odd that it's more potentially libellous to call him an asshole than a murderer, so I will say that I don't know the guy and have no idea if he's actually an asshole; but other writers give that impression. But being an asshole is not grounds for suspecting murder, and aside from that, MacDonald gave the prosecution nothing to play with. Philandering and unhappiness, if they even existed, would not outweigh the fact that MacDonald had nothing to gain from the murders, and has never shown himself to be murderous at any other time.

The psychiatric profile is telling: people don't really shift from calm and control to homicidal rages (and cold-blooded murders to cover them up) and then stay calm for the rest of their life, never shifting back. To counter this problem, the prosecution developed a theory that MacDonald is a manipulative, cold-hearted sociopath, able to cover up his crimes with an impenetrable layer of innocent-seeming behavior. One of Morris's most elaborate points is that nobody can win in such a situation. Act guilty, and you're guilty. Act innocent, and you're even more obviously guilty. Everything is evidence of its opposite.

To compound matters, MacDonald – shortly after the Manson Family murders – told investigators that a cabal of hippies, burning candles and chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs," was responsible for killing his family and wounding him. This tale sounds so lame that its concoctor should be convicted of bad storytelling, if nothing else. But there's more. MacDonald specifically mentioned a young woman in a floppy hat at the center of the hippie group.

Investigators had seen a young woman in a floppy hat walking away from the scene as they drove toward it. She and her hippie acquaintances were seen in suspicious activity over the next few hours, at one point apparently covered in blood. And Helena Stoeckley, eventually identified as the behatted woman, confessed to having been in MacDonald's apartment, and to seeing details of the crime scene: details that nobody who hadn't been there could have known about. But nobody followed up, and the leads went cold, the hippies dispersed.

Simply fingering a local hippie would have meant nothing; MacDonald could have decided to pin the killings on a hard-luck case familiar to him from any number of settings. But as lawyer Wendy Rouder tells Morris:

How lucky can Jeff get to pick somebody at random who then is going to confess? To make up a description of a person happens to falsely confess? (238)
You gotta admit, that's weird. But believing in a sect of minor-league Mansons was weirder for judge and jury, and MacDonald was eventually convicted, many years later, of murder. As in Believing is Seeing, Morris's great theme here is the nature of how we know what we know: media-era epistemology. The crime was 40+ years ago. The scene has been effectively demolished. The witnesses are dead, Stoeckley herself long since dead. Evidence that might exonerate MacDonald was either never collected, or inadequately preserved. His trial has held up on appeal – and the more I read about appeals courts, one can see why; they're not like TV. They assume that bar and jury acted honestly, ethically, and professionally. They do not hear of theories spouted by some crusading writer or filmmaker and then order new trials left and right.

Although very occasionally they do, and Morris, maker of The Thin Blue Line, knows this better than anybody. He also knows how lucky he got with The Thin Blue Line, and how unlikely it is that he could make a career of similar successes. He admits the temptation of enlisting in MacDonald's cause and using his own celebrity to try to overturn the conviction. But nagging at him is the impossibility of knowing. In The Thin Blue Line, Morris found the real killer, who confessed. That can never happen in MacDonald's case now. And there's a small, irritating, improbable possibility that MacDonald is guilty. It makes no logical or psychological sense. MacDonald has never admitted the killings, even to gain parole. But what if he were, and the world is more of a wilderness of error than even Errol Morris suspects?

Morris, Errol. A Wilderness of Error: The trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. New York: Penguin, 2012.