A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonaldby Errol Morris
Academy Award-winning filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris examines the nature of evidence and proof in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case
Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, called the police for help. When the officers arrived at his home they/i>… See more details below
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Academy Award-winning filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris examines the nature of evidence and proof in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case
Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, called the police for help. When the officers arrived at his home they found the bloody and battered bodies of MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters. The word “pig” was written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom. As MacDonald was being loaded into the ambulance, he accused a band of drug-crazed hippies of the crime.
So began one of the most notorious and mysterious murder cases of the twentieth century. Jeffrey MacDonald was finally convicted in 1979 and remains in prison today. Since then a number of bestselling books—including Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision and Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer—and a blockbuster television miniseries have told their versions of the MacDonald case and what it all means.
Errol Morris has been investigating the MacDonald case for over twenty years. A Wilderness of Error is the culmination of his efforts. It is a shocking book, because it shows us that almost everything we have been told about the case is deeply unreliable, and crucial elements of the case against MacDonald simply are not true. It is a masterful reinvention of the true-crime thriller, a book that pierces the haze of myth surrounding these murders with the sort of brilliant light that can only be produced by years of dogged and careful investigation and hard, lucid thinking.
By this book’s end, we know several things: that there are two very different narratives we can create about what happened at 544 Castle Drive, and that the one that led to the conviction and imprisonment for life of this man for butchering his wife and two young daughters is almost certainly wrong. Along the way Morris poses bracing questions about the nature of proof, criminal justice, and the media, showing us how MacDonald has been condemned, not only to prison, but to the stories that have been created around him.
In this profoundly original meditation on truth and justice, Errol Morris reopens one of America’s most famous cases and forces us to confront the unimaginable. Morris has spent his career unsettling our complacent assumptions that we know what we’re looking at, that the stories we tell ourselves are true. This book is his finest and most important achievement to date.
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.
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Read an Excerpt
A WILDERNESS OF ERROR
Also by Errol Morris
Believing Is Seeing
To my mother and stepfather, Cinnabelle and Benjamin Esterman, who always encouraged me to write. And to my mother-in-law Julia Sheehan, and aunt, Elizabeth McColl, who first introduced me to Fayetteville.
I would wish them to seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson”
People Associated with the Case
THE MACDONALD FAMILY
Jeffrey Robert MacDonald (1943– )
Born in Jamaica, New York. The husband of Colette Stevenson and the father of Kimberley and Kristen MacDonald. Attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, but left after three years for Northwestern University Medical School. After entering the army in 1969, he was assigned to the Special Forces as a group surgeon. Accused of the murder of his family in April 1970. All charges were dismissed by December 1970.
† Colette Stevenson MacDonald (1943–1970)
The wife of Jeffrey MacDonald and the mother of Kimberley and Kristen. Left Skidmore to marry Jeffrey MacDonald and start a family.
† Kimberley Kathryn MacDonald (1964–1970)
The older daughter of Jeffrey and Colette MacDonald.
† Kristen Jean MacDonald (1967–1970)
The younger daughter of the MacDonalds.
† Dorothy “Perry” MacDonald (1919–1991)
Jeffrey MacDonald’s mother.
† Mildred Stevenson Kassab (1916–1994)
Colette MacDonald’s mother. After the suicide of her first husband, married Alfred Kassab.
† Alfred G. “Freddy” Kassab (1921–1991)
Colette MacDonald’s stepfather. The protagonist of the book Fatal Vision and the TV movie adaptation.
Robert “Bob” Stevenson (1939– )
Colette’s older brother. Now a pastor’s assistant.
Helen Fell (1938– )
A close friend of Dorothy MacDonald.
HELENA STOECKLEY (FAMILY, ASSOCIATES, AND WITNESSES)
† Helena Werle Stoeckley Davis (1952–1983)
Graduated from Terry Sanford High School. Confessed to witnessing the MacDonald murders. Found dead of acute bronchopneumonia, complicated by cirrhosis, on January 31, 1983.
† Clarence F. Stoeckley (1920–2002)
Helena Stoeckley’s father, retired a lieutenant colonel.
† Helena Werle Stoeckley (1920–2009)
Helena Stoeckley’s mother.
Eugene “Gene” Stoeckley (1959– )
Helena Stoeckley’s younger brother. Obtained an affidavit from his mother detailing Helena’s deathbed confession.
Ernest Leroy Davis (1957– )
Helena Stoeckley’s husband. Now serving an eighty-year prison sentence for criminal sexual conduct in the Tyger River Correctional Institution in Enoree, South Carolina.
† Gregory “Greg” Mitchell (1950–1982)
Helena Stoeckley’s boyfriend and an Army private at the time of the murders. Named in her confessions. A Vietnam veteran.
† Shelby Don Harris (1948–2008)
An acquaintance of Helena Stoeckley. Named in her confessions. An Army sergeant and a Vietnam veteran.
Dwight E. Smith (1946– )
An acquaintance of Helena Stoeckley. Named in her confessions. A veteran and drug counselor in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
† Cathy Perry Williams (1950–2006)
An acquaintance of Helena Stoeckley. Accused of multiple stabbings around Fayetteville in 1970. Diagnosed with schizophrenia. Confessed to the murders to the FBI in 1984.
William “Ed” Posey (1949– )
A laundry deliveryman. Lived at 1106 Clark Street, Fayetteville, next door to Helena Stoeckley, in 1970, and gave the first report of her existence to the defense in 1970. Testified at the 1979 trial, in the absence of the jury. Recently suffered a stroke.
Jane McCampbell Zillioux Graham-Bailey (1935– )
An artist who worked with Helena Stoeckley in Nashville in 1970. Witness to one of her confessions. Testified at the 1979 trial.
Charles “Red” Underhill (1938– )
A music promoter and an amateur expert on crime and American history. A neighbor of Helena Stoeckley in Nashville in 1970. Witness to one of her confessions. Testified at the 1979 trial. A Tea Party candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in 2010.
THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIVE DIVISION
† Franz “Joe” Grebner (1925–1986)
The investigator for the CID at Fort Bragg and a chief warrant officer, three, at the time of the murders.
Robert B. “Bob” Shaw
Criminal investigator for the CID on Fort Bragg and a chief warrant officer, one, at the time of the murders.
William F. “Bill” Ivory (1939– )
Investigator on duty and a specialist seven at the time of the murders, and the first CID agent on the scene. Inducted into the CID Hall of Fame in 2007.
† Hilyard O. Medlin (1923–1986)
A master sergeant and a latent fingerprint examiner at the CID laboratory in Fort Gordon, Georgia, from 1963 to 1971.
† Peter Edmund Kearns (1934–2007)
A USACIDA (United States Army Criminal Investigation Division Agency) investigator whoconducted the posthearing investigation and prepared the investigative report regardingFreddy Kassab’s allegations of CID misconduct and the CID reinvestigation of the case at large.
Jack G. Pruett (1925– )
The USACIDA investigator who conducted the posthearing investigation into Freddy Kassab’s allegations of CID misconduct and the CID reinvestigation of the case.
† Richard J. Mahon (1936–2004)
The USACIDA investigator who conducted the posthearing investigation into Helena Stoeckley’s involvement in the crimes.
Robert A. Brisentine, Jr. (1927– )
A polygraph expert with the USACIDA who examined the key figures in the MacDonald case. Winner of the American Polygraph Association’s Leonarde Keeler Award in 1989 for long and distinguished service to the polygraph profession.
THE MILITARY POLICE
Kenneth Mica (1947– )
A specialist four in the 503rd Military Police Battalion at Fort Bragg at the time of the murders. Lives in Aquebogue, New York.
Joseph L. Paulk (1944– )
A lieutenant in Company C, 503rd Military Police Battalion, who was present at the scene of the crime.
Robert M. Murphy (1916– )
The special agent in charge of the FBI’s Charlotte office at the time of the murders.
Raymond “Butch” Madden, Jr. (1942–2012)
A special agent assigned to the Raleigh office of the FBI. First involved in the MacDonald case in August 1980, reinvestigating the case during the appeals process.
THE DEFENSE ATTORNEYS
† Bernard “Bernie” L. Segal (1930–2011)
A civil rights attorney from Philadelphia, and later a professor of law at Golden Gate University in San Franscisco. Represented Jeffrey MacDonald at his Article 32 hearing.
Wade Smith (1937– )
A prominent defense attorney based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Attended University of North Carolina Law School with James Blackburn. Represented MacDonald during the 1979 trial as co-counsel and Blackburn when he was indicted in 1993.
Michael Malley (1943– )
An attorney from San Antonio. Jeffrey MacDonald’s freshman roommate at Princeton University, and later a member of his defense team.
† Dennis Eisman (1940–1991)
An attorney and Segal’s assistant during the Article 32 hearing in 1970.
Wendy Rouder (1942– )
An aide to Bernie Segal in charge of taking care of Helena Stoeckley during the MacDonald trial in 1979.
Harvey A. Silverglate (1942– )
An attorney, writer, and civil rights advocate based in Boston. MacDonald’s appellate attorney beginning in 1989. Argued MacDonald’s case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. Formerly a partner at the firm Silverglate & Good, now a consultant.
Andrew “Andy” Good (1946– )
An appellate attorney based in Boston. Represented MacDonald beginning in 1989. A partner at the firm Good & Cormier.
Philip G. Cormier (1961– )
An appellate attorney based in Boston. MacDonald’s appellate attorney beginning in 1989. Argued MacDonald’s case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. A partner at the firm Good & Cormier.
Gordon Widenhouse (1954– )
A North Carolina appellate attorney specializing in post-conviction. In 2011, he took over MacDonald’s appeal process and represented him at the 2012 evidentiary hearing.
Clifford L. Somers (1940– )
A captain in the office of the Staff Judge Advocate, and chief government counsel at the Article 32 investigation.
† Victor Woerheide (1909–1977)
The chief Justice Department prosecutor at the grand jury that indicted Jeffrey MacDonald in 1975.
George M. Anderson (1921– )
The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina from 1977 to 1980. Replaced by James Blackburn in 1980.
Brian M. Murtagh (1946– )
A former CID Command JAG officer and later assistant U.S. attorney. One of the prosecutors at Jeffrey MacDonald’s 1979 trial.
James L. Blackburn (1938– )
An assistant U.S. attorney and one of the prosecutors at Jeffrey MacDonald’s 1979 trial. Disbarred in 1993 for ethical violations.
