A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, by Errol Morris (2013)

“A trial is not a science fair, but rather a magic show. A show based on appearances and logical fallacies and slight of hand. It isn’t about proof. It is about convincing the jury.” (A Wilderness of Error, p. 183)


The known facts of the Jeffrey MacDonald case are grim. In the middle of the night on February 17, 1970, the Fort Bragg police arrive at the house of Jeffrey MacDonald to find that his wife and daughters have been brutally murdered in their beds (“brutally” barely begins to describe it; Jeff’s wife, who was pregnant, had been beaten, had her arms broken and skull fractured, and been stabbed many times in her arms, chest and neck, by two different weapons). Jeff, who telephoned for help, had himself been injured, suffering from multiple stab wounds and a punctured lung. Four weapons were found about the premises (two knives, an ice-pick, and a club), and the word “PIG” was written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom.

Although not initially a suspect, MacDonald was soon arrested for the murder of his family and put on trial. Because he was in the military (an army physician in a Green Beret unit), this was a military tribunal, a so-called Article 32 hearing, to determine if the case should be taken to a court martial. The judge soon dismissed the case, saying that the charges were not true.  Nearly ten years later, however, a federal court again charged MacDonald with the murders. This was not considered double jeopardy, since the first proceedings were not a proper trial. Despite the factors which led to MacDonald’s initial exoneration, most notably the total lack of motive, and the criminal investigation unit’s atrocious procedural errors – including failure to investigate and/or document potentially suspects and extensive contamination of the crime scene – this time MacDonald was convicted. Although he has spent time in and out of jail in the intervening years, he remains in prison today. And despite the possibility of parole should he repent, MacDonald has doggedly maintained his innocence.

Before reading this book, I had never heard of the Jeffrey MacDonald case. I am a huge fan of Errol Morris, but I had initially avoided reading this one, at least partly due to many negative reviews on Amazon. When I heard it described as the best true crime book ever written, however, I had to investigate for myself. I would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment, and would also rank it as the best book I read in 2015. Not only is the book itself beautiful, the story is gripping, and Morris’ telling provokes endless questioning, not just about what happened, but about the nature of truth, evidence, and memory.

It’s easy to understand Morris’ interest in this material. As an ex-private investigator, he has had a long-standing curiosity about murderers and psychopaths. More than that, however, this case presents ample opportunity for investigation into the epistemological issues that fascinate Morris most, something that will be familiar to anyone who has read Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography. The overriding concern is with the facts of what took place on the night of the murder. This focus naturally gives rise to an obsession with evidence, not just physical evidence, but people’s documentation, memories, and recollections of the night in question.

Putting his investigator’s skills to work, Morris does an admirable job of tracking down a large number of the individuals involved in the original investigations and court proceedings. Given that the murders took place over 40 years ago, however, many were unreachable, or simply dead. In more than one case, Morris misses his opportunity to interview people before they died by only a matter of months. Among those who were reachable, however, a surprising number seem to be utterly convinced that they know the truth of the matter, coming down strongly on either one side or the other.

To be fair, Morris’ book is far from a complete account of the MacDonald case, and it is often frustrating that there is not more detail given about particular pieces of evidence or how events transpired. So, it is possible that there are compelling reasons for believing one thing or another that we are not given access to in this book. It seems more plausible, however, that once people are persuaded to an initial position, they are then very hard to dissuade from that position. Particularly for those who played an active role in the case, it is probably psychologically necessary, on some level, to adamantly believe in the guilt or innocence of Jeff MacDonald.

MacDonald’s story has remained the same over the years, and upon first hearing it, it hardly seems credible. In brief, he claims he awoke to find four people in his house – three men and one woman – dressed like hippies, saying “Kill the pigs, acid is groovy”. After a brief struggle, MacDonald was apparently knocked unconscious and awoke later to find his family dead. Perhaps the most implausible part of this is the idea that he would be left alive, while his wife and daughters were put to death. Moreover, the very idea of “hippy killers” might seem outrageous today. We must remember, however, that these events occurred in the wake of the Manson family murders, which followed a remarkably similar pattern. Just a month before, someone had broken into the house of one of MacDonald’s neighbours, and scrawled obscenities on the mirror in lipstick. If we take MacDonald’s story as truth, and assume that there were a group of people in the house that were on drugs, suddenly the incredible parts of the story start to seem much more plausible. For a proof of MacDonald’s guilt or innocence, however, we must depend not on hypothetical reconstructions, but on the evidence.

