A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald

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Overview

Academy Award–winning filmmaker Errol Morris examines one of the most notorious and mysterious murder trials of the twentieth century

In this profoundly original meditation on truth and the justice system, Errol Morris—a former private detective and director of The Thin Blue Line—delves deeply into the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. MacDonald, whose pregnant wife and two young daughters were brutally murdered in 1970, was convicted of the killings in 1979 and remains in...

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A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald

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Overview

Academy Award–winning filmmaker Errol Morris examines one of the most notorious and mysterious murder trials of the twentieth century

In this profoundly original meditation on truth and the justice system, Errol Morris—a former private detective and director of The Thin Blue Line—delves deeply into the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. MacDonald, whose pregnant wife and two young daughters were brutally murdered in 1970, was convicted of the killings in 1979 and remains in prison today. The culmination of an investigation spanning over twenty years and a masterly reinvention of the true-crime thriller, A Wilderness of Error is a shocking book because it shows that everything we have been told about the case is deeply unreliable and that crucial elements of case against MacDonald are simply not true.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Bristling with charts, graphs, illustrations, snatches of court transcripts and the author's own Q. and A.'s with key players, it is the literary equivalent of one of his movies. It's a rough-hewed documentary master class…A Wilderness of Error upends nearly everything you think you know about these killings and their aftermath. Watching Mr. Morris wade into this thicket of material is like watching an aggrieved parent walk into a teenager's fetid, clothes- and Doritos-strewed bedroom and neatly sort and disinfect until the place shines. He will leave you 85 percent certain that Mr. MacDonald is innocent. He will leave you 100 percent certain he did not get a fair trial.
—Dwight Garner
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Even readers who begin this mesmerizing and disturbing book convinced of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald's guilt in the 1970 murders of his wife and young daughters in Fort Bragg, North Carolina will emerge with serious doubts about his culpability and the fairness of his trial. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Morris, whose 1988 film The Thin Blue Line led to the freedom of a man wrongfully accused of murder, is well-equipped to sort through the reams of evidence amassed over the years; yet despite the volume of testimony and physical evidence, he makes crystal-clear how mistakes made by the responding military officers contaminated the crime scene, and how fact-finders were repeatedly misled about the circumstances of the killings. While the brutality of the murders is disturbing, what is even more troubling-and what Morris makes distressingly evident-is the possibility that MacDonald "had been made to witness the savage deaths of his family and then was wrongfully convicted for their murders." Morris has been researching the case for over two decades, and the result of his inquiries is a thorough and compelling argument for the incarcerated doctor's innocence, a sobering look at the labyrinthine justice system, and a feat of investigative perseverance. Illus.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

From the Publisher
"Bound to be in demand." —-Library Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143123699
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 1/22/2014
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 593,053
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Errol Morris is a world-renowned filmmaker whose body of work includes A Brief History of Time, The Thin Blue Line, and the Academy Award winner The Fog of War. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius award” and the author of Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Since 1985, I have had a long, twisting journey with the Jeffrey

    Since 1985, I have had a long, twisting journey with the Jeffrey MacDonald case. It started with Fatal Vision, the miniseries, and progressed to Fatal Vision, the book about the case penned by Joe McGinniss. I followed those over time with The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Fatal Justice by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost and Scales of Justice by Christina Masewicz. I visited various websites and read anything I could find about the case. Throughout the years my views on the case changed dramatically. I penned my changing thoughts here (at my book review site). In short, I believed MacDonald was guilty but something was off with the case, then there was a great chance that MacDonald was innocent and wrongly imprisoned and, finally, that MacDonald was guilty of the horrible crimes he was convicted of.

    When I heard that filmmaker Errol Morris (he of the documentary The Thin Blue Line, which helped to free Randall Dale Adams, wrongly convicted of the murder of a Dallas police officer) had written a book in which he takes on the government's case against MacDonald, I knew that I had to read it.

    I will admit that I went into this book deadset on MacDonald's guilt and mentally telling myself that no matter what Mr. Morris wrote in his book, I simply couldn't believe that MacDonald was anything less than guilty. Perhaps not exactly fair to Mr. Morris but given that the murders happened in 1970, MacDonald was convicted in 1979 and so much has been written about the case, both for and against MacDonald, it's not surprising.

    If you are not well read or versed on the MacDonald case, A Wilderness of Error is probably not the place to start. Not because it's not well written - - because it is and Mr. Morris does a fine job of supporting his statements. But the book reads for someone already familiar with the background of the murders and the lengthy process in which MacDonald was brought to justice as the background of the crimes themselves is not nearly in-depth as the follow-up.

