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

A tale of three journalists and a supposed murderer

Jeffery MacDonald.

When James Holmes opened fire on a sold-out movie theater in Colorado this summer, killing 12 people, the press went wild. Reporters made appeals to the Colorado chief district judge to reverse his gag order on court documents, and leaked things like college recommendation letters. The Daily News tried to find parallels between Holmes and the Batman comic books by citing a single page from a 1986 issue where a man fires a gun in a pornographic movie theater. The only valuable insight this kind of bait provides is that nothing is too tasteless for the media, so long as people are clicking. Journalists—to say nothing of their editors, and the owners of media outlets—love their mass murderers and serial killers, and America loves reading about them, from the cold-blooded massacre of the Clutter family in Kansas to the state-sanctioned execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

In recent history, no convicted killer has inspired as much controversy as Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret doctor who was found guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in the early morning hours of February 17, 1970 in their home at Fort Bragg, N.C. To this day, after spending the better part of 30 years in prison, MacDonald says that the murders were committed by a group of drug-addled hippies, one of whom allegedly held a candle and chanted, “Kill the pigs. Acid is groovy.” The word “PIG” was written in blood on the headboard of the bed in the master bedroom. MacDonald was 26 at the time, an attractive young man with a bright future and seemingly no motive for killing his family.

The case became a media sensation. MacDonald was first investigated by the military in an Article 32 hearing, which dropped all charges in October, 1970, concluding that he should not be prosecuted. Two months later, he was a guest on the Dick Cavett Show and complained about the military’s treatment of him. The investigation was reopened and, in 1975, MacDonald was indicted on three counts of murder. He was found guilty of one count of murder in the first degree and two counts of murder in the second degree. All of this inspired the 1983 bestseller, Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, who became a member of MacDonald’s defense team during the trial and had exclusive access to the story “provided that the essential integrity of [his] life story is maintained.” Mr. McGinniss’s book cast MacDonald, who was attempting to appeal his case, as a sociopath who killed his family with no remorse. MacDonald sued Mr. McGinniss for fraud, saying he was misled into believing the book would be a positive defense of his character. This second trial inspired another book, 1990’s The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm. The McGinniss libel case was settled out of court. MacDonald is still in prison. A new book, A Wilderness of Error by filmmaker Errol Morris, compiles the whole sordid history of MacDonald and his trials—and makes a case for his innocence.

MacDonald has not had too many defenders, but Mr. Morris makes a compelling argument. He shows how the crime scene was destroyed by Army CIDs—they tampered with evidence and failed to take proper fingerprints, and an ambulance driver even ran off with MacDonald’s wallet—how the subsequent trial devolved into a messy display of botched science experiments with the crime scene and blocked testimony, and how the popularity of Fatal Vision—even after its integrity was taken down several levels by Ms. Malcolm—meant that “it didn’t matter whether MacDonald was guilty or innocent or whether he had been treated unfairly by the courts. Now everyone—virtually everyone—believed he was guilty.”

The 1989 edition of Fatal Vision was amended with a long and defensive epilogue in which Mr. McGinniss writes that he feels “compelled to set the record straight” about Ms. Malcolm’s “distortions and outright misstatements of fact.” His rebuttal begins with the mostly ridiculous claim that his initial newspaper column about MacDonald in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner—which ran all of 800 words—was not, in fact, “sufficiently flattering as to lull him into a false sense of security.” MacDonald, in other words, should have known better from the start.

But like Mr. McGinniss, I’m not convinced that the Fatal Vision author’s subsequent relationship with MacDonald was, as Ms. Malcolm puts it, a “grotesquely magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter,” if only because, to me, there is nothing “normal” about Mr. McGinniss agreeing to grant MacDonald a minority share of the proceeds of the book in exchange for complete and exclusive access to the doctor’s life and story. Mr. McGinniss’s distaste for Ms. Malcolm’s project is, of course, understandable, but Mr. Morris, who consistently voices his frustrations with Ms. Malcolm in his book’s final third, seems to take issue with The Journalist and the Murderer simply because it is not A Wilderness of Error. Both Mr. McGinniss and Mr. Morris feel the journalist has, in Mr. McGinniss’s words, a “moral obligation to the truth,” a highly romantic notion that the more cynical Ms. Malcolm refutes, claiming instead that journalism is more a game of “seduction” between the writer and his subject.

The burden of proof, though, is at the heart of Mr. Morris’s first major attempt at a nonfiction book, as it has been for many years in his films. (A series of articles first published in the New York Times about photography, similarly concerned with the dubious authenticity of perceived fact, was published in 2011.) Including endnotes, this work clocks in at over 500 pages. It is less written than it is edited together. Mr. Morris, who was a private investigator before becoming a director, takes a documentarian’s eye to his text, mostly using his own first-person narration as a thread to weave together interviews he has conducted, as well as letters and a variety of transcripts and court documents that he has gathered, some of which the prosecution had blocked MacDonald’s defense team from making use of. His investigative skills are the book’s strength, but his philosophizing interjections about the nature of truth often weaken his evidence. At one point he quotes a passage from Alice in Wonderland about the King’s messenger “being punished … and the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday” as if it were a court document. He also equates the diagnosis of psychopathy to “the controls of the jet in Breaking the Sound Barrier,” which makes so little sense even after Morris tries to explain it that I won’t bother. And yet, that he pieces all of this together into a readable—if only slightly messy—document is no small achievement; at times, it feels like reading a script for one of his finest films.

But the idea that Mr. Morris is driven by a search for “truth” is problematic, given his subject. “We’ll never know for sure if MacDonald is guilty or innocent” is a kind of refrain in this book, and the frequent insertions of theories, from the people involved in the case and from Mr. Morris himself, are not so different methodologically from those of Mr. McGinniss, whose book centers around the bizarre, and vaguely unsubstantiated, claim that MacDonald killed his family because of a temporary psychosis brought on by taking too many diet pills—which is at least as ridiculous-sounding as blaming the murders on a cult of hippies.

Mr. Morris, however, provides ample evidence that the hippie theory has validity. He tracks down the serial confessions made by Helena Stoeckley, a drug addict who lived in nearby Fayetteville, to being in the MacDonald house that night, peaking on mescaline and LSD, and holding a candle while a group of people assaulted MacDonald and then murdered his family. The court did not allow this testimony to be brought before the jury, dismissing Stoeckley’s claims as “unreliable” because of her drug use. Mr. Morris argues that her confessions were censored because the judge, Franklin T.  Dupree, was, in the words of MacDonald’s defense attorney Bernard Segal, “a typical right-wing judicial appointment” and “a racist” who may not have liked Mr. Segal because he was Jewish, and was convinced of MacDonald’s guilt even before the trial began.

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