Reading the prosecution’s case, their presentation of what happened does seem damning. The blood stains, the fibres, the inconsistencies in MacDonald’s story, the lack of evidence of a struggle – it all seems to add up to a demolition of MacDonald’s credibility. We must remember, however, that this was only a partial presentation of the evidence, including the explicit manipulation of physical evidence, the suppression of potentially exculpatory statements, the lack of investigation or interrogation of potential suspects, and the contamination of the crime scene. To take one example, the prosecution repeatedly insists there was no evidence of intruders, and yet there were more than twenty officers, photographers, and so on in the crime scene before things were properly documented. So either those people left no evidence of their presence, and the point is moot, or they are simply assuming that whatever evidence of intrusion existed came from the officers and not the supposed murderers. Moreover, this also ignores the very real physical evidence of intruders (fibres and wax drippings which could not be sourced to the MacDonald home, as well as missing jewelry), none of which was presented at trial. When there are only two stories, and the facts are selected to fit one but not the other, that one will inevitably seem more persuasive. But this is very different from being able to see the full picture of the evidence and allowing us to decide for ourselves.

One of the most fascinating parts of Morris’ investigation is the insights it provides into human memory. Some of the people Morris interviews now hold positions that contradict things they said or did in the past, and watching them try to make sense of these discrepancies is one of the pleasures of reading this book. What’s truly amazing, however, is how early in the process this subtle manipulation of memory begins. Already, in MacDonald’s first interview with the military investigators (without a lawyer present), he begins to doubt his own memories and statements. The officers repeatedly assure him that they are not trying to “railroad” him, and aren’t trying to trick or influence him, and yet their questions are invariably leading. Here is MacDonald:

“You see that’s what’s happening now. You see, I’ve talked to — only two people know the whole story aside from you people. But in telling them some things sound funny after a while and I’m not sure whether — like at one time Ron Harrison, who got involved in this thing and was around all the time — he heard most of it and he asked me a couple things about it and I remember I told him that my mother said it wasn’t exactly what I had said. …And of course the newspaper had such a — they had me saying things that  — everyone said to me, “Well now they kept saying ‘hit him again’ ” and things like that. I’m not sure I ever heard that. I don’t think I ever said that.”

Memory is indeed critical for the case. By far the strangest part of the story is a woman named Helena Stoeckley. A resident of Fort Bragg who routinely acted as a police informant related to drug busts, she was interviewed by an officer the day after the murders because she matched the description given by MacDonald. She was noncommital, but the officer rounded her up along with the three people she said she was with the night before. The military police, however, never followed up with any of this, and they were all released without further questioning. This, by itself, could be easily dismissed, except that various statements have emerged over the years from individuals who saw her the night of the murders or acting strangely in the days following, in ways that seem potentially incriminating. More importantly, however, Stoeckley has repeatedly confessed over the years to having been in the MacDonald house the night of the murders and knowing the identity of the murderers. Although she was unwilling to make a confession about this when she finally took the stand at trial, saying she remembered nothing because she had been on drugs that night, many people have heard variations on her confession, including during multiple polygraph examinations.

Throughout MacDonald’s ordeal, whoever has been on the side of the prosecution has generally been successful in preventing the Stoeckley confessions from being used as evidence, typically because, as a known drug user, her statements are considered unreliable. When she admits during a polygraph exam to having been there, the interpretation is that she is “convinced, in her mind” that she was there; as Morris points out, that is a superfluous comment, as we can never expect anything more than that from a lie detector test. “All polygraphs are about things in the mind. They measure whether you, the subject, believe you are telling the truth. As such, they are belief detectors, not truth detectors.”