Jack B. Crawley, Jr. (1944– )
An assistant U.S. attorney and a supporting member of the prosecution team in 1979.
Hammond A. Beale (1942– )
Colonel Rock’s legal advisor at the Article 32 hearing. Now a lawyer in private practice.
Richard C. Cahn (1932– )
An attorney based in Huntington, New York, who was hired by the Kassabs to pursue anindictment of MacDonald.
Gary Bostwick (1941– )
An attorney based in California who represented MacDonald in his 1987 civil suit of JoeMcGinniss. Appears in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer.
Daniel Kornstein (1947– )
An attorney based in New York who represented Joe McGinniss in the 1987 civil trial. Appearsin Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer.
Jerry Leonard (1945– )
An attorney based in Raleigh, North Carolina, who was asked by Judge Dupree to representStoeckley from August 20 to August 23, 1979.
Warren V. Rock (1919– )
The colonel assigned as the investigating officer at the 1970 Article 32 investigation.
† Algernon Butler (1905–1978)
The U.S. district court judge who convened the grand jury that indicted MacDonald.
† Franklin T. Dupree (1913–1995)
The district court judge who oversaw MacDonald’s 1979 trial and subsequent appeals.
† Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. (1920–2000)
A federal judge who served on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals between 1979 and 2000. Wrote a concurring opinion on the MacDonald case in 1982.
James C. Fox (1928– )
A senior federal judge serving at the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Janice S. Glisson (1924– )
A forensic chemist and later chief of the serology section at the CID laboratory at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Conducted preliminary analysis of blood and fiber evidence from the MacDonald crime scene.
Dillard O. Browning IV (1924– )
A forensic chemist at the CID laboratory at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and later at the laboratory at Camp Zama, Japan. Conducted preliminary examination of hairs, fibers, paints, beeswax, and wood from the MacDonald crime scene.
Martin Lonky (1944– )
A forensic expert based in Southern California who was brought in to review physical evidence in the CID reinvestigation of the case.
† Paul Stombaugh (1926–2002)
An examiner in the Microscopic Analysis Unit of the FBI laboratory in Washington from 1960 to 1976. Conducted reexamination of evidence from the MacDonald crime, beginning in 1971. Thereafter the director of the Police Service Bureau in Greenville, South Carolina.
Dr. John I. Thornton (1941– )
An emeritus professor of forensic science at the University of California at Berkeley. A defense expert for the MacDonald case at the 1979 trial and a consultant through 1982.
Dr. Rex J. Beaber (1950– )
A psychologist, attorney, and assistant professor of medicine at the Medical School of the University of California at Los Angeles. Conducted psychological examination of Helena Stoeckley in 1980 at the behest of Ted Gunderson.
Kimberly “Kim” Murga (1972– )
A forensic investigator and an expert on DNA analysis. Worked at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland. Identified the remains of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Conducted the first round of DNA testing of evidence from the MacDonald house in 2008.
THE PSYCHIATRISTS AND PSYCHOLOGISTS
Dr. Robert L. “Bob” Sadoff (1936– )
A forensic psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Former president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies in Social-Legal Psychiatry. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald in 1970. Testified at the Article 32 hearing and at the grand jury.
Dr. James L. Mack (1936– )
A forensic psychologist and a partner of Dr. Robert Sadoff. Conducted an examination of Jeffrey MacDonald with Dr. Sadoff in 1970, and a reexamination in the summer of 1979.
† Dr. James A. Brussel (1905–1982)
A psychiatrist and criminologist. Interviewed George Metesky, the “mad bomber.” Author of Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald on August 13, 1979.
Dr. Seymour L. Halleck (1929– )
A psychiatrist and professor at the University of North Carolina. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald in July 1979.
Dr. Hirsch Lazaar Silverman (1915– )
A clinical and forensic psychologist and psychotherapist. Poet and veteran of World War II. Emeritus professor at Seton Hall University. Examined Jeffrey MacDonald with James Brussel on August 13, 1979.
THE POLICE AND DETECTIVES
† Prince Everette Beasley (1925–1996)
A detective in the Fayetteville Police Department and the Interagency Narcotics Squad. Testified at the 1979 trial.
James T. “Jim” Gaddis (1943– )
A patrolman with the Nashville Police Department. On special assignment in 1971. Worked with Helena Stoeckley, an informant during that time. Testified at the 1979 trial.
† Theodore L. “Ted” Gunderson (1948–2011)
Once the special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of the FBI, then a private investigator. Obtained confessions from Helena Stoeckley.
† Raymond “Ray” Shedlick (1930–1989)
The father of Ellen Dannelly. Detective in the New York City Police Department and deputy chief investigator for Nassau County District Attorney’s office. From 1983 on, a private investigator based in Durham, North Carolina. Retained by the MacDonald defense team in 1984.
Ellen Dannelly (1958– )
The daughter of Ray Shedlick and a private investigator.
† Jimmy B. Britt (1938–2008)
A U.S. marshal who escorted Helena Stoeckley during the 1979 trial. Gave an affidavit in 2005 declaring that Stoeckley had confessed in his presence twice during the trial, and that on the second occasion she had been threatened by James Blackburn.
† John Dolan Myers (1944–1995)
A private investigator hired by Wade Smith.
Joe McGinniss (1942– )
A journalist who first covered Jeffrey MacDonald in his column for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and worked with his defense team during the 1979 trial. Author of The Selling of the President 1968, The Rogue, and, in 1984, Fatal Vision, the first book on the MacDonald case.
† Jeffrey Elliot (1947–2008)
A professor of African American studies at North Carolina Central University and a journalist. Interviewed Jeffrey MacDonald for Playboy magazine and began a manuscript on the case.
Janet Malcolm (1934– )
A journalist and writer. Author of In the Freud Archives, The Crime of Sheila McGough, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and The Journalist and the Murderer, a book based on the relationship between Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald.
A documentary producer and investigator based in California. Producer of False Witness, a 1989 BBC documentary on the MacDonald case.
† Fred Bost (1926–2013)
A journalist based in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A veteran. One of the two authors of Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders.
† Jerry Allen Potter, Jr. (d. 2004) A writer and a journalist based in California. One of the two authors of Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders.
† = deceased
544 CASTLE DRIVE
I first saw 544 Castle Drive on a cold Christmas morning in 1991.
My wife, my son, and I had flown from Boston to Raleigh-Durham to join my mother-in-law and aunt Elizabeth, her older sister, in St. Pauls, North Carolina, a small town about twenty miles south of Fayetteville. There were hardly any grandchildren; our son, Hamilton, who was four years old, was the adored new addition to the family. I can’t remember whether it was the year of the train set or the year of the tricycle, but it was a perfect day.
Often on Christmas we would pick pecans at a nearby farm. You open them by holding two pecans in your hand so you can crack one against the other. It was a wonderful small-town world—the redbrick house with the glassed-in porch and rockers, the breakfast room that looked out on the garden. The green Spode china. The ribbons in the living room from unwrapped presents. We were a young and loving family.
My wife and I decided on a small excursion before Christmas dinner. She had wanted to get out of the house. The destination was more or less my idea. A short drive north on the old U.S. highway past Hope Mills (where my mother-in-law and aunt had been born) to Fayetteville, past a pygmy replica of the Eiffel Tower at the Bordeaux Shopping Center, and then on to Fort Bragg. In those days, Fort Bragg was an open base, easily accessible. It wasn’t hard to get around, and after consulting various road maps, we found it.
There we were, standing in the cold, looking at the attached home where Jeffrey MacDonald, a physician and Green Beret, had lived with his family until February 17, 1970. Early that morning MacDonald’s wife, Colette, and his two daughters—Kimberley, aged five, and Kristen, aged two—were brutally murdered there.
The MacDonald case has produced vast quantities of material. Some of this can be found on Web sites exclusively devoted to the case, some is in various law offices around the country—those of a dozen or so defense and appellate attorneys who have represented MacDonald over the years.
Somewhere in this material, I found a photograph of Jeffrey MacDonald, Colette, and Kimberley. I’m not sure when it was taken. It might have been before Kristen was born. It is Christmas. On the left, a tree covered in tinsel and surrounded by presents. On the right, a fireplace and mantel covered with decorations. Jeffrey is peeking in to the picture, just at the edge of frame, as if he’s trying to decide which present to open next. Kimberley, in a party dress with a white collar, is being handed a big blond doll by her mother. She looks thrilled. It’s a universal picture.
I had seen photographs of the house. The house the day after the story of the murders broke; the house in subsequent years, the windows covered by plywood. The house had been kept sealed from 1970 until 1984 in the event that it and its contents might be needed as evidence. But on the night of June 7, 1984, the contents were burned and then buried at the Fort Bragg landfill.
The government made a list of the property that had been destroyed:
Occasional dining room table w/4 chairs
Government knee hole desk
Push Lawn Mower
Everything that wasn’t already locked up in a lab was incinerated, including the ceilings, 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?
I have asked myself many times since that Christmas Day, why didn’t I plunge into the case then? It was shortly after I had finished The Thin Blue Line, the film based on my investigation of the Randall Dale Adams case—an investigation that had freed an innocent man from prison and had gotten a confession from the killer. I had struggled with that story for four years, only to be sued by the man I got out of prison. I told myself I didn’t want to become involved in another miscarriage-of-justice story. They’re difficult, perhaps too difficult. I didn’t want to go through the agony, the risk, a second time.
And yet this was a different kind of miscarriage of justice, different from what we normally envision as a miscarriage of justice. The MacDonald story does have familiar themes: suppressed evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, bumbling investigators, forensic mix-ups, and so on. But there are new and different themes as well, many involving the media. Books, late-night talk shows, and a TV miniseries.
There is something disturbing about the MacDonald case, something that has made me return to it again and again over the years. It wasn’t the brutality of the murders. I’ve interviewed my share of mass murderers, including Ed Gein and Edmund Kemper.2 I was afraid of something even more chilling—that MacDonald was innocent. That he had been made to witness the savage deaths of his family and then was wrongfully convicted for their murders. I wondered if people needed him to be guilty because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
It has been so long since I first became interested. I recently looked at my notes on what I had imagined doing with it, beginning in 1991. I am a filmmaker, so I first imagined it as a movie. I went to a variety of studio meetings. But the movie I wanted to make was nonstandard.
