Errol Morris Probes Notorious Murder

Will Thriller Prompt Debate About Wrongly Convicted?

The Public’s Defender: Author and filmmaker Morris explores the thin line between guilt and innocence.
Nubar Alexanian
The Public’s Defender: Author and filmmaker Morris explores the thin line between guilt and innocence.

By Pamela Cytrynbaum

Published September 21, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
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● A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
By Errol Morris
The Penguin Press, 544 pages, $29.95

Between the alternative narratives (and universes) presented by the recent political conventions and the cycle of soul searching/forgiveness/redemption of the High Holy Days, it is the perfect moment to reflect on the human and systemic failures laid bare by Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in his spectacular new book, “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald.”

Read Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s interview with Errol Morris on the Arty Semite blog.

The filmmaker proves a compelling Virgil, guiding readers through America’s darkest inferno as he follows the descent of an innocent into our criminal justice system. Morris is a masterful storyteller and relentless investigator who thinks and writes viscerally and visually. His documentaries include “The Fog of War” and “The Thin Blue Line,” the latter of which led to the release of Texas death row inmate Randall Adams. The author brings all his obsessive investigative and filmmaking skills to bear in the more than 500 pages he devotes to painstakingly reinvestigating and deconstructing the case against Jeffrey MacDonald.

You remember: It was 1970, in Fort Bragg, N.C., just after the Manson murders had set the nation on edge. MacDonald was the Ivy League-educated Army doctor and Green Beret who said a group of hippies (one a blond-haired woman with a floppy hat) fatally stabbed and beat his pregnant wife and two young daughters. He, too, had been stabbed. The military cleared him and he moved on, living well as a California emergency room doctor, until the government came calling again — this time with what Morris calls a vendetta to convict MacDonald of murdering his family.

Morris describes a crime scene corrupted by trampling neighbors and onlookers; a Marine staff sergeant who got sick and left partway through the job of photographing his first murder scene; a pro-prosecution judge whose former son-in-law was involved in pursuing MacDonald after the military cleared him; bizarre misinterpretations of evidence; prosecutorial misconduct (threatening a witness, suppression of evidence and preventing defense access to evidence), and a discredited FBI forensic analyst who regularly testified about hair follicles or fibers that magically appeared in cases “with no eyewitness, no confession and no motive.”

Did he do it?

“The MacDonald case has stubbornly resisted resolution,” Morris writes. “But I do know that MacDonald should never have been convicted of these crimes. And that much of the evidence points to his factual innocence. I am repulsed by the fabrication of a case from incomplete knowledge, faulty analysis, and the suppression of evidence. Repulsed and disgusted. Whether MacDonald is innocent or guilty, the case is a terrible miscarriage of justice.”

Morris argues that MacDonald was convicted not by evidence but by “a convincing story,” a narrative including only the facts that served the story. That story was then “enshrined in a bestselling book (“Fatal Vision” by Joe McGinniss),” in television interviews, in an “incredibly popular TV miniseries,” and in Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer.” Essentially, “Jeffrey MacDonald was condemned to the story that had been created around him.” Now, two prisons hold the former Green Beret — one of beliefs, the other of bars.


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