With so many documented statements made by Stoeckley over the years, Morris is driven to see if he can find some statement that would reveal unambiguously that she was there on the night of the murder, such as saying something that she could only know had she been there. But this of course depends not only on what she would have known on the night in question, but what she might have learned since then. In other words, if she made some statement about a rocking horse, it is then necessary to know what information about that rocking horse had been made public through any newspaper story that Stoeckley might have read. Far into the book it emerges that Stoeckley might even have answered the phone in MacDonald’s house on the night of the murders, in a way that meshes with the statement of a witness who mistakenly called the house, but of course the fingerprints were not properly taken, and phone records could not be used to verify this so many years after the fact. Even more remarkably, Morris presents evidence that one of the people Stoeckley was with that night also independently confessed to the crime, though in a less direct way. None of this, unfortunately, is quite the incontrovertible proof we would like to find to fully resolve this mystery.

As with so many aspects of this case, once one has decided upon a scenario, it is all too easy to interpret the facts as supporting that narrative. For example, Morris interviews Martin Lonky a forensic expert who worked with the military investigators. Lonky is sure MacDonald is guilty, and therefore, to him, the fact that MacDonald passed a lie detector test must mean he is a sociopath. “My degrees are not in psychology. But if he’s a sociopath, he doesn’t believe he did it. That’s the most important thing. And therefore his actions and his statements are coming from his heart of hearts. He doesn’t believe he did it. And that’s why he can pass a lie-detector test.” Even MacDonald’s wounds become evidence of one story or the other. If he had been stabbed by someone else, and then passed out, wouldn’t he have bled more? On the other hand, if he had stabbed himself in the chest, why would he have chosen such a dangerous spot to do so? Similarly with the blood evidence. By a remarkable coincidence, all four members of the family had different blood types. So if we assume that no one else was in the house, then it might be possible to reconstruct what happened (or at least eliminate certain possibilities) using this. But what if others were in the house? What if the forensics are poor? What if parts of the evidence is suppressed or explicitly manipulated?

Rex Beaber, a lawyer, clinical psychologist, and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, who was involved with the case nicely summarizes the feeling one has after reading this book:

“What’s frightening about cases like this – and I say this as somebody who doesn’t have a strong sense about whether he’s guilty or innocent – is that it ignores the principle of law that we’ll not convict a person of a crime if there is any reasonable doubt. It’s inconceivable to me that somebody doesn’t have reasonable doubt when the evidence is as thin as this and so completely lacking in some kind of explanation and motive. To me, this case represents a failure of the system. It happens more often in the most horrible cases: in a jury’s passion that somebody be punished, they often ignore the reasonable-doubt standard to ensure that somebody is punished, rather than live with the feeling that such a horror went unpunished.”

The title from Morris’ book comes from Edgar Allen Poe, and indeed, this tale has something of the feeling of old-fashioned gothic horror about it. It is tempting to think that the truth of this case must be hiding somewhere in plain sight; unfortunately is seems likely that the truth will never be known. And as more time passes, things get ever more hopeless. In 1984, in the middle of an appeal, the crime scene (MacDonald’s house) was burned. As Morris explains,

“everything that wasn’t already locked up in a lab was incinerated, including the ceiling, interior walls, doors, windowsills, ledges, and hardwood floors. Was some piece of evidence that could have unraveled the entire mystery lost in that bonfire? Could the house itself have been interrogated? Could it have been forced to give up an answer?” 

In the end, Morris does not achieve what he did with The Thin Blue Line, namely, to prove a man’s innocence and have him exonerated, but he has undeniably produced a fascinating and thought-provoking study. Although we are left to speculate as to MacDonald’s ultimate guilt or innocence, Morris definitely presents an extremely compelling case (beyond all reasonable doubt I would say), that MacDonald did not receive a fair trial, and should not be in prison, if our justice system is to be anything close to fair and impartial. Indeed, one of the most frightening aspects of reading this book is seeing how badly justice can be miscarried even in a very high profile case, and thinking how awful it would be to be on trial for a crime one didn’t commit.

As you would expect, the book itself is a beautiful volume, complete with lovely illustrations. I must say I wanted more, but the nature of the material is such that there is no end to it, and Morris was probably smart to draw the line where he did.

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