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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Morris sucks you into the story and keeps you there, transfixed. He takes you through each piece — the crime scene, the evidence, the alternative suspects, the interviews, the transcripts — while breaking down the legal impact and pulling back over and over to stop and explain at each step what happened and why it mattered. Morris disentangles fact from fiction by holding each item up to the light of rationality and comparing statements made by each character with the evidence or a competing expert.

Morris thinks in images, patterns and pieces. He delves deep into the tangled weeds of tens of thousands of pages of court transcripts, police and forensic reports and patiently, meticulously guides readers through the maze of evidence. He carefully allows the prosecution to make its case in his pages — but he then digs deeper, peeling back layers of inconsistencies, illogical assumptions, unsound leaps and flat-out lies.

The book asks — and answers — the question: “What happens when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted — or is left uncollected at the crime scene — simply because it does not support the chosen narrative?”

“A Wilderness of Error” offers the rare possibility to reach well beyond those of us who are deeply mired in the work of wrongful convictions and into the wider world of folks who believe in social justice, who believe in our criminal justice system and who have no idea that our system convicts — and has sentenced to death — an astonishing number of innocent people with equally astonishing regularity. The police incompetence, prosecutorial misconduct, evidence misinterpretation, discredited “scientific” evidence, judicial bias and witness tampering are not unique to this case. They are routinely found in wrongful convictions in this country. According to the newly unveiled National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 962 documented exonerations as of today. The number grows weekly.

My wish for this new year is for this credible, rational thriller to spark a vibrant national conversation and full-scale teach-in on the alternative underworld of convicted innocents in the American criminal justice system. MacDonald was a white, educated, handsome, cocky Green Beret and doctor who got sucked into the Alice-in-Wonderland madness of a system gone haywire. He is by no means a poster child for the wrongfully convicted — he had everything going for him. The men and women whose cases are taken by innocence projects — organizations of attorneys or journalists who investigate possible wrongful convictions — do not. But they, too, get mired in that same narrative of guilt. They are largely poor and of color, and are often teenagers, with no one to tell their stories.

I read this book as a vibrant addition to the ongoing Jewish ritual rumination on justice. Morris’s work in general — and this latest work in particular — fits snugly into the tradition of wrestling with and challenging ideas. It reflects the Jewish obsession with questioning the very essence of everything — the habit of interrogating the questions, the questioners, the whole megillah. What’s that old saying? Ten Jews, 11 opinions? The Talmud itself is a book of questions, of what-ifs, of dialogue. It is a book to begin conversations and even arguments — a book to create and nourish an organic, ongoing, living, breathing relationship between the thinkers and the thoughts.

Alas, too many of us only dig into these big-ticket epistemological queries around this time of year, sparked by a rabbi’s sermon or maybe a prayer that resonates. Not Errol Morris. He’s always down on the philosophical mat, trying to pin down the Big Questions. What is justice? How do we know it? Do we know it when we see it? What isn’t it? Do we know it when we don’t see it? How do we prove something? What does it all mean?

Morris’s epilogue is the exactly the sermon I want to hear this High Holy Day season. “We may never be able to prove with absolute certainty that Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent,” Morris writes.

“But there are things we do know. We know that the trial was rigged in favor of the prosecution …. Officials from the military, the FBI, and the Department of Justice pursued an unethical vendetta against Jeffrey MacDonald; that evidence was lost, misinterpreted, and willfully ignored. We know that Jeffrey MacDonald was railroaded. I have asked myself: What does this case mean? What is it about? Is it about the failure of our institutions? Of our courts, prosecutors, and investigators? Is it about how we trick ourselves into believing that we know something? That we have proved something when we have proved nothing? Is it about how we muddy the waters rather than seek the truth? About how we fail to examine evidence (or even look for evidence) that could lead us to the truth? About how we pick one narrative rather than another — for whatever reason — and the rest becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

To all that, I can only say “Amen.”

Pamela Cytrynbaum is the executive director of The Chicago Innocence Project and the former director of the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project. She is a regular blogger for Teaching Tolerance, the educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.


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