Prying Open a Cold Case
DID Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army doctor and Green Beret stationed at Fort Bragg, stab and bludgeon his family to death early on the morning of Feb. 17, 1970?
Over the last four decades many courts and more than a few journalists have concluded that he did, but for Errol Morris that settled nothing. Best known as a documentary filmmaker whose investigation and film “The Thin Blue Line” freed a man convicted of murder, Mr. Morris started tugging on the loose ends of the MacDonald case over a decade ago. After unsuccessfully shopping a film about the tortured legal case, he decided to write a book instead.
“A Wilderness of Error,” which will be released Tuesday by Penguin Press, is a reinvestigation of a case that many thought they knew, written by an obsessive who never leaves well enough alone. With his book Mr. Morris is reopening a lurid, deep wound that preoccupied much of the nation for years after the crime took place.
No wonder. A handsome military doctor, Ivy League educated with a brilliant career and the kind of family that decorates a Christmas card, Mr. MacDonald made the short trip from victim of a hateful crime that rubbed out his family to a man who was inducted into the pantheon of American evildoers.
Ever since, Mr. MacDonald, 68, has asserted his innocence and right to appeal at every turn, but no court has ever concluded that he is right. That’s where Mr. Morris comes in.
The case began when Mr. MacDonald called the military police at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, to his home and told them that a band of marauding hippies, including a woman in a floppy hat, beat and stabbed his family while chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” Mr. MacDonald’s pregnant wife and daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristin, 2, died in the violence, and Mr. MacDonald was injured but survived.
Coming, as it did, in the months after the Manson murders and during a period of civil unrest and burgeoning drug use, the crime created widespread suspicion and worry. But soon after the murders Army investigators began to focus on Mr. MacDonald, believing that he had killed his family in a rage and staged the scene to mimic the Manson murders.
Mr. MacDonald eventually found himself not only convicted and sentenced but also rendered as a calculating sociopath in “Fatal Vision,” a 1983 book by Joe McGinniss that has sold over 2.5 million copies, and in a matching NBC mini-series, which was watched by an average of around 30 million people on each of its two nights. Without the car chase and acquittal, he was the O. J. of his time.
The MacDonald story, populated by disheveled hippies and ramrod military types, generated a legal controversy that never seemed to be settled and the tantalizing possibility that an imprisoned man might be innocent. Through the decades there have been books, magazine investigations and endless reconsiderations. The case’s lurid details fed public fascination, and the coverage sparked a further debate about the nature and morality of journalism itself.
“A Wilderness of Error” may not exonerate him, but it makes a forceful argument that his conviction was riddled with shortcomings. The case will be the subject of a new hearing on Sept. 17 in United States District Court in Wilmington, N.C., after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last spring that the lower court had failed to consider the entire body of evidence.