Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Jeffrey MacDonald: Innocent, after all?

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UPDATE: I blogged too quickly: based on the evidence, Jeffrey MacDonald is guilty as charged. See this post for details. I’m totally convinced now, despite Errol Morris’s attempts to rewrite the facts.

A good review by Lynn Stuart Parramore of the unraveling case against Jeffrey MacDonald, who has been in prison for decades:

Remember the perceptual illusion [3] where you look at a picture and you’re certain that you see the bust of a young woman? Then, if someone draws your attention to certain details, suddenly the picture transforms into the profile of an old woman. It’s a disorienting trick. You think you know what you’re seeing, but then you aren’t so sure.

The Jeffrey MacDonald murder case is one of the most disturbing in living memory. There are only two possible pictures, both nightmares.

Picture #1. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton-educated Green Beret doctor with no history of violence and a sterling record, butchered his pregnant wife and two young daughters using a knife, ice pick and club. Then he injured himself and set up the scene to make the crimes appear to be the work of intruders. He claimed they chanted, “Kill the pigs!…Acid is groovy!” and scrawled the word “PIG” on the wall in his wife’s blood.

Picture #2. Jeffrey MacDonald, a bright young man with everything in life to look forward to, lost his wife and children to senseless, horrific violence. A military hearing found charges against him “untrue,” but he was convicted nine years later in a civilian trial. He has been imprisoned for three decades for a crime he did not commit.

Two possibilities: MacDonald is a monster, or he is a victim of terrible injustice. Young woman; old woman.

Until recently, most people saw Picture #1. So did I. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, about an hour from the Fort Bragg army base in Fayetteville where the murders occurred on Feb. 17, 1970, in the middle of the night. I was born in May of that year, and would thus be the same age as the child Colette MacDonald was carrying when her life was snuffed out. In the early ’80s, I whipped through a dog-eared copy of Fatal Vision, Joe McGinnis’ sensational true-crime novel about the killings. It was almost as scary as Helter Skelter – the story of the Charles Manson murders in Californa that are said to have inspired Jeffrey MacDonald in the coverup for his homicidal rampage.

In 1984 I was glued to the TV, like millions of other Americans, watching the popular miniseries based on McGinnis’ book. McGinnis made the murders sound like the work of a diabolical genius, a man who could transform in a moment from a loving father to a homicidal maniac, and again, in the blink of an eye, to a calculating conman. I thought of devils that lurked in human flesh, like in The Exorcist, another popular based-on-a true-story-book-turned-movie of the period that floated around our house. When the show was over, I retired to the safety of my bed, safe from unpredictable evils.

A Shifting Picture

McGinnis’ stark rendering of Picture #1 stuck in my mind until recently when a friend from North Carolina told me that Errol Morris had published a book suggesting MacDonald was innocent. That got my attention: the Oscar-winning Morris, whose film The Thin Blue Line exonerated a Texas man wrongfully convicted for murder, is one of the world’s great documentary filmmakers. He is both a careful researcher and a profound investigator of the human condition.

My friend and I sat around in her backyard, tossing up what facts about the case we could recall. I even laughed at the idea of hippie murderers in North Carolina. Of all places! But then I felt uneasy. “You sure Errol Morris wrote the book?” She was sure.

Soon I was reading Morris’ A Wilderness of Error [4], feeling skeptical and wondering why this reputable man would involve himself in a case that everyone and their mother (including mine) knew the truth about.

But it didn’t take long to realize that something was wrong. Enough somethings to fill the long, solitary chapters of a man’s life unfolding behind prison walls.

Morris researched the MacDonald case for 20 years and knows each labyrinthine turn of its progress through the criminal justice system. Even before bureaucratic stalling and federal machinery overtook the search for truth, things were working against Jeffrey MacDonald. A crime scene was left open to bystander traffic. Inexperienced military police failed to pick up a woman near the house who fit MacDonald’s description. Many think this woman could have been Helena Stoeckley, a drug abuser and professed member of a witchcraft cult who repeatedly confessed to having been at the MacDonald house the night of the murders, but recanted her story whenever she seemed to fear prosecution. Now deceased, she remains a pivotal figure in the case.

As I read Morris’ meticulous examination the evidence, the picture in my mind became less clear. I began to see that Joe McGinnis’ creation of Picture #1 might be just that: a creation. Some of the “facts” I thought I knew began to look more like ideas conjured by eager prosecutors and a journalist who had dealt so disingenuously with Jeffrey MacDonald in writing Fatal Vision that he was sued after publication. McGinnis’ publisher settled with MacDonald out of court, after the judge called the author a “conman.”  (This story, in its own right, became a famous book about journalistic ethics [5] by Janet Malcolm.)

The story many of us think we know tells that MacDonald’s wounds were superficial. But he had multiple bruises and puncture wounds, and two stab wounds, including one that collapsed his lung — a serious injury that left him falling in and out of consciouness. The popular story says there was no evidence of intruders. But there was, including wax drippings (MacDonald insisted that one of the intruders carried a candle), fibers, and hairs that did not belong to the household or family members. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2012 at 12:03 pm

Posted in Books, Government, Law, Military

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