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55 of 59 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not guilty, but not innocent, September 27, 2012
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This review is from: A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (Hardcover)
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. The crime occurred at Fort Bragg, so the Army was in charge, and it's inconceivable his commanders would have relished one of their rising stars going down for such a crime. If the cards were stacked initially, it was in MacDonald's favor.

It was only after extensively interviewing MacDonald that lower ranking Army investigators decided there was something very fishy about his story describing drug-crazed hippie home invaders, and brought that surely unwelcome conclusion to their superiors. After a hearing, the Army still declined to prosecute him, largely because its own inept crime scene personnel had badly compromised the physical evidence. Does that appear to have been a rush to judgment?

Morris has a lot to say about misconduct by prosecutors in MacDonald's civilian trial, which occurred years later, and there's no question that their performance was deplorable (one of those prosecutors has since been disbarred). The appeals courts have ruled that the prosecution's misdeeds did not affect the outcome of the trial; Morris disagrees, as do I. But believing the verdict should be overturned on legal grounds is one thing; believing an innocent man was convicted is another, and Morris makes the latter case - by implication if not by direct statement.

In fact, MacDonald's federal prosecutors found themselves in the same pickle the Army prosecutors had - the crime scene had been so contaminated that it was impossible to prove anything with the evidence it yielded, at least some of which seemed to be consistent with MacDonald's story. But they were convinced of his guilt, so they decided to cheat. They used only evidence supporting their case and illegally buried the rest, much of which has come to light during MacDonald's three decades in prison.

Now it's easy to raise eyebrows high at that, and Morris clearly finds it extremely damaging to the overall case against MacDonald. But he's ignoring the irony that it was MacDonald's own legal team who first demonstrated how forensically useless the crime scene was. They can't logically make that claim, and then claim that the physical evidence friendly to him is relevant. You have to trust all of that evidence or none of it. Not only that, but Morris's arguments assume that if there is any reliable evidence that the people MacDonald described actually were in his home, then MacDonald must be telling the truth. But just one alternate explanation for such evidence is that those people were in MacDonald's home earlier in the evening (or on a previous day) and departed peacefully, leaving MacDonald with four convenient and well remembered patsies. If Morris has considered this, he doesn't mention it.

With his focus on such shaky evidence, Morris ignores the powerful evidentiary area that began convincing people MacDonald was guilty in the first place - his own words. His account is simply not believable, in far too many respects to list here. For just one thing, his cartoonish description of the behavior of the "killer hippies" could easily be recognized as bogus by anyone with the slightest familiarity with late '60s counterculture. Morris also does not address the obvious question of why such people might brutally slaughter a woman and two small children, yet leave alive and relatively unhurt a robust adult male who represented their greater threat, had seen them, and could probably identify them. Or why MacDonald has never agreed to an independently administered polygraph examination, as anyone falsely accused of a crime most certainly would. If he were innocent, he would have begged to be so examined.

Another major focus of Morris's journalistic attention is the pathetic, drug-addled Helena Stoekely, theorized to have been the "blonde with the floppy hat." The only thing about her that seems certain is that on the night of the murders, and most other nights, she was admittedly high as the sky on mescaline (significantly, she never mentioned taking LSD). She variously said she was not involved, was involved, thinks she remembers maybe being involved, had dreams about being involved, etc. And as any police detective knows, people who volunteer confessions of crimes most often are simply attention seekers. Morris asserts, probably accurately, that she was coerced by the prosecutors to recant in the trial, but it doesn't matter. She never had a coherent story to begin with. As a witness, she was useless, and I find it surprising that Morris takes her as seriously as he seems to.

Oh, and MacDonald claims Stoekely chanted "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs." That's interesting because 1) There has never been a confirmed case of anyone committing murder under the influence of LSD, and 2) In Stoekely's world at that time, anyone speaking the obsolete slang "groovy" would have caused everyone else to run for the toilets to flush their stashes. Not to mention that "..kill the pigs" is a thought completely unrelated to the first one, and the combination makes no sense if true, but all the sense in the world if MacDonald made it up to suggest a motive.

Renowned statement analyst Mark McClish has dissected the initial interviews and has no doubt MacDonald was lying, and statement analysis is acknowledged even by leading polygraph practitioners to be a powerful tool at least equal to their own. And of course if he was lying about who committed the crime, it's logical to assume he himself did, even with no physical evidence nor known motive.