The pitch: there are two opposed theories of what happened at 544 Castle Drive on the morning of February 17, 1970. Neither had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet most Americans had only ever been presented with half a story, the half that held that MacDonald was definitely the killer, the half that was the basis for Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a bestselling book that was adapted into a TV miniseries.
So let me describe the movie that I imagined. I wanted to cast Gary Cole, who played MacDonald in the TV miniseries, and to use him for my own reenactments of the case. I would juxtapose these reenactments with scenes from the original TV movie. It would be a version of Rashomon, the film by Akira Kurosawa, with competing narrators and different points of view. Here, it would be by the same actor.
Such a movie, I thought, could open the case back up and show how critical evidence was ignored or suppressed, how the evidence that was introduced does not confirm MacDonald’s guilt. It could help people think and decide for themselves.
I stopped. The studio executive across the table clearly wanted to say no. She paused for a moment and said, “We can’t make that.” I asked why. “Because he’s guilty,” she said. “The man killed his family.” And I said, “But he might be innocent.” And she said, “No. He killed his family.”
It became a recurring theme. People thought they knew the story, but it was because they had read the book, or had seen the TV miniseries, or both. And the important question was lost under the heap: Had anyone proved that Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty of the murder of his family? Millions of words have been spoken, written, read—affidavits, court transcripts, lab reports, videotaped interviews, newspaper articles, and now even blogs—but what do they really tell us?
Jeffrey MacDonald ends his shift at Hamlet Hospital.
Colette MacDonald leaves for an evening class in child psychology at Fort Bragg’s North Carolina State University extension campus.
Jeffrey MacDonald puts his two-year-old daughter, Kristen, to bed.
After watching the TV show Laugh-In, Jeffrey MacDonald puts his five-
year-old daughter, Kimberley, to bed.
Helena Stoeckley asks to borrow her friend Margaret Mauney’s blue 1968 Chevrolet Corvair. She does not return it by 11:30 p.m., as promised.
12:00 a.m.–1:00 a.m.
Sometime in the middle of The Johnny Carson Show, Colette goes to bed, leaving Jeffrey alone. Shortly afterward, Kristen begins crying. Jeffrey goes to the kitchen, fixes a bottle of chocolate milk for her, and carries her and the bottle to her bedroom.
Jeffrey MacDonald telephones for help. The operator tells him he must phone the military police personally. He leaves the bedroom phone off the hook. The operator, now alarmed, calls the military police on another line.
Military police dispatcher puts out a “domestic disturbance in progress” call.
Circa 3:45 a.m.
En route to the “domestic disturbance” call, military policeman Kenneth Mica, from the passenger side of his jeep, sees a woman standing in the rain on the corner of Honeycutt Road and North Lucas, not far from the MacDonald residence.
Circa 3:50 a.m.
The first military policemen begin arriving at the scene. MPs Tevere, Mica, Williams, Duffy, Morris, Dickerson, and Paulk enter the apartment through the utility room after finding the front door locked and getting no response to their knocking. They find Colette MacDonald dead and Jeffrey MacDonald beside her, wounded. CID agents and MPs will continue arriving for the next few hours.
Circa 4:30 a.m.
Jeffrey MacDonald arrives by ambulance at Womack Army Hospital. He will receive treatment for a punctured lung, a head bruise, and multiple stab wounds.
Circa 4:35 a.m.
MPs begin a search of the MacDonald yard and find an ice pick and a club.
Helena Stoeckley is stopped by Detective Beasley because she matches the description of one of the assailants. Provost Marshal Robert Kriwanek tells UPI that Jeffrey MacDonald “enjoys the highest reputation in his unit and his neighborhood. He is not a suspect.”
Jeffrey MacDonald is interviewed by Franz Grebner, William Ivory, and Robert Shaw of the Fort Bragg CID office. The army announces that Jeffrey MacDonald is the chief suspect in the murders of his family.
Helena Stoeckley is hospitalized at Womack Army Hospital for drug addiction.
Colonel Warren V. Rock is assigned to be the investigating officer of the Article 32 hearing.
The first day of testimony at the Article 32 hearing.
Gregory Mitchell is discharged from Tampa General Hospital after eight days of methadone treatments for heroin withdrawal. He returns to North Carolina, now discharged from the army.
Colonel Rock releases his final report on the Article 32 hearing.
Helena Stoeckley is first mentioned publicly as a suspect in an article in the Fayetteville Observer.
A CONVINCING STORY
If God were suddenly condemned to live the life He has inflicted on men, He would kill Himself.
—Alexandre Dumas, “Pensées d’album”
It’s a nineteenth-century image. An island fortress, forbidding, dark, isolated, surrounded on all sides by cliffs and the sea. In Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo, that fortress is the Château d’If.
Dantès (who will become the Count of Monte Cristo) has been taken prisoner. In a rowboat, he is pleading with his captors. He demands to know where he is being taken.
“Unless you are blind, or have never been outside the harbor, you must know.”
“I do not.”
“Look round you then.”
Dantès rose and looked forward, when he saw rise within a hundred yards of him the black and frowning rock on which stands the Château d’If. This gloomy fortress, which has for more than three hundred years furnished food for so many wild legends, seemed to Dantès like a scaffold to a man condemned to death.
“The Château d’If,” he cried, “what are we going there for?”
The gendarme smiled.
“Surely, I am not going there to be imprisoned,” said Dantès; “it is a prison for high crimes of state and is used only for political prisoners. I have committed no crime.”1
Dantès, a fictional character, has been framed for a crime he did not commit.2 He has been convicted and condemned by Dumas, his creator, to a prison from which there is no possibility of escape.
And yet Dantès does escape. Under an improbable set of circumstances that have been told and retold and that have inspired countless other stories. Dumas’s tale is a variant of the theme “never say never.” There is no fortress, no prison from which there is no escape. We marvel at Dantès’s daring—the fake burial at sea, the swim to a nearby island, the construction of a new, fabulous identity. But we know that he has escaped only because Dumas wants it so. There can be no denying his innocence, just as there can be no thwarting his inexorable climb to a position of wealth, power, and influence. Dumas has written it that way.
In a fictional narrative all of the pieces can be engineered to fit perfectly together. But reality is different. We have to discover what is out there—what is real and what is merely a product of our imagination. A real Dantès could turn out to be a schemer, a rat, a traitor. There is in principle no limit to what we might find out about him, to what we might uncover. A real Dantès, like all real characters, is bottomless.3 Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, captured this in his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, written while he was in prison as a conscientious objector to World War I. Prisoners often have the time to reflect on the difference between artificially constructed stories and reality.
When you have taken account of all the feelings roused by Napoleon in writers and readers of history, you have not touched the actual man; but in the case of Hamlet you have come to the end of him. If no one thought about Hamlet, there would be nothing left of him; if no one had thought about Napoleon, he would have soon seen to it that some one did.4
It’s now the twenty-first century. And we have a model of a prison that makes the Château d’If pale in comparison. Not an imagined prison of stone and steel, but a real prison built out of newsprint and media. A prison of beliefs. You can escape from prison, but how do you escape from a convincing story? After enough repetitions, the facts come to serve the story and not the other way around. Like kudzu, suddenly the story is everywhere and impenetrable.
Take the case of Jeffrey MacDonald. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the story was endlessly retold in the media. It was enshrined in a bestselling book (Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss), in TV journalism (60 Minutes with Mike Wallace), and ultimately in an incredibly popular TV miniseries with the same title as the book, starring Karl Malden, Gary Cole, and Eva Marie Saint. The 60 Minutes segment on September 18, 1983, was the season premiere of the show. It was watched by thirty million people. The book appeared a couple of months later and in the following years sold five million copies. The two-part miniseries on NBC was the most popular miniseries of the year.
Eventually, the media frenzy ran its course, and the public was sated with the version of events it had been fed. The case was cracked. Punishment was administered. Justice had been done. And Jeffrey MacDonald was condemned to the story that had been created around him.
The MacDonald case was once well-known but is quickly lapsing into obscurity. MacDonald was on the fast track: Princeton for three years, medical school at Northwestern, a Green Beret captain at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He had been accepted for a residency in orthopedics at Yale to follow his service in the military. He was young, handsome, and married to his childhood sweetheart, Colette Stevenson. They had two young daughters—Kimberley, aged five, and Kristen, aged two. They dreamed of owning a farm in Connecticut; they had a bright and promising future.
That ended early in the morning on February 17, 1970. The MPs who had responded to a call for help had found Colette, who was four months pregnant with a son, lying on the floor of the master bedroom. She had been brutally beaten and stabbed. Both her arms had been broken, her skull had been fractured, and there were numerous knife stabs in her chest and neck as well as twenty-four of what appeared to be ice-pick stabs to her chest and arm. Kimberley and Kristen had been found dead in their beds. Kimberley had been stabbed and the right side of her head had been crushed in with a club. Kristen had been stabbed but there were no fractures. There was blood everywhere.
MacDonald told Ken Mica, one of the first MPs at the scene, “Check my kids. I can’t breathe.”5 Mica began to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. MacDonald was lapsing in and out of consciousness, but he described to Mica how he had been sleeping on the couch in the living room, then was awakened by screams. He saw people at the foot of the couch. Mica asked whom he had seen, and MacDonald described the assailants: “There were four of them. One blonde Caucasian female. She had a floppy hat on. Two male Caucasians, and one male Negro. Why did they do this?”
Mica told Lieutenant Joseph Paulk, one of his superiors, that he had seen a woman matching the description on his way to the MacDonald home. But no effort was made to pick her up.
Within minutes, MacDonald was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Womack Army Hospital, where he was treated for multiple bruises, an abrasion, small punctures, two stab wounds (one in his stomach and one on the right side of his chest), and a collapsed lung—a serious injury, but not a mortal one. Specialist Seventh Class William Ivory was the investigator on duty for the Fort Bragg office of the CID, the Criminal Investigation Division of the army. He arrived about fifteen minutes after the first MPs and took detailed notes on what he saw:
A woman, apparently dead, is lying on her back next to a green armchair. The upper portion of her body was extremely bloody. She was clad in what looks like pink pajama pants. Across her abdomen a towel or bath mat is laying. Across her chest was some blue cloth with a part of it trailing across the floor to her left side. This was later identified as a blue pajama [top].6
Ivory observed that Colette MacDonald had multiple head injuries and stab wounds in her chest and throat. And a large pool of blood was found under her head and shoulders. Nearby there was a pajama pocket, apparently torn from the pajama top. And then he found what appeared to be a murder weapon. “Between the green armchair & the dresser on the north wall there is observed a small wooden-handled knife. A close inspection revealed a blood stain near the point of the blade.”
