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191 of 214 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very well done but will leave you with questions, September 5, 2012
This review is from: A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (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. But the book reads for someone already familiar with the background of the murders and the lengthy process in which MacDonald was brought to justice as the background of the crimes themselves is not nearly in-depth as the follow-up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Psychotic State Book Reviews, 2012
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Tracked by 12 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 100 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 5, 2012 10:48:12 AM PDT
B Mack says:
My take on your reason for still believing in Dr MacDonald's guilt was that perhaps the intruders thought the best way to get back at Dr MacDonald was to kill his family and leave him lightly wounded but not able to stop them. The survivor naturally then becomes the first suspect. That is my initial first read. I have read all of the books about the case but I admit it has been a number of years so I need to refresh my memory. I will be getting this book today and look forward to seeing how it develops. I remember that day very well as I was an Air Force captain at that time and I was stationed down in Florida and I share the same last name with the doctor. Naturally I took a keen interest in the case right from the start.

Thanks for your review. It has been helpful.

Posted on Sep 5, 2012 11:06:04 AM PDT
Thank you, B. Mack. This has always been a fascinating case for me because not all of the pieces fall into place, whether you believe in MacDonald's innocence or guilt.

I will admit that I have considered the possibility that if there were intruders, they left him alive as punishment but so many other things just don't add up. If you read his testimony during the Article 32 hearing, something is off. Murderous hippies wouldn't carry bodies around the house, they would let them fall where they may. They wouldn't pull a pair of surgical gloves from under the kitchen cabinet to write in blood on the headboard of the bed. If MacDonald was attacked, as he claims, in the living room, why was none of his blood found there? If he was attacked after his family, as is suggested by his testimony, why was none of their blood found there? Why was blood found all around his suitcase in the master bedroom but not on it? Why were blades of grass adhered to his bathrobe? If the back door was left open by the intruders after the murders, why was the residence so warm?

So many questions!

I hope you do get the book today and I look forward to hearing what you think.


In reply to an earlier post on Sep 6, 2012 7:16:11 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 6, 2012 7:20:25 AM PDT
From my prior reading, I concluded that the prosecution had evidence that contradicted MacDonald's story (who was killed first, where, etc.). I did not see how the prosecution proved that he did it. To me it would be more suspicious if MacDonald told a precisely correct story of such a chaotic, terrifying event. Also, I don't put a lot of weight on the argument that the hippies would have been more rational and organized in their attack. Loopy thinking and acts are hallmarks of those folks. So nothing they did, or didn't do would surprise me. I look forward to getting the new book and see if it brings new light on murky events.

Posted on Sep 6, 2012 3:20:20 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 6, 2012 3:20:40 PM PDT
There were definite problems with the prosecution's case. Did they prove his guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt? I don't think so. I think there was reasonable doubt based on the case they presented. I personally think MacDonald is guilty but I don't think he was given a fair trial, a weird situation to be in.

I also don't think if the attack was committed by a group of hippies it would have been orderly and rationalized. The attacks on the MacDonald family were very adept and precise. Why wasn't anyone's blood found in the living room, where MacDonald said he was attacked (and after his family was attacked with the same weapons)? Why would a group of hippies take rubber surgical gloves from beneath his kitchen sink to write in blood on the headboard of the bed? Why not use the bedsheet, an article of clothing, a towel from the bathroom? Why pick up dead and dying bodies and carry them to a different room? Why didn't the upstairs neighbors hear the life and death struggle between a Green Beret, his wife, two children and 4 intruders? Why didn't the neighbor's dog bark when the intruders arrived? Unless the blood typing was incorrect, why would MacDonald lie and say Kristen was in the bed with his wife when it was Kimberley's urine that stained the sheet? Why were there no scrape marks from the club in Kimberley's room when she had her skull crushed by the club? Why were there no scrape marks on the low ceiling in the living room, where MacDonald claims to have been knocked unconscious by the club?

Morris does bring up a lot of relevant facts as to the fairness of the trial and he does a terrific job at that. Justice may have been served but it was not served fairly in the legal sense.

I hope that you will share your thoughts once you read the book.


Posted on Sep 7, 2012 6:42:27 PM PDT
J. Talley says:
People on acid don't say "acid is groovy". Sad that Morris wasted time on this and it will probably be his last book. Celebrate his other works and leave this one alone.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 9, 2012 10:48:55 PM PDT
C2015 says:
I've heard some pretty stupid things out of the mouths of those on alcohol and drugs. You know that "people on acid don't say 'acid is groovy' how?

Posted on Sep 9, 2012 10:49:38 PM PDT
C2015 says:
What thought provoking fascinating reviews of this book!

Posted on Sep 11, 2012 7:15:13 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 22, 2012 8:16:28 AM PDT
As to why the rest of the family received the brunt of the violence see the 35 minute interview with Helena Stoeckley on Youtube. She makes two points over & over, (some or all of ) the "hippies" were heroin addicts upset with Dr. Macdonald over his indifference to their plight & who were also members of satanic cult. This to me is extremely important as the typical LSD user is a vastly different mind-set than that of a strung out heroin addict. & a Satanic Cult member has quiet a different agenda toward killing babies, children & pregnant woman than a typical bored teenager, a point she makes again & again because of her own situation by the time of the interview. "Hippies" is a label which seemed too convenient to me & out of place given the stereotypical 'peace & love' mantra. However now i see flower power was long dead by 1970 & hippies came in all forms (sweet & deadly) like the rest of humanity. Would help tremendously if someone else in the group (who is still alive) spoke up to corroborate the shaky Helena Stoeckley.
Also to me the phone call during the murders (as presented in this book) is very compelling & relates well to Macdonald suffering lesser wounds.
Lastly, if Macdonald had a concussion then no doubt he did things he cannot remember before & after the event, at least if it was anything like the concussion i suffered once. Memory lose & or memory jumbling is a typical experience with concussions. Amazingly i have yet to see anybody understand this point & therefore *expect* Jeffery's version to be incomplete & inconsistent rather they insist on the opposite, perfect alignment with ever know detail of the event.

Posted on Sep 11, 2012 8:12:27 PM PDT
J. Conder says:
>So while I think he's guilty, he was wrongfully convicted and that's just not right.

The ultimate purpose of any criminal justice system, ours included, is to do justice: acquit those who are innocent, and convict those who are guilty. If Dr. MacDonald was actually guilty, then his conviction was just, irregularities notwithstanding.

Posted on Sep 16, 2012 3:27:42 PM PDT
R.R.G. says:
I have also followed this case and agree with you. Go to Youtube and type in MacDonald and the Dick Cavett show. Watching Jeffrey joke about the night of the murders says volumes about his character.
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