Morris makes an excellent case that MacDonald did not get a fair trial, with which I agree. And the initial investigation truly was a "wilderness of error." But could Jeff MacDonald actually be innocent, as Morris suggests? Highly unlikely, in my opinion. I understand that Morris is providing a side of the story that may have been drowned out by the "Fatal Vision" media hype. But it isn't a convincing one.
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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 13, 2012 5:22:33 PM PDT
James T. Lee says:
Outstanding review! His story is completely implausible.

Posted on Dec 3, 2012 8:03:36 AM PST
anonymous says:
Excellent review. I appreciate your inclusion of Mark McClish in your review.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 11:15:25 AM PST
Thanks. I just reread McClish's book on statement analysis. It's pretty amazing.

Posted on Feb 6, 2013 6:25:13 PM PST
Helen says:
I'm glad you mentioned the bizarreness of "acid is groovy, kill the pigs," which has always bothered me. "Acid is groovy" suggest euphoria; "kill the pigs" is hostile. Who goes from blissed out to hatefully violent in a nanosecond?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 5:58:04 AM PST
Exactly. They're two completely different thoughts.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 11:18:42 AM PST
And one other thought: Jeffrey MacDonald was the prototype "establishment" person at that time, which is to say he would not have been familiar with hippie jargon. He also would have been unfamiliar with the effects of LSD, which include hypersensitivity and inability to perform organized actions. He was, however, exposed to the omnipresent media coverage of the Manson murders, which repeatedly reported (erroneously) that the Manson killers had been high on LSD while committing their crimes. So MacDonald would have assumed, like most people (again erroneously) that LSD induced violent behavior. So his story would have made perfect sense in his mind, based on his misconceptions, but as you pointed out, in reality it makes no sense at all.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 2:20:04 PM PST
Helen says:
Agreed. He probably treated some drug cases in the ER, but even so, the popular perception of drug use was that people on drugs are capable of anything. So, you claim the killers are "drug-crazed," and if the crime scene doesn't make sense, that's why. I'm sure he thought that's how it would play out.

Also, Helena Stoekely said she had taken heroin, opium, mescaline and pot that night -- I'm no expert, but that doesn't sound like a combination that would induce a murderous rage.

Another thing I've wondered: Since Helena and her posse were a familiar sight around the area, it's likely MacDonald had seen them too. He might also have seen one or more of them in one of the ERs in which he worked -- drug abusers end up in ERs with some frequency, I am guessing.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 2:38:10 PM PST
Here's a possibility of what really happened that night: Helena and several friends came to MacDonald's home earlier in the evening, to complain to him about his treatment of local users, or for some other reason that doesn't really matter. He heard them out and they left. Later, when he was creating his story, they immediately came to mind for several reasons. 1) They had actually been in his house and presumably there would be physical evidence of that. 2) It would have been likely that they'd have been seen in the neighborhood. 3) The Manson murders were fresh in his mind since he had read the story about them in Esquire magazine, and 4) He was probably still pissed off that this group of low-lifes had dared to knock on his door. It really was a well-conceived plan on his part, particularly given the stress of the moment. And he probably would have actually pulled it off if he'd kept his mouth shut, if he had simply told investigators "This hippie hit me with a club, and when I came to, they were dead." But it wasn't enough for him to cover himself legally, he had to convince everyone he was innocent, and so he told a very detailed story, and the evident falsehood of that story is what ultimately convicted him.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 3:35:16 PM PST
Helen says:
I don't believe they were at the house. If they wanted to confront him about his treatment of them or others, it seems more likely they'd have shown up at his workplace. Why track him down at home? But lots of looky-loos reportedly were wandering all over that crime scene. There could have been talk around town about some details. There was at least one picture in the paper that showed the hobby horse. The home was left as it was for a very long time afterwards, allowing people to peek in or sneak in, possibly. I think Helena Stoekley was so drugged up that night she doesn't remember what she did. Then, she reads in the paper that someone matching her description has allegedly taken part in a triple homicide involving children. She must have been horrified and confused. She began to wonder if she was there, and at times it seems she believed she was. She was just 18, emotionally unbalanced, and a heavy drug user. It wouldn't surprise me that she might falsely confess.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2013 3:49:46 PM PST
You're right, it would be more likely for them to confront him at his workplace. I used the other possible scenario only because it explains any physical evidence of their presence at his house (which may or may not have ever existed). I absolutely agree with you that Stoekely's recollections of that night were imagined. I think she was hungry for attention and psychologically damaged in more ways than we can possibly know. In short, an absolutely unreliable witness. Anyone who takes her seriously has to have an agenda, i.e. exonerating MacDonald.

I think Morris initially thought he had another "Thin Blue Line" case here, and flush with his success on that one, was anxious to believe he could blow this one open as well. I understand that since his book's publication, he has admitted some second thoughts.
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