Ivory went on to note that the living room was relatively tidy:
The furnishings on the west side of the living room did not appear to have been disturbed. A coffee table in the east side of the living room in front of a brown divan was tipped on its edge & under the edge there were numerous magazines the titles of which were not noted at that time. There is a plant with the roots in dirt a few feet east of the overturned table & a white plant pot sitting upright just north of the edge of the table.
About a half hour later, Robert Shaw, another CID investigator, arrived. His case file continues the story of the investigation. Three weapons were discovered just outside the back door of the house:
At 0642 hrs, a search of the outside of the quarters was conducted by this investigator. Found, located near the NE entrance to the quarters, a wooden club which appeared to bear blood stains and a paring knife with a brown handle; and an ice pick with a tan wood handle. The location of these items was sketched and the weapons were collected as evidence…The decision was made to collect this evidence…because the photographer on the scene had run out of film or bulbs or had some other tech problem and there would be an appreciable delay before he could take a picture.7
Ivory, a young and relatively inexperienced agent, quickly came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the crime scene.8 There were signs of a struggle, but perhaps not enough to suggest the presence of four intruders. It wasn’t long before Ivory and Shaw devised their own theory of the crime.
Narratives are ubiquitous. They are part of the way people see the world, part of the way people think. All of us. Myself included. Without them we would be overwhelmed with undigested, raw facts. But that doesn’t mean that all narratives are created equal. There is fiction, and there is nonfiction. And one of the differences between fiction and fact is that a fictional character is controlled by its creator. It has no reality off the page. There is no physical evidence that can prove that Edmond Dantès is guilty or innocent of a crime. Only what the writer—the author—ultimately decides.
But what happens when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted—or is left uncollected at the crime scene—simply because it does not support the chosen narrative? It is easy to confuse a search for revealing plot details with a search for evidence. But there is a difference. In one case, we are wandering through a landscape of words. In the other, we are in the physical world.
By all accounts, the crime scene was horrific. Three bloody and battered bodies. But one detail stood out. On the headboard in the master bedroom, the word “PIG” was written in blood, recalling—perhaps reenacting—the Manson family murders committed only months before. In a real sense, the story of the MacDonald murders begins in the summer of 1969 with Charles Manson and his drug-crazed followers.
LEE MARVIN IS AFRAID
On August 9, 1969, Sharon Tate (the wife of Roman Polanski and eight and a half months pregnant), Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Abigail Folger were shot and stabbed to death in Polanski’s Los Angeles home. Polanski was in Europe; otherwise he might have been a suspect in the case. The murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca followed the next day. At 10050 Cielo Drive, the Polanski home, the word “PIG” was written on the wall, as it later turned out, in Sharon Tate’s blood; at the LaBianca home, two phrases, “death to pigs” and “healter skelter.”1
At first the police believed the Tate and LaBianca murders were unrelated. They also were convinced that the murders were connected with a drug transaction gone awry. When evidence began to accumulate, the idea of “hippie killers” was explicitly rejected. One police sergeant simply said, “We know what’s behind these murders. They’re part of a big dope transaction.”2 Similarly, army investigators rejected the idea that “hippie killers” had broken into the house at 544 Castle Drive, had killed MacDonald’s family, and had written “PIG” on the headboard of the bed.
On February 17, the day of the murders, the headline in the Fayetteville Observer took the form of a question: “Victims of Hippie Cult? Officer’s Wife, Children Found Slain at Ft. Bragg.” Apparently, there was already skepticism about MacDonald’s account of what had happened the previous night.
The victims were identified as MacDonald’s wife Colette, 26, and the couple’s two daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen Jean, 2. Military authorities said MacDonald told them four people—three men and a woman—burst through the rear door of the home at approximately 4 a.m. chanting “LSD is great, LSD is great” while the family slept. One of the suspects, a blonde woman wearing a floppy hat and muddy white boots, was carrying a candle, according to a report from the investigating officers. Officers said another suspect was a Negro man wearing a jacket with sergeant stripes on the sleeves. The two other suspects were reportedly white men, they said.3
Just three days later, another question was raised about MacDonald’s account of what happened. A February 20 article in the New York Times reported that MacDonald had made a comment to a friend, Lieutenant Ronald Harrison, who was reading an Esquire magazine article about the Manson murders: “Isn’t that wild?”4
The cover story of the March 1970 issue of Esquire was “Evil Lurks in California. Lee Marvin Is Afraid.” Amid the ads for Pierre Cardin slacks and Canoe aftershave, there was page after page of various kinds of malefaction—an “acid goddess” who copulates with a swan, a chair that spouts blood, Black Masses, drugs and more drugs, and, of course, Manson and his family. From Harrison’s various comments to army investigators that were released to the press, it might be imagined that MacDonald was interested in some form of satanism or ritual abuse: “Isn’t that wild?” But a signed statement from Harrison, dated July 13, 1970, paints a more ambiguous picture. Although various prosecutors eventually portrayed MacDonald’s comment in a sinister light, Harrison was describing a happy home environment. The Brady Bunch, with a little witchcraft thrown in:
Since I was quoted in the newspapers as saying Jeff and I discussed the Sharon Tate murder case, I feel that I should explain the conversation in its entirety. On Saturday the 14th of February, I stopped by Jeff’s about 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening. Working clockwise, Colette was seated on the couch, Jeff in his chair, I in mine, Kim on the floor with her PJs on, watching TV from a bear-shaped sleeping bag. We were watching TV and discussing the programs, and I was playing with Kim on the floor. I noticed an Esquire magazine among others on the coffee table. On the cover it said “Evil Lurks in California. Lee Marvin Is Afraid.” I called attention to the magazine and picked it up, and Jeff said “Go ahead and read that—it’s wild!” So I opened the magazine and the first article I saw was one with illustrations of necklaces in the form of devil signs and people participating in a witchcraft ceremony. The next page had an article about a girl called Leda, and her black swan, which we discussed. I turned the page and saw an article on the Sharon Tate murders—we said it was terrible and that drug abusers were sick, disturbed people. I closed the magazine and placed it back on the table, and we continued watching TV. Altogether, the conversation about the entire series of articles lasted about 10 minutes out of a 2½–3 hour visit, and most of that ten minutes we discussed Leda and her black swan.5
What was the New York Times headline really saying? “Friend Says Captain Discussed Tate Killing”? Was there a suggestion that the articles in Esquire might have been the trigger for MacDonald’s homicidal rage? Was the reader being asked to wonder whether MacDonald had decided to create a Manson-like crime scene in order to deflect attention from himself? Harrison’s statement, taken five months after the murders, was never publicized in the newspapers.
I spoke with another friend of the MacDonalds, Carol Butner. Her husband was a surgeon with the Special Forces at Fort Bragg.
CAROL BUTNER: They were the first people we met in Fort Bragg. Kimmy was the older one and Kristy was the younger one. And Kimmy was very articulate. You could tell her mind was really quick. They loved their daddy. Man, he would come in and they’d go hang on him and grab his boots. They just adored him.
I don’t mean to say that I was over there all the time, but I would see the girls with him. And I remember I overheard a conversation Colette had at Thanksgiving on the phone. I was in the kitchen doing dishes with her or something. And she said, “Well, maybe you could tell by hearing my side of the conversation that I’m pregnant.” And I hadn’t known that until then. And I said, “Congratulations.” And she had had some problems with pregnancies and she said, “I’ve just got to watch some things.” And then sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I remember I was over there after lunch, and Jeff was going back to the office. And I remember he said to Kimmy and Kristy, “Now, you make Mommy put her feet up on the coffee table and don’t let her get up and do things because she needs to rest and she needs to keep her feet up.” And so he said, “Now, I’m counting on you to do that.” And they said, “Yes, Daddy.”
ERROL MORRIS: What a horribly sad story.
CAROL BUTNER: Oh, I know. It was such a horrible, horrible thing, and it happened not so long after the Sharon Tate murders. And people who hear about the case now want to think that there’s CSI and all this incredibly sophisticated evidentiary testing. And it just wasn’t the case then. And the times were so turbulent. America was completely divided. It’s hard for people to remember the ’70s. These guys, my husband and Jeff and others, being in Special Forces—they were real gung-ho America and military. And then there were all the antimilitary people, and it was a very contradictory and violent time.
Only ten weeks had elapsed between the first Manson arrests and the death of MacDonald’s family. News reports of the Manson murders were everywhere—in national and local newspapers, on the evening news, and in countless magazine articles. It was the crime of the century. It was something people read about and talked about. Wouldn’t it have been more remarkable if MacDonald had not read or talked about it? Given the notoriety of the Manson family, couldn’t a local group of drug-crazed hippies have been just as easily (or more easily) inspired by any of the countless news stories about the Manson murders?
Was MacDonald imitating Manson in order to implicate some imagined group of hippies? Or were there real hippie intruders in the house, also possibly imitating Manson?6 Can any piece of evidence flip back and forth? One moment it provides proof of one thing; the next moment, proof of its exact opposite?
BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER
I was twelve years old, watching and rewatching on television David Lean’s Breaking the Sound Barrier.1 The film was part of a program called Million Dollar Movie that played on Channel 9 (WWOR-TV) in the New York metropolitan area. Each program started with various shots of New York City at night set to Max Steiner’s theme music for Gone with the Wind and was repeated through the week. I saw Breaking the Sound Barrier many, many times. Maybe six or seven. It tells the story of how British pilots were the first to fly faster than the speed of sound—an apocryphal claim that did not particularly delight Chuck Yeager, the American pilot who actually did break the sound barrier. (It is a terrific film, despite its historical inaccuracies.)
The detail that still haunts me involves the movie’s central plot point—that the controls of an airplane are reversed as it passes through Mach 1, the speed of sound. Normally, a pilot pulls back on the stick to pull out of a dive. In David Lean’s film, we are told that at Mach 1, he has to do the exact opposite. We see shot after shot of a pilot approaching the sound barrier. The needle on the Machmeter twitching back and forth. Horrible buffeting and shaking. The forces are too great. The plane will be ripped apart. And then the pilot pulls back on the stick. His assumption is that the plane will pull out of its dive and soar into the air. But it doesn’t. It goes into a steeper dive and plunges into a field, leaving a huge, smoking crater.