    Mr. Morris excels at bringing to life Helena Stoeckley, the young hippie girl bearing a remarkable resemblance to one of the intruders MacDonald described to the military police following the murders, and who was to be the smoking gun for the defense during the 1979 trial. As Ms. Stoeckley herself was deceased by the time Mr. Morris began research for his book, he did interview family members, neighbors and people who knew and associated with her. She is presented both as a police informant living in Fayetteville's Haymount neighborhood (and hippie district), who partook in drugs and witchcraft and the sad, depleted woman MacDonald and his attorneys hung their hopes on.

    Mr. Morris also shone a bright and unforgiving light on Colette MacDonald's mother and stepfather Mildred and Freddy Kassab. The Kassabs were presented in McGinniss' Fatal Vision as the martyred and heartsick family members who made it their life mission to bring their daughter's and granddaughters' killer to justice. Freddy Kassab, in particular, was the tenacious bulldog who grabbed ahold of Jeffrey MacDonald and wouldn't let go, joining forces with the government's prosecutors to see that his former son-in-law had his freedom taken away. The information that Mr. Morris outlined in his book, and supported by long-time friends of the family, is vastly different than the majority of what I have read and it did give me pause.

    Mr. Morris didn't appear to have a lot of communications with MacDonald himself and that, to me, is a shortcoming with the book. What small amount of communication he did have was saved for the conclusion of the book. He is honest in his presentation - - that MacDonald is unlikable, annoying and quite full of himself but a good doctor and some of his off-putting qualities make him a good surgeon.

    Perhaps Mr. Morris' strongest argument for MacDonald lies within the weakness of the government's supposed shoe-in evidence. He takes on their pajama top experiment and invalidates their results, as well as their assertion that saran hair fibers found in a hairbrush at the crime scene were not those of one of the MacDonald children's dolls but had come from a wig. Helena Stoeckley owned a wig of the same color as those hairs found and during one of her confessions, claimed to be wearing that wig at the time of the crimes.

    Despite my assertions that I would not be moved by Mr. Morris' writing, I was. He made a clear and concise argument that Jeffrey MacDonald did not receive a fair trial - - from Judge Dupree's relationship with the original prosecutor (his son-in-law) to inaccurate government tests that were presented as gospel to threats of prosecution given to Helena Stoeckley should she testify to being present at the crime scene and vouching for MacDonald's innocence - - and there was no shortage of reasonable doubt.

    A Wilderness of Error did not change my stance on MacDonald guilt or innocence, however well written it was. And here is why. I can throw out all the evidence - - the blood evidence, the pajama top, the bedsheets, the fibers, Helena Stoeckley's confessions and recanting of same . . . but what gets me is the difference between MacDonald's injuries and those inflicted on his family. If a group of drug addicted hippies wanted to get even with MacDonald for ratting them out or not giving them drugs or whatever their reasoning may have been, wouldn't they have taken the largest threat - - MacDonald - - and eliminated him first? Why attack a pregnant woman and two little girls - - a 5 year old and a 2 year old - - before even addressing MacDonald? Why crush the skulls of a woman and a 5 year old and leave MacDonald with one bruise on his head? A bruise with no broken skin? Why would MacDonald have one clean cut to his chest when his wife and children suffered many? One daughter had over thirty stab wounds. Does it make sense to massacre two children who could never identify one intruder and leave behind the one person who could?

    None of that makes sense to me and taking that into consideration, I can't believe MacDonald's story about hippie intruders. What I can believe though is that he didn't get a fair trial and guilty or innocent, everyone deserves a fair trial. So while I think he's guilty, he was wrongfully convicted and that's just not right.

    For those of you out there that have a similar obsession with the MacDonald case, I would not hesitate to recommend A Wilderness of Error. If you appreciate true crime and are unfamiliar with the case, I would suggest some background research through one of the handful of sites devoted to the case on the Internet or reading Fatal Vision, Fatal Journey or Scales of Justice. (The Journalist and the Murderer is about Joe McGinniss' role in his relationship with MacDonald and resulting lawsuit and not about the case itself).

    Very well done, Mr. Morris. You presented us with a well-written, thought provoking book and one that may expose the many missteps of the government to the public.

    ©Psychotic State Book Reviews, 2012

    33 out of 42 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2012

    !

    To lhedgepath. Why do you feel the need to write a mini book on a simple review. Yiu reveal plot points that ruin it for others who may wish to read the book. Just state a simple opinion about if u liked it or not and stop trying ti rewrite the book. That is rude and irritating.

    9 out of 37 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 17, 2012

    No sense in reading the book now!

    Thanks to LHedgpeth, I no longer have to waste money on the purchase of the book. I read it through her review!!!!

