Shades of Grey: Did Jeffrey MacDonald Really Kill His Family?

A tale of three journalists and a supposed murderer

Both Fatal Vision and A Wilderness of Error are equally confident in their antithetical theories, but Mr. Morris is less insidious than Mr. McGinniss, at least allowing for the possibility that Stoeckley was simply overly suggestible—as the prosecutors claimed—and that the presence of a woman matching her description near the MacDonald house in the early-morning hours of February 17 was a coincidence, albeit a highly unlikely one. But, Mr. Morris writes, “At what point does a coincidence become something more than a coincidence? At what point does a coincidence become evidence?”

It is likely that no one will ever prove the veracity of Stoeckley’s confessions, which, over the years, she made and then took back repeatedly. She died of complications from hepatitis and cirrhosis in 1983, having made one final confession. It was taped for an episode of 60 Minutes, but left on the cutting-room floor. (The interview is available on YouTube and is highly disturbing.) But even if he can’t validate Stoeckley’s claims, Mr. Morris does manage to make a concise argument that her testimony, and the testimony of the numerous people she confessed to, should have been heard by the jury.

And hence the other problem with Mr. Morris’s philosophical claims about truth: his book is itself a convincing study of the difficulty of arriving at an objective truth in a flawed, subjective system. He approached this paradox most effectively in 1988’s The Thin Blue Line. That film, labeled “nonfiction” rather than “documentary” upon its release for its fairly unprecedented (and surprisingly tasteful) use of re-enactments, was about the trial of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in Dallas County after an embarrassingly flawed investigation. Mr. Morris does not editorialize, there is no narration and the interview subjects simply speak at the camera; the director manages to prove Adams’s innocence through these interviews alone, and that ultimately leads to a confession from the real murderer. Adams was acquitted about a year after the film’s release.

If he made the truth look easy in The Thin Blue Line, A Wilderness of Error is far more tortured. Mr. Morris writes that his original intentions were to make a film about the MacDonald case that “would be a version of Rashomon … with competing narrators and different points of view” but that it was nixed by a studio executive who believed unequivocally that “the man killed his family.”

Because it is so difficult to approach the subject of MacDonald without some kind of bias, Mr. Morris’s book is admirable and necessary, but as a writer he falls short of the effortless acumen of his documentaries. His prose, though well-intentioned, can be frustrating to read: “A trial is not a science fair, but rather a magic show,” he writes. “A show based on appearances and logical fallacies and sleight of hand. It isn’t about proof. It is about convincing the jury.” Later, he contradicts himself in a critique of Ms. Malcolm’s book: “The only way you can learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence is from this mountain of evidence” produced by trial transcripts, affidavits, motions and reports. “What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the pursuit of truth. This applies to the law, as well.”

Ms. Malcolm’s own words are a decent rejoinder to these inconsistencies: “Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.” Mr. Morris, at least, is only guilty of the former; Mr. McGinniss, with his more opinionated, novelistic and sensational investigation, is guilty of all three. Penguin, Mr. Morris’s publisher, is releasing a new edition of Fatal Vision a few days before A Wilderness of Error. For now, readers can continue to choose which truth they want to believe.

mmiller@observer