In the movie, Philip Peel, a test pilot, and Will Sparks, an aeronautical engineer, debate what this means. Could the controls of an airplane be reversed at Mach 1?
PHILIP PEEL: Is it possible that at the speed of sound, the controls are reversed?
WILL SPARKS: At the speed of sound, Philip, anything is possible. Why?
PHILIP PEEL: During the war once I put a Spitfire into a flat-out dive. No very good reason, just youthful high spirits. I think now that I hit the sound barrier. I remember that the more I pulled on the stick, the harder the nose went down. The same thing happened this morning.
WILL SPARKS: You’re not supposed to do a high-mark number!
PHILIP PEEL: I know, but I did. Both times, I had the feeling that if I’d had the guts to put the stick forward, instead of pulling it back, I could have pulled out without having to lose speed. What do you think?
WILL SPARKS: There’s nothing in the books to suggest, for one second, anything so Edgar Allan Poe–ish.
PHILIP PEEL: Well, it depends on the books, now, doesn’t it, Will? There were books once that said the world was flat.
I have often thought that this idea—this breaking-the-sound-barrier idea, this Edgar Allan Poe–ish idea—captures a deep fear.2 What if our expectations trick us into a false sense of security? What if everything is the opposite of what it seems? That plus becomes minus, left becomes right, up becomes down, pull forward becomes push back? Like the turkey that fails to realize that today is different from all previous days. It’s Thanksgiving. The farmer is coming, but he isn’t bringing food. This time he is bringing an ax.
Twenty-five years later, I traveled to Dallas (on my birthday) to interview a psychiatrist, James Grigson, who had earned the nickname “Dr. Death” because of the unusual role he played in death penalty cases in Texas. The Dallas district attorneys encouraged psychiatrists to testify in capital murder trials. But not just any psychiatrists. They had two psychiatrists in mind, psychiatrists who had been prosecution stooges in the past, Dr. James Grigson and Dr. John Holbrook. The DA’s technique used to secure death sentences was crude but effective. Have the psychiatrists make predictions of future dangerousness based on a diagnosis of psychopathy. It was mumbo jumbo, but it worked. The psychiatrists and the diagnosis gave prosecutors the imprimatur of medical respectability and gave the jury the confidence to impose a death sentence.
Dr. Grigson was an affable presence. I rather liked him. In our first meeting, I had asked him about his private practice, and he ruefully admitted that it had suffered because of his newly minted notoriety. As he explained it, “Patients are a little reluctant to bare their souls to someone named ‘Dr. Death.’” But about sociopaths and psychopaths, Grigson was unequivocal. His mantra was, “They’re different from you and me.” At his instigation I started interviewing Texas inmates who had been sentenced to death. And so my initial meeting with Dr. Grigson eventually led to Randall Dale Adams, an inmate who had been convicted of killing a Dallas police officer, labeled a sociopath, and sentenced to death. It also led me into a two-year investigation of a terrible miscarriage of justice—an innocent man (Adams) was almost executed—and to my movie The Thin Blue Line, which helped overturn his conviction and led to his release from prison in 1989.
The case against Randall Dale Adams involved the cold-blooded murder of a Dallas police officer, Robert Wood. He was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop early in the morning of November 28, 1976. When a police officer is gunned down in cold blood, there is enormous pressure to solve the case and punish the perpetrator. This crime remained unsolved for nearly a month. No clues. Nothing.
And then information was presented to the police that David Harris, a sixteen-year-old kid from Vidor, Texas, a small town three hundred miles away, had boasted to his friends that he had “offed a pig in Dallas.” In custody, he blamed a hitchhiker, Randall Dale Adams, with whom he had spent the day prior to the killing. Adams was arrested and within a short amount of time was charged with the murder.
Harris told the police that he had been a passenger in the car and had witnessed the murder, but the crime had been committed by the driver. The alleged driver, Adams, had a bad excuse—although it happened to be the truth: He was home in bed at the time of the murder. At Adams’s 1977 trial Grigson testified as expected: that Adams was a sociopath who had killed and would “kill and kill again.” He was wrong on both counts. He also made an assessment that Harris had never killed and would never kill in the future. He was again wrong on both counts. I am fond of pointing out that on that occasion Dr. Grigson was 400 percent wrong. It’s difficult to do, but he did it. And he did it with the aid of the diagnosis of psychopathy.
Dr. Grigson provided answers to the questions: Why didn’t Randall Dale Adams change his physical appearance after the murder of the Dallas police officer? Why didn’t he leave town? Why did he go to work every day? Normally, these pieces of evidence would be mildly exculpatory, but certainly they wouldn’t count toward his guilt and against his innocence. Why didn’t he run? Dr. Grigson had a simple explanation. Because he is different from you or me, because he doesn’t have feelings like you or me. I also have a simple explanation. Because he hadn’t done anything. He saw no reason to run. He was innocent. But the minute Grigson described him as a psychopath, evidence that would count for Adams’s innocence suddenly counted for his guilt. Nothing has changed, except a diagnostic label—and suddenly, evidence that would normally be considered mildly exculpatory becomes strongly inculpatory.
To me, psychopathy is like the controls of the jet in Breaking the Sound Barrier. Everything is reversed.3 Why didn’t Adams change his appearance? Because he’s a stone-cold killer. Why didn’t he run? Because he doesn’t have feelings like you and me. A normal person would have run, but a psychopath was able to make decisions based on reason, not emotion. Doug Mulder, Adams’s prosecutor, summed it up in his elaborate notes taken in preparation for the trial. Mulder argued that Adams made a calculation—to run would be “the worst thing that he could do.”
Adams found himself heading inexorably toward “Old Sparky,” the Texas electric chair. I remember the first time I met him. This was long before I came to believe in his innocence. His voice at times had a singsong quality, as if he himself didn’t believe what he was saying. At other times, he was clearly angry. Contemplating the colossal run of misconceptions and lying that led to his conviction, who wouldn’t be angry? Later, I came to believe that so many people had questioned his veracity and his motives that he almost gave up pleading for his innocence. He assumed—correctly—that everybody thought he was lying and there was little point in claiming his innocence anymore. Is there a point where, if everyone thinks you’re lying, you come to believe that you’re lying, even when you’re telling the truth? People have an idea about how innocent prisoners should conduct themselves, but they probably have never had the experience of being sentenced to death (or life imprisonment) for a crime they did not commit.4
A SUBTLY CONSTRUCTED REFLEX MACHINE
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
—William Shakespeare, Othello
Very few people have heard of him, but Hervey Cleckley, a Georgia psychiatrist and Rhodes Scholar, wrote two of the most influential books of the twentieth century: The Three Faces of Eve and The Mask of Sanity. These books single-handedly created the myth of the multiple personality disorder and the myth of the psychopath—myths arguably as powerful as those created by Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).1 Psychopathy had been on my mind for years. It became an important theme in The Thin Blue Line, since the diagnosis had been instrumental in sending Randall Adams to death row. I wanted to talk to Cleckley, and I eventually called his home in Athens, Georgia, hoping for an interview. It was in early February 1984. He had died the week before.
The Mask of Sanity first appeared in 1941 and went through many subsequent editions.2 The fourth edition appeared in 1964. Joseph J. Michaels, in his review, captured the strange quality of the work—something between fantasy and reality. “The book is well written, with many references to the literature. The style suggests that of a novelist although portraying real characters in a dramatic, fictional manner.”3
Cleckley, indeed, provides his own bizarre case studies of psychopathic behavior. They consist of a series of absurd cautionary tales. He comes off as an eccentric, sex-obsessed uncle, like a family member who insists on bringing up unsavory and somewhat lascivious details at the dinner table. I might characterize the genre as the “pornuncular.” He goes from one lurid case history to another. One of my favorites involves a young man accused of the wanton murder of forty-four people. Cleckley quotes a Newsweek report on the trial:
At times he watched the proceedings with wide, staring eyes that showed no emotion; at other times, he read a book, The Mask of Sanity, by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. When the verdict was announced he bit his lower lip, but otherwise remained impassive. His wife, Gloria, 22, the mother of his two small children, broke down and sobbed hysterically.4
I couldn’t help myself. I had to find out something more about the actual case. It concerned John Gilbert Graham, whose mother was going to visit his sister in Alaska. He placed a bomb in her luggage, and then bought six life insurance policies from a vending machine at the airport. Total cost: $1.50. Total payout: $37,500. Forty-four people died when the plane exploded over a sugar-beet field in Colorado. And no, Graham didn’t collect. Not just because he had been caught. He had neglected to have his mother sign the policies.
Eventually Cleckley returns to his theme: the difference between disease and the feigning of disease. And the flip side, the difference between normalcy and the feigning of normalcy. It is this distinction that becomes central to Cleckley’s idea of the psychopath. He writes:
We are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly. This smoothly operating psychic apparatus reproduces consistently not only specimens of good human reasoning but also appropriate simulations of normal human emotion in response to nearly all the varied stimuli of life. So perfect is this reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him in a clinical setting can point out in scientific or objective terms why, or how, he is not real. And yet we eventually come to know or feel we know that reality, in the sense of full, healthy experiencing of life, is not here.5
Here it is. The psychopath as modern monster—the Terminator, the robot without feeling, the mechanical man devoid of a soul. And for Cleckley, this simulacrum, this golem, is indistinguishable from a real person. Even though “no one…can point out in scientific or objective terms why he is not real,” something is missing.
What could any defendant do to defeat the diagnosis of psychopathy, if the diagnosis is based not on disease but on the feigning of normalcy?
The answer: nothing.
There is a fundamental problem. Since phenomenologically a psychopath is no different from a normal person, how can we prove that a seemingly normal person is a psychopath? The problem gets much worse when the diagnosis is used to establish guilt. How do we know he did it? Because he’s a psychopath, and psychopaths do that sort of thing. He’s guilty because he’s a psychopath, and he’s a psychopath because he’s guilty. The underlying theory determines the interpretation of the evidence.
Cleckley’s idea, unlike reversing the controls in Breaking the Sound Barrier, can’t be tested.6 At the sound barrier, a pilot can find out whether the controls are reversed. When you pull forward on the stick, does the jet pull out of its dive, or does it pitch headfirst into the ground? Regardless of whether the story is false in the real world, in the narrative it can be tested. It is an empirical principle. Cleckley’s idea, on the other hand, cannot be tested.
