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A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald Hardcover – September 4, 2012

3.3 out of 5 stars 157 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

Prosecutors, a judge, and a jury put Jeffrey MacDonald behind bars more than three decades ago for the murder of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. But according to Errol Morris, he’s been kept there by the power of narrative. Morris offers a thought-provoking argument against the power of storytelling, and in doing so, he elevates journalism above this allure, to a different, more noble place: the honest pursuit of truth. —Dan Kennedy


"The literary equivalent of one of [Morris's] movies. It’s a rough-hewed documentary master class.... A Wilderness of Error upends nearly everything you think you know about these killings and their aftermath. Watching Mr. Morris wade into this thicket of material is like watching an aggrieved parent walk into a teenager’s fetid, clothes- and Doritos-strewed bedroom and neatly sort and disinfect until the place shines. ...He will leave you 85 percent certain that Mr. MacDonald is innocent. He will leave you 100 percent certain he did not get a fair trial... If this headstrong book doesn’t change your sense of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, I'll eat my Chuck Taylors."
—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)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1St Edition edition (September 4, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203431
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203435
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #292,074 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James K. Ashcraft on September 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In "A Wilderness of Error," Errol Morris turns his considerable documentary skill to one of the most widely discussed murder cases of the 20th century, in which Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of killing his wife and two daughters in 1970 and received three consecutive life sentences. Morris is best known to me for his film "The Thin Blue Line," the story of Randall Adams, who was sent to Texas's death row for killing a Dallas policeman. Adams was released from prison largely due to that film's exposure of the rush to judgment of him and the identity of the real killer. If Morris could accomplish something like that in Texas, of all places, he has my great respect.

The theme of this book is similar - authorities focus on a single suspect, decide he is guilty, and develop tunnel vision that prevents him from receiving justice. No doubt that is what happened to Adams. But Morris is wrong in suggesting the same thing happened to MacDonald.

In the Adams case, a police officer had been senselessly murdered during a routine traffic stop. Everyone in the region, the police, the D.A., and the public, was out for blood. Adams was fingered for the crime (by the teenager who actually committed it), brought in for questioning and then arrested. He was a drifter, a nobody. He had no solid alibi, and he was old enough to receive the death penalty, whereas the real killer was not. For those bent on social vengeance, Adams was perfect.

MacDonald, on the other hand, couldn't have been a less desirable suspect for his authorities. He was a Green Beret captain, a paratrooper, a respected physician, and well liked by all of his peers and superiors.
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Format: Hardcover
Since 1985, I have had a long, twisting journey with the Jeffrey MacDonald case. It started with Fatal Vision, the miniseries, and progressed to Fatal Vision, the book about the case penned by Joe McGinniss. I followed those over time with The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Fatal Justice by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost and Scales of Justice by Christina Masewicz. I visited various websites and read anything I could find about the case. Throughout the years my views on the case changed dramatically. I penned my changing thoughts here (at my book review site). In short, I believed MacDonald was guilty but something was off with the case, then there was a great chance that MacDonald was innocent and wrongly imprisoned and, finally, that MacDonald was guilty of the horrible crimes he was convicted of.

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

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

If you are not well read or versed on the MacDonald case, A Wilderness of Error is probably not the place to start. Not because it's not well written - - because it is and Mr. Morris does a fine job of supporting his statements.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Mr. Morris has undeniable talent, and some interesting things to say about the nature of evidence etc. His musings on Poe, Dumas and other writers were actually the best part of the book. And if you only read this book, you might believe that MacDonald was indeed railroaded. However, one recurring element that made me suspicious about his objectivity is the way he character assassinates almost everyone involved in the case who believes MacDonald is guilty. This includes the Kassab's , McGinniss and pretty much all of the prosecutors. Then if you read other accounts, Fatal Vision, Final Vision and Weingarten's Post article, a truer picture emerges. Morris fails to deal effectively with the facts of the case that contradict his presentation.

I ended up believing that MacDonald was guilty due to the "evidence as a whole". MacDonald's account of the hippie intruders strains credulity, to say the least, and that is his entire defense. Morris brings up Manson as an analog to what might have happened here. Indeed the Manson story is likely what gave MacDonald the idea for his version. However, it is extremely hard to believe that Manson-like killers could have committed this horrific crime, in the 70's or at any other time, and not left more of a trail than the pathetic Stoeckley story. In the Manson case you had a cult/gang of violent druggies with apocalyptic beliefs. They left a significant trail, and it was inevitable that they would be caught, because they committed escalating, violent crimes. The people around Stoeckley seem like more typical petty criminals, drug using losers, but not particularly violent. Stoeckley was also mentally ill, and clearly suffering from delusions. Let's put it this way, if your main claim to innocence rests on poor Helena Stoeckley, you're in trouble.
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