    6 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2012

    Long and Repetitive

    This book, while interesting, is way too long. The author goes over the same material again and again. I read 143 of 500+ pages, and by then I was bored stiff. Unless you are extremely interested in Jeffery MacDonald's cases and trials, I suggest you not waste your time or money.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Inspired Writing and Headstrong

    A Wilder­ness of Error : The Tri­als of Jef­frey Mac­Don­ald by Errol Mor­ris is a true-crime non-fiction book about the Mac­Don­ald Trial. Jef­frey Mac­Don­ald, for­mer Cap­tain in the Green Berets, a med­ical doc­tor, Prince­ton grad­u­ate, father and hus­band was con­victed for mur­der­ing his fam­ily in 1970.

    17 Feb­ru­ary, 1970 – a bru­tal mur­der takes place in the early hours of the morn­ing in Fort Bragg, NC. When the police arrive they find a preg­nant wife and two young daugh­ters bru­tally mur­dered. The man of the house, Jef­fery Mac­Don­ald is harmed but not dead and accuses drug crazed hip­pies in the crime.

    Errol Mor­ris has a career full of inter­est­ing and thought pro­vok­ing movies includ­ing “The Thin Blue Line” which freed Ran­dall Dale Adams from after being wrong­fully con­victed for mur­der and sen­tenced for life, as well as the acad­emy award win­ning doc­u­men­tary “The Fog of War”.

    I had a chance to revisit “The Fog of War” in the past few weeks, know­ing I would be read­ing Mr. Mor­ris’ book, the doc­u­men­tary has very lit­tle nar­ra­tion and relies on inter­views, but some­how is curi­ously inter­est­ing. In his book, A Wilder­ness of Error, Mr. Mor­ris employs much of the same style, a lot of inter­est­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion and inter­views with lit­tle nar­ra­tion in between.

    The premise is an inter­est­ing one, unlike many of the most famous drama­ti­za­tions of the tragedy (includ­ing 60 min­utes seg­ments and the book & 1983 TV movie “Fatal Vision”), Mr. Mor­ris does not set out to prove or deny Mr. MacDonald’s inno­cence of guilt, but rather that he has not got­ten a fair trial. At the time of this post, Jef­fery Mac­Don­ald is still in jail and for over 40 years has been fil­ing appeals.

    The book will leave the reader lean­ing towards the belief that Mac­Don­ald is inno­cent, but absolutely sure that even if he isn’t, he did not get a fair trial. At some point I had to put the book down (only to pick it up a few moments later) because it made me phys­i­cally ill and dis­gusted. The amount of fab­ri­ca­tions, sup­pres­sion of evi­dence and flawed analy­sis are astound­ing and very saddening.

    Much like oth­ers of its kind I read, A Wilder­ness of Error is scary. The gov­ern­ment decided that some­one was guilty, together with an overzeal­ous pros­e­cu­tor and will­ing judge they did every­thing they can, includ­ing refrain jus­tice and hide evi­dence, in order to stick some­one in jail and damned be the Constitution.

    What I absolutely loved about this book is that Mr. Mor­ris does not take pris­on­ers, play favorites or gives lee­way to his fel­low reporters and authors. He refutes Janet Malcolm’s book “The Jour­nal­ist and the Mur­derer” which exam­ines this case, tears apart Stone Philips inter­views about the case (t

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2012

    Lhedgepeth

    Thank you for the review. I also have been fascinated w this case, only i think hes innocent. I completely understand your review and it makes me want to read it now too. Thanks again

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2013

    DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY!!!  Go to one of the pro-jeff websites to

    DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY!!! 
    Go to one of the pro-jeff websites to read this garbage instead.

    Yes, the forensic evidence collection was sloppy. There is still enough proof of jeff's guilt and no real evidence to support his crazy story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    Great book

    A perfect counterpoint to Joe McGinniss' Fatal Vision. The story presents compelling evidence to support Jeffrey MacDonald's story. I would highly recommend the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2013

    Unforgetable and so disturbing

    This book has made a huge impact on my thinking. I too have read all of the other books and this one should upset and disturb anyone who cares about our justice system. It seems to me that for the people involved with this that it is less about justice than it is about self validation of past actions. Thank you Errol Morris for writing this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2013

    Gripping, Unsettling, and a Terrific Read

    A page-turner of a thriller in its own right, this book provides a radical new take on a famous case most of us thought settled long ago. Morris's explorations are unsettling and disturbing as he demonstrates the fragility of the prosecution's case and raises important questions about the relationship between justice, journalism, and truth. Highest recommendation: one of the best books of the year.

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  • Posted October 12, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Highly Recommended!

    The MacDonald case is fascinating for many reasons. Errol Morris describes just how much evidence there is to show that intruders committed the crimes, which the Government prosecution suppressed. It is distressing that a government prosecution team would suppress any evidence, let alone the amount they supressed in this murder case.

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    Posted October 5, 2012

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    Posted April 19, 2013

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    Posted June 18, 2013

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    Posted September 9, 2012

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    Posted September 30, 2012

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