The psychopath’s inner deviation from the normal impresses me as one subtly masked and abstruse. So, too, it has often seemed that interpersonal and environmental factors, if they contribute to the development of his disorder, are likely to be ones so disguised superficially as to appear of an opposite nature.
In the years since the publication of The Mask of Sanity, the concept of psychopathy has been changed along with its name. Psychopathy is now diagnosed alongside “sociopathy” or “antisocial personality disorder,” with few experts able to agree on whether they are naming the same thing, or two or three things that are slightly different.7 But the biggest change involves the idea that psychopathy involves predation, along with camouflage. The Handbook of Psychopathy, a recent compendium of articles on the subject, compares the psychopath to a spider:
Like Amyciaea lineatipes, a species of arachnid that mimics the physical appearance of ants on which it preys, psychopathic individuals readily gain the trust of others because they come across on initial contact as likable, adjusted, and well meaning. It is only through continued interaction and observation that the psychopath’s true, “darker” nature is revealed.8
The key word is “interaction.” It is not what a psychopath thinks so much as what a psychopath does. The mask of sanity—the false appearance of sanity—makes us think that we are being set up, lured, tricked by someone getting us to do his or her bidding. The smile masks a frown. The handshake conceals a weapon.
It is the psychopath as trickster, as confidence man.
This concept of psychopathy would eventually seal Jeffrey MacDonald’s fate.9 It explains the inexplicable: how someone who was so accomplished, so respected, could commit such a heinous crime. Psychopathy suggests that MacDonald was in disguise, hidden behind a mask of sanity, and that he was in reality “of an opposite nature.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE COFFEE TABLE
You’d better think less about us and what’s going to happen to you, and think a bit more about yourself. And stop making all this fuss about your sense of innocence; you don’t make such a bad impression, but with all this fuss you’re damaging it.
—Franz Kafka, The Trial
When Jeffrey MacDonald was brought in for questioning on April 6, 1970, less than two months after the murders, he was read his rights, declined to have an attorney present, and a tape recorder was turned on. The interview was conducted by CID chief investigator Franz Grebner, Agent William Ivory, and Agent Robert Shaw. Grebner first asked for MacDonald’s account of the events of February 17.
And I went to bed about—somewheres around two o’clock. I really don’t know; I was reading on the couch, and my little girl Kristy had gone into bed with my wife.
And I went in to go to bed, and the bed was wet. She had wet the bed on my side, so I brought her in her own room. And I don’t remember if I changed her or not, gave her a bottle and went out to the couch ’cause my bed was wet. And I went to sleep on the couch.
And then the next thing I know I heard some screaming, at least my wife; but I thought I heard Kimmie, my older daughter, screaming also. And I sat up. The kitchen light was on, and I saw some people at the foot of the bed.
So, I don’t know if I really said anything or I was getting ready to say something. This happened real fast. You know, when you talk about it, it sounds like it took forever; but it didn’t take forever.
And so, I sat up; and at first I thought it was—I just could see three people, and I don’t know if I—if I heard the girl first—or I think I saw her first. I think two of the men separated sort of at the end of my couch, and I keep—all I saw was some people really.
And this guy started walking down between the coffee table and the couch, and he raised something over his head and just sort of then—sort of all together—I just got a glance of this girl with kind of a light on her face. I don’t know if it was a flashlight or a candle, but it looked to me like she was holding something. And I just remember that my instinctive thought was that “she’s holding a candle. What the hell is she holding a candle for?”
But she said, before I was hit the first time, “Kill the pigs. Acid’s groovy.”
Now, that’s all—that’s all I think I heard before I was hit the first time, and the guy hit me in the head. So I was knocked back on the couch, and then I started struggling to get up, and I could hear it all then—Now I could—Maybe it’s really, you know—I don’t know if I was repeating to myself what she just said or if I kept hearing it, but I kept—I heard, you know, “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.”
And I started to struggle up; and I noticed three men now; and I think the girl was kind of behind them, either on the stairs or at the foot of the couch behind them. And the guy on my left was a colored man, and he hit me again; but at the same time, you know, I was kind of struggling. And these two men, I thought, were punching me at the same time. Then I—I remember thinking to myself that—see, I work out with the boxing gloves sometimes. I was then—and I kept—“Geeze, that guy throws a hell of a punch,” because he punched me in the chest, and I got this terrible pain in my chest.
And so, I was struggling, and I got hit on the shoulder or the side of the head again, and so I turned and I—and I grabbed this guy’s whatever it was. I thought it was a baseball bat at the time. And I had—I was holding it. I was kind of working up it to hold onto it.
Meanwhile, both these guys were kind of hitting me, and all this time I was hearing screams. That’s what I can’t figure out, so—let’s see, I was holding—so, I saw the—and all I got a glimpse was, was some stripes. I told you, I think, they were E6 stripes. There was one bottom rocker and it was an army jacket, and that man was a colored man, and the two men, other men, were white.
And I didn’t really notice too much about them. And so I kind of struggled, and I was kind of off-balance, ’cause I was still halfway on the couch and half off, and I was holding onto this thing. And I kept getting this pain, either in—you know, like sort of in my stomach, and he kept hitting me in the chest.
And so, I let go of the club; and I was grappling with him and I was holding his hand in my hand. And I saw, you know, a blade. I didn’t know what it was; I just saw something that looked like a blade at the time.
And so, then I concentrated on him. We were kind of struggling in the hallway right there at the end of the couch; and then really the next distinctive thing, I thought that—I thought that I noticed that—I saw some legs, you know, that—not covered—like I’d saw the top of some boots. And I thought that I saw knees as I was falling.
But it wasn’t what was in the papers that I saw white boots. I never saw white, muddy boots. I saw—saw some knees on the top of boots, and I told, I think, the investigators, I thought they were brown, as a matter of fact.
And the next thing I remember, though, was lying on the hallway floor, and I was freezing cold and it was very quiet. And my teeth were chattering, and I went down and—to the bedroom.1
The fact that MacDonald was alive, and his family dead, started the ball rolling. There was something funny about the living room, the scene of MacDonald’s fight with the hippie intruders. It was too tidy, too neat. When the CID detectives tried to reconcile what they had seen in the house with MacDonald’s account of what had happened, they became convinced that MacDonald was the murderer and that he had staged the crime scene to make it look like there had been intruders.
MacDonald was presented with a coffee table, a flowerpot, and a stack of magazines—as though they were smoking guns.
FRANZ GREBNER: I have been sitting here most of the morning not saying very much and just listening to your story, and I have been an investigator for a long time. And, if you were a PFC [private first class], an uneducated person, I might try to bring you in here and bluff you. But you are a very well educated man—doctor, Captain—and I’m going to be fair with you. But your story just doesn’t ring true. There’s too many discrepancies. For instance, take a look at this picture. Do you see anything odd about that scene?
JEFFREY MACDONALD: No.
FRANZ GREBNER: It is the first thing I saw when I came to the house that morning. Notice the flowerpot?
JEFFREY MACDONALD: It’s standing up.
FRANZ GREBNER: Uh-huh. Notice the magazines?
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Yeah.
FRANZ GREBNER: Notice the edge of the table right there?
JEFFREY MACDONALD: I don’t understand the significance of it.
FRANZ GREBNER: Okay. The lab technicians, myself, Mr. Ivory and Mr. Shaw and any number of other people have tipped that table over. It never lands like that. It is top-heavy and it goes all the way, even pushes the chair out of the way. The magazines don’t land under the leaning edge of the table. They land on the floor.
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Couldn’t this table have been pushed around in the struggle?
FRANZ GREBNER: It could have been, but it would have been upside down when it stopped. The plant and the pot always go straight out and they stay together in all instances.
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Well, what are you trying to say?
FRANZ GREBNER: That it is a staged scene.
JEFFREY MACDONALD: You mean that I staged the scene?
FRANZ GREBNER: That’s what I think.
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Do you think that I would stand the pot up if I staged the scene?
FRANZ GREBNER: Somebody stood it up like that.
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Well, I don’t see the reasoning behind that. You just told me I was college-educated and very intelligent.
FRANZ GREBNER: I believe you are.
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Well, why do you think I would—I don’t understand why you think that I would stage it that way if I was going to stage it.2
Grebner keeps returning to this argument: that MacDonald had tried to fake evidence of a struggle in his living room, but he had bungled the job. As far as the CID was concerned, the coffee table was fated to land supine—its legs in the air—and if it landed on its edge, MacDonald had to be responsible. The flowerpot was standing up, the plant and root-ball some distance away. If someone had knocked it over, why was it standing up? The inanimate objects in the room seemed collectively to point an accusatory finger at MacDonald.
Grebner and Ivory believed they could reconstruct MacDonald’s intentions simply by observing the configuration of the furniture in his living room. They believed they were offering proof of something. The living room scene frozen in time that morning was like an impossible figure in an optical illusion. It could not exist in the real world—unless MacDonald himself had created it.
Couldn’t there be a multitude of other explanations for the position of the coffee table, or any other seemingly sinister detail for that matter? Even if it couldn’t have possibly landed that way in a struggle, even if it had to be placed in that position, what did it ultimately show about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence?
The orderliness of the living room was taken as proof by the CID of MacDonald’s guilt—the flowerpot, the coffee table, the Valentine’s Day cards standing up on the china cabinet in the dining room. But if MacDonald had indeed staged the scene, wouldn’t he have done a better job? As MacDonald had said to the CID agents: “Do you think that I would stand the pot up if I staged the scene?”
The CID officers were suggesting that there were two MacDonalds. A MacDonald cunning enough to manufacture a crime scene, and a MacDonald too stupid to do it effectively.
MacDonald responded near the end of the interrogation:
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Jesus Christ, this is a nightmare. [Pause.] This is like Edgar Allan Poe. Wow! Apparently you don’t know much about my family and myself, I’ll tell you that, to come up with this conclusion.
ROBERT SHAW: What kind of man are you, Captain? You say we don’t know much about you. What kind of man are you?
JEFFREY MACDONALD: Well, I’m bright, aggressive, I work hard, and I had a terrific family, and I loved my wife very much, and this is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.
Shaw asked, “What kind of man are you?” But it was a rhetorical question. MacDonald’s protests meant nothing; they were expected. The CID detectives had already decided that MacDonald was the kind of man who could brutally murder his family and stage the scene, because they already believed—for whatever reason—that he was guilty. He had to be the kind of man who could do it, because they had already determined that he had done it.
On April 7, 1970, the announcement went out from Fort Bragg: Jeffrey MacDonald was the army’s prime suspect in the murder of his wife and two daughters.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
Michael Malley and Jeffrey MacDonald had been roommates at Princeton in the early 1960s. MacDonald was from Long Island; Malley, from San Antonio. They were not particularly friendly in college, and they parted ways early. MacDonald had been accepted at an accelerated program at Northwestern University Medical School and had left Princeton at the end of his junior year. Malley had graduated and gone on to Harvard Law School. He had joined ROTC there (this was unusual in the years of the Vietnam War) and had become a lawyer in the military and eventually one of MacDonald’s defense attorneys at Fort Bragg.
I called Malley.
MICHAEL MALLEY: I really was unprepared for how emotional it became. I had been in the army, I’d been a law clerk for a year for an appellate judge, and you don’t get any sense of personal involvement in the law that way. And then when I was at Fort Bliss, I worked lots of basically low-level criminal cases. I did a lot of AWOLs, but I did other things, too. So I kind of had a pretty good feeling for the military justice system, and that’s why I originally wrote to Jeff, to say, “Don’t talk to the CID, because you can’t trust them.” But it turned out he had already talked to them, and he babbled on and on and on, and he kind of hung his own noose that way. I was totally surprised when he wrote back, but we started corresponding. I told him I wanted to drive to Washington to check out job opportunities since I was going to have three or four weeks’ leave before I had to go to Vietnam, so I said, “I’ll stop in and see you.”
ERROL MORRIS: But you didn’t want to become part of the defense team.
MICHAEL MALLEY: I didn’t have much experience. I wasn’t a very experienced trial lawyer. Jeff said, “Well, if I were to request you as part of the defense team, would you agree?” And I said, “It wouldn’t be my job to say yes or no. It’s the army. They either send you off a little order, or they don’t.” The next thing I knew I had orders. So I was there, and I kind of didn’t really want to be there, because I felt—what could I contribute?
ERROL MORRIS: And Jeff’s civilian attorneys had already been hired.
MICHAEL MALLEY: Yes, one of Jeff’s mother’s friends had hired Bernie Segal and Denny Eisman. Bernie said to me, “Can you imagine Jeff doing this?” And I said, “No, absolutely not.” And he said, “Well, we’re going to have to convince the Article 32 officer of that. Go find all these people who know Jeff and can tell you what kind of person Jeff is.” So that was my job all summer. I went and found witnesses; I kind of convinced them to come down there, mostly at their own expense, because we couldn’t pay for much of that. And the two witnesses I found that truly terrified me were Freddy and Mildred Kassab [Colette MacDonald’s mother and stepfather]. I went to their house on Long Island, and it was a very nice house. Mildred was, even then, kind of spectral. She had heavy makeup, she was very…almost emaciated. But Freddy was voluble, because he drank a lot. I mean, he drank during the middle of the day as far as I could tell. And he talked all the time. They said, “Oh, we love Jeff. We’d do anything.” I said, “Fine.” I said, “Here’s what’s going to happen”—and I could not have been more prescient—I said, “We”—we being the lawyers—“are going to do everything we can to make sure that the government cannot prove its case. We are not going to try to prove that Jeff is innocent. We are going to try to prove that the government’s wrong. There’s a difference between not guilty and innocent.”
And I explained it in a very lawyerlike, academic way. And they listened to me. And after I finished this long discussion, they said, “He’s innocent.” Again, I said, “Whether he’s innocent or not is not the issue. The issue is, can the government prove he’s guilty? And we”—we being the lawyers—“think they cannot.”
Mildred was furious that I did not say, “He’s innocent.” And Freddy just babbled. And he started yelling, and he said, “He’s innocent.” And I said, “Okay, that’s how you feel and that’s how I feel. But that’s not what we’re going to do, because we may never, ever be able to prove he’s innocent. What we can do is prove he’s not guilty, or force the government to prove he’s guilty by putting them to the test.” It went right by them. And it’s gone by almost everybody I’ve ever talked to since, including Jeff, that there’s a difference between not guilty, which is a legal concept, and innocent, which is a fact. There’s only one person in the whole world who knows whether he’s truly innocent. That’s Jeff.
ERROL MORRIS: Is the issue the lack of physical evidence?
MICHAEL MALLEY: Yes. Whatever the physical evidence is, it’s all over the lot. And I even told Freddy and Mildred, “From a lawyer’s point of view, from what little we know, the crime scene was disturbed, the evidence gathering was done in a bad way.” The government’s case really is, as we were starting to believe, based solely on physical evidence. They had sent these CID goons all over Long Island, and they had talked to all sorts of other people, and they couldn’t find a motive. They said, “Oh, Jeff’s queer. Oh, Jeff’s fooling around. Oh, Jeff’s doing this.” But, you know, when you ran it down, you realized if they ever tried to put that into evidence, it would be ludicrous, because they couldn’t substantiate it. So we’re coming down to a physical evidence case with no motive, and, as I told Freddy and Mildred then and I’ve repeated over the years, I said, “You know, it’s the government’s problem. If they can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt, by their own evidence, that he did it, he’s not guilty.” Now, as to whether or not he’s innocent, that takes a little bit more. And I said then, and forty years later I still say, I said, “The little bit more is you have to believe him. You have to know him.” And that’s why we put all of these character witnesses on the stand.
ERROL MORRIS: Did you believe him?
MICHAEL MALLEY: You know, I personally believed him. That’s why I am willing to say, “I believe he’s innocent.” But I cannot say, “He’s innocent.” Now, maybe to you that sounds like sophistry, but to me there is a big difference. There is a big difference in saying, “I believe he’s innocent” and “He is innocent.” When I say, “I believe he’s innocent,” I’m saying, “I’m adding that little bit of extra proof, if you want, to the physical evidence and whatever else there is, and what Jeff says.”
I’m not God. I do not have any film, I do not have a recording, I do not have an absolute physical demonstration that Jeff is innocent. I do not have that. And so, what I’m going on is my own belief and knowledge of him over the years, plus a lot of what he says supports his story. But some of what he says does not. And he has no explanation for that.
ERROL MORRIS: Why do you think that the CID became so absolutely convinced that MacDonald was guilty?
MICHAEL MALLEY: Fort Bragg was locked down. People were buying guns. There were some gun shops that ran out of guns. People were really afraid, because it made sense to them. There were hippies everywhere with drugs, and they were all ex-army. I mean, it was like Harvard in the days when I was there, where people would drop out but hang around Harvard Square and they would sell these underground papers. At Fort Bragg, there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of soldier dropouts, of kind of hangers-on, and it was violent. There were violent crimes all over the place, and they were drug related.
And so this was a big deal. And when it happened, everybody believed Jeff right away, at least for a day or two, anyway. And so people bought guns, people were barring their doors. And there was enormous pressure from the command, from the three-star general on down, to do something about this, find the killers. Because it was 1970, there was a war on, there were drugs, America was—that’s why I said this is the Vietnam War story in a lot of ways.
And so we have an enormous amount of pressure to solve this case, and we have this arrogant kind of doctor guy who’s coming here and saying, “Hey, it isn’t me, don’t worry.” And Jeff really did not cover himself in glory in those interviews, either. I mean, he was kind of dismissive and sort of casual about the whole thing. As far as the CID was concerned, they had solved the case. It was right there and then. And once they solved the case, once they said to somebody—and probably to the staff judge advocate and to the provost marshal—that it’s MacDonald, then there’s no turning back.
Malley had produced a memoir written over four rainy days in San Antonio in July 1971—a 102-page typewritten journal of his early involvement with the case. Reading it, I felt that I was being introduced to the case at the same time as Malley. That I was there. That I had the same confusions, doubts, uncertainties. Malley, in those first few weeks, was trying to understand the possible motives for the crime. He goes through them one by one and then discards them—possible drug use, psychosis, psychopathy, or infidelity. Every investigator, every lawyer who has become involved with this case goes through a similar laundry list of possibilities. And set off against all of this—the bungling and bullying of the army.
Michael Malley’s Account
I’m writing this account of my impressions of the Jeff MacDonald case over a year after I got involved, without notes, having become in turn confused, saddened, angry, and again sad by time and the changing of me and the people I knew in the case…
I’ll write about what I saw, did, felt firsthand. Someone else can write about the “facts” of the case, the crime, and the hearings; to me the fascination is not so much the crime or even the courtroom battle, but how Jeff’s world flew apart and how people, including me, got caught in the debris. Fate I now believe in, inexorable, unswerving. I’ll put down my little part, but the whole story belongs to Jeff, and it is to him alone that final judgments—if there can be such things—belong.
On my drive across the desert from El Paso to San Antonio, I kept coming back to Jeff, and wondering what had happened to him to lead him to where he was—suspected of murder. It is a long drive—ten hours—and I thought of little else after a while. Perhaps that was a defense mechanism to avoid thinking about going to Vietnam, which I didn’t want to do. But it was a curiously troubling experience, to wonder and worry about a man I had not seen in years, and to imagine what strange and terrible turn his life had taken.
I wondered why Jeff would kill Colette and his children. I knew that Colette was pregnant when they were married, and my petty little mind discussed with itself the possibility that Jeff, who I remembered (accurately, I think) to be a handsome and somewhat egotistical jock, had finally gotten fed up with being trapped by a girl when he was a twenty-year-old boy who now was a twenty-seven-year-old man with enormous potential but with the impedimenta of a wife and family…But why kill—why not divorce? Jeff certainly was not that cocky that he would play for total elimination of the problem at such a potentially high cost, rather than suffer the more pedestrian heartache and dry bitterness of divorce. That made no sense.
Drugs? That seemed a better explanation. I had started to see in my clients the strange lives drugs built. It certainly seemed plausible that Jeff did the killing under drugs, perhaps acting out fantasies toward Colette and his children that sane, sober people would reduce to the formalized bitterness of family law…
As the drive wore on, as Texas wore on, my curiosity about the crime and how it had happened (to be more exact, how and why Jeff did it—I must confess I assumed he did it, though that didn’t make too much sense to me) gave way to thoughts of what the whole thing was doing to Jeff.
I assumed that Jeff was not a monster, even if he were a drug freak, or mentally diseased, or both, and it seemed cruel to me that he should be caged up. I did not know whether he was in the stockade or not, but I pictured him there, pacing. I remember him at Princeton, walking fast and purposefully wherever he went, and it seemed strange to think of him standing in a sally port being handcuffed and frisked before he is led to an interview room to see his lawyer, and then walking back to his cell, not briskly, with no purpose. (I have an active imagination, but when you drive across Texas, you need something to occupy your mind.)
I spent hours on the road sympathizing with a man I assumed (without much conviction, still) to be a murderer. How terrible it must be to be made to suffer for your sins, not by God, but by some bunch of army bureaucrats who could have no earthly interest in Colette or her children, or Jeff…I do not believe much in criminal law as a righter of the tragic and inescapable violence of the world.
But what if you assume Jeff was innocent? What if he were being subjected to the organized cruelty of blind police investigation while his family still haunted him, while he was as alone as he would ever be? That was a painful thought I tried to avoid, because as stupid as criminal justice often seems to me when the accused is guilty, you can ultimately accept it with at least indifference, on the theory that, after all, people are at least responsible for what they do, and all of us have to pay our dues some way for something, including criminals unlucky enough to get caught. But what if he really were innocent? It was a painful thought.
But once it dawned on me that he might be innocent, and be feeling the terrible injustice of his position, I started thinking of Jeff as human…It doesn’t make sense to me now, but in that ten-hour drive across Texas, Jeff became real to me again, though I had no knowledge of the facts of the case, and probably still believed he was somehow guilty of murder. I kept wondering, what if he’s not?
The army formally charged MacDonald on May 1, 1970. That same day, MacDonald and his military lawyer, Jim Douthat, asked Malley to join the defense team.
Jim and I talked a while that first day about pretrial discovery, particularly of the CID reading file, a process which I knew a little bit about from Fort Bliss. It was apparent that Jim knew absolutely nothing about the government’s “theory” (or theories) of the crime or the evidence…All that we hoped would be in the reading file, as well as reports on physical evidence, which apparently would play a great role in the case. Jim knew that all this stuff, and more, was floating around and didn’t know how to grab hold. We talked about all sorts of pretrial motions for discovery.
That first day with Jim I read an account of the crime Jeff had written for Jim, and a long list of drugs Jeff had in his house, as well as a long list of potential character witnesses Jeff had prepared. After I read Jeff’s account of the attack on him and his family, and after I had been duly warned by Jeff and Jim that I couldn’t talk freely anywhere, I talked to Jeff in the rent-a-car I got at the airport, with the air conditioner going and the radio too. I think that was the only time I was embarrassed by my doing what I was doing …
Still, that was the first time I asked him about his use of drugs (he didn’t use them except an occasional reducing pill), his marital and extramarital sex life, his children, his marriage in general. It was hard to start, and hard to keep going. But, from my viewpoint, it was worth it because the answers were straight, sincere, and all pointed to a conclusion that Jeff, despite his occasional extramarital affairs, was a loving and loved father and husband with a warmth about his family that could not be feigned. I really didn’t care much whether Jeff was guilty or not, but it was better to know that he was innocent, not just of murder, but of guile…When Jeff gets a little embarrassed or confused, he smiles weakly. When he gets angry, he shows it. I do not think he can lie with a straight face.
He talked about his extramarital affairs without guilt though with a little embarrassment that it’s him you’re talking about. He did not really feel unfaithful to Colette, though he presumes she would have been hurt had she known, and the thought of hurting her was what made Jeff self-conscious, I think. But after talking with Jeff for a while, you take Jeff on his own terms, and you see that his wife and family were very special to him, and the rest was just froth, which Jeff enjoyed, but never at the expense of his life with his wife and children…After that, sex and/or an unhappy family life were a dead issue. So no matter what the CID uncovered (which wasn’t much) or what Jeff might admit to on the stand regarding his marital irregularities, his basic joy at being a husband and father with a great future ahead for him and his family simply overwhelmed these irregularities.
It was inconceivable to me after our conversation that, absent some sort of mental illness or drug usage (which also seemed to be a dead issue), Jeff could or would harm his family unless there was such monstrous provocation—totally unknown to me and skillfully concealed by Jeff—that all normal rules of human behavior were broken. Because Jeff did not appear to be lying or concealing anything, I could not see how there could be a case against him—there was no motive …
I never could bring myself to ask Jeff to narrate the whole thing [the night of the murders], because it was soon obvious he could not do so without crying and partially reliving the night of the killings. I did frequently—too frequently, I’m sure he thought—ask him for specific details, episodes which he related well, although often with emotional difficulty. He knew that sometimes I went back over details, and he knew that sometimes (though extremely rarely) I would sharpshoot him, particularly in reference to his actions after he regained consciousness and went to discover his murdered family. But the good thing about Jeff was, he soon came to realize that he couldn’t remember some things well, and that efforts on his part at consistency were counterproductive if he really had changes or lapses of memory…Jeff knew more about what happened than anyone else, and I felt that the defense really should be able to know more about the crime and about Jeff himself than the government ever could, just by talking to Jeff as well as to the witnesses who were available …
I was at Patchogue [the town on Long Island where MacDonald grew up] for two and a half days, and I talked to a lot of Jeff’s and Colette’s high-school acquaintances, Jeff’s brother, and the Kassabs. Mostly, I found out that people who knew Jeff in high school liked him, envied him a little for making it out of Patchogue to Princeton and med school, and were unsure what to believe after they talked to the CID…I don’t think the CID ever evaluated evidence they thought was not adverse to Jeff, which under the circumstances was almost criminally negligent.
It was at this time I first met Jeff’s in-laws, the Kassabs…Freddy launched into a tirade about the army, Colonel Kane, and almost everyone else he could think of. He showed me the press release he had prepared for when Jeff was released—he was single-mindedly obsessed with not only vindicating Jeff, but with catching the killers and embarrassing the army; Mildred, while not as voluble, shared his views more intensely than even he did, I think. I was surprised at how their sorrow had turned into hatred, so that only the hatred showed, though I knew and respected its genesis. It was militant grief, and it scared me.
I naively believed that all the legalism I knew or knew about would be helpful in getting quickly prepared for a hearing. Jim knew better: he warned me that the Fort Bragg SJA [Staff Judge Advocate] and Provost Marshal’s Office authorities were totally prosecution-oriented and noncooperative with the defense; extracting evidence pretrial would be virtually a worthless exertion. We would have to wait for the Article 32 itself. Jim said we would play the silliest sort of games for the most trivial stakes. As things turned out, Jim was right about the noncooperation we could expect, though I believe he was willing to give up too easily…We flooded the hearing officer and the prosecutor with requests for evidence, almost all of which requests were initially refused.
Most mornings I spent on basically nonlegal business. This usually involved frustrating telephoning of the CID or the prosecutors regarding some of Jeff’s personal property locked in his house. Jeff wanted phonograph records, a new stereo system, some books, some jewelry of Colette’s, and some photographs. It was a small matter, but it was illustrative of the overpowering obstructionism of the government in this case, and provided (at least as best an outsider like me could tell) a good idea of the mutual mistrust and lack of direction, intelligence, and basic humanity on the part of the prosecutors and the CID agents.
The easiest request for the government to refuse was the request for the stereo. It was, they said, part of the crime scene, since it was standing in the living room with a record of the sound track of Hair on it—very meaningful, we were told.
Jeff’s photographs were even more frustrating. Jeff wanted them because they were mostly of Colette and his children. Again, they were not really part of a crime scene—they were in boxes in the master bedroom closet, and not considered relevant for fingerprint or other reasons…Late in summer, we heard that the CID wanted the photographs to look for people resembling Jeff’s description of the assailants …
We did get a few things, early in June: a dictionary, a large “Pink Panther” coin bank filled with coins, and one of Colette’s bracelets, after Jeff’s father-in-law, Freddy Kassab, decided to come down to Fayetteville to visit Jeff. Freddy caused some concern to me and Jim and Jeff because of his drinking and his proclaimed aim of “getting” the army for what it was doing to Jeff and for its failure to catch the real killers. We did not want Freddy out of control yet, and we wanted to keep him happy so that Jim and I could concentrate on preparing the case, and not on helping Freddy with his schemes to embarrass the army. (I do not want to disparage Freddy. His loyalty to Jeff was invaluable, his grief genuine; but he was, and is, often trying.) So Jim and I made a concerted effort at least to get some of Colette’s jewelry for Freddy, which Jeff had promised him and Mildred.
My days passed like that: phoning the prosecution, talking to Jim, talking to witnesses, looking at the pictures, just sitting and brooding sometimes, calling (or trying to call) Bernie and Denny, trying to figure out what to do next. Sometimes in the afternoon I’d meet Jeff to run a couple of miles (running for me was one of the things that kept me sane; whether Jeff was along or not, after a while you just don’t think about much but how tired you are, how far to go, and forget most of what’s bothering you), or run alone along the MAAD mile, a cross-country course about two miles long.
What People are saying about this
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Critics sometimes confuse great books with important books — exceptionally written literature isn't always the same as literature that can powerfully affect society. But A Wilderness of Error is both great and important — it's a beautifully written book, and it has the potential to change the way the country thinks about a justice system that has obviously lost its way."
—Michael Shaub, NPR
"Mr. Morris has produced a brilliant book about the vulnerability of justice to the preconceptions of prosecutors and the power of certain narratives to crowd out all others, even highly plausible ones. I strongly recommend this book."
—Wall Street Journal
"A Wilderness of Error is a beautifully produced book, with chapters set off by line drawings of crucial objects in the case: a toppled coffee table, a flower pot, a rocking horse. It’s reminiscent of the recurring images in 'The Thin Blue Line,' iconic and mysterious, always on the verge of revealing the secrets they stand for but never quite yielding them. Morris may geek out on minutiae and hypotheticals, but he is enough of an artist to convey that every crime scene is a dialogue between time, as it sweeps away the irrecoverable past, and the material world."
"Morris’s thoroughly engrossing and exhaustively researched book is the product of more than two decades of work... As is nearly always the case in any Morris project, the character studies are magnificent, the attention to detail extraordinary, and the effect on the audience is dizzying, disorienting, and thought-provoking."
—The Boston Globe
"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."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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