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. “You can escape from prison, but how do you escape from a convincing story?” asks Morris in his new book, A Wilderness of Error.
The narrative was the handiwork of journalist Joe McGinniss, whose 1983 best seller Fatal Vision portrayed MacDonald, an army physician, as a narcissistic sociopath who killed his family in a diet-pill-fueled rage, then injured himself to make it look like the crime had been carried out by a Manson-family-style cult. MacDonald, cleared by military investigators in 1970, moved from North Carolina to Huntington Beach and built a new life as an emergency-room physician. But suspicions about his alibi—his own narrative—never entirely ebbed. Nine years later, he was brought back to North Carolina, put on trial in federal court, and found guilty.
The narrative leading to this conviction, Morris tell us, is false, and he aims to convince you that MacDonald was denied a fair trial and is almost certainly innocent. But there’s something else going on, too. In the course of laying out his case, 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.
Morris overwhelms you with material favorable to MacDonald: physical evidence twisted by the prosecution, evidence not introduced at trial, and evidence that was introduced but shouldn’t have been—including, incredibly, an Esquire account of the Manson killings, read into the record by prosecutors in an attempt to persuade jurors that it had inspired MacDonald’s crime and cover-up.
The central character in A Wilderness of Error is Helena Stoeckley, a drug addict and police informant who fit the description of a woman in a blond wig MacDonald insisted was present while the murders took place, holding a candle and chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” From Morris we learn that Stoeckley was observed near the MacDonalds’ apartment not long after the killings, and that she told a number of people over the years that she was at the murder scene. On at least one occasion her ex-boyfriend Greg Mitchell also admitted to his involvement. Stoeckley described a child’s hobbyhorse in the MacDonald home with details she was not likely to have known unless she had seen it. And when she was dying, she confessed to her mother, saying, according to her brother, “It got out of hand, and it just went crazy.”
Yet Stoeckley was dismissed by prosecutors as unreliable, given her drug-addled mental state. At trial, Stoeckley, to the shock of MacDonald’s legal team, denied she had been in the family’s apartment. Years later, MacDonald’s lawyers came across evidence that the denial could have been coerced—a prosecutor may have threatened her with a murder indictment if she testified that she had in fact been present when the killings took place.
And thus we are left with the possibility that an innocent man told the truth, and that the person who was in the best position to clear him was intimidated into silence.
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Morris’s alternate history of the MacDonald case may be unfamiliar to most readers, but it’s quite familiar to me. In 1995 I reviewed an earlier book for the Boston Phoenix that plowed much the same ground, especially with regard to Stoeckley. That book, Fatal Justice, by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost, had been recommended to me by Harvey Silverglate, one of the lawyers leading MacDonald’s appeals, as well as a friend and occasional collaborator. Unfortunately for MacDonald, Fatal Justice had little effect on public opinion. So powerful is the narrative created by McGinniss that even Morris—a celebrated filmmaker whose 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line led to the exoneration and release of a convicted murderer—was unable to obtain funding for a film about the MacDonald case, and thus chose to write a book instead. Still, Morris has the requisite star power to compel a reappraisal in a way that Potter and Bost could not. (The guilty finding is still under appeal, as has been the case virtually from the moment the verdict was rendered in 1979.)
So what went wrong? “I wondered if people needed him to be guilty because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate,” Morris writes. There may be an element of that. Members of the prosecution team and Judge Franklin Dupree, who presided over the trial and much of the appeals process until his death in 1995, had to live with themselves. Harboring doubts about what they had done to MacDonald may indeed have been “too horrible to contemplate.” Silverglate often describes prosecutors as “framing the guilty”—that is, becoming so convinced of someone’s guilt that they ignore the rules and cheat their way to a guilty verdict. That may well be what happened to MacDonald, who was, in Morris’s telling, victimized by clownish attempts by alleged scientific experts to twist the physical evidence against him. “A trial is not a science fair,” Morris writes, “but rather a magic show. A show based on appearances and logical fallacies and sleight of hand. It is about convincing the jury.”
The problem, of course, is that our adversarial system of justice is based on an honest consideration of the evidence. Without that, those who set out to frame the guilty will occasionally frame the innocent. It was MacDonald’s misfortune not merely to be victimized by runaway prosecutors and an unsympathetic judge, but to have their version of events immortalized in McGinniss’s book, on 60 Minutes, and in a television miniseries. By the power of narrative, in other words.
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Morris seeks to knock down McGinniss’s narrative by offering not a counternarrative but, rather, an antinarrative. A Wilderness of Error is not so much a book as a scrapbook—transcripts of interviews, newspaper and magazine clippings, charts, diagrams, and the like. The technique is reminiscent of The Thin Blue Line. It makes for tedious reading, but it gives Morris’s story much of its power. Through the careful and overwhelming accumulation of detail, Morris attempts to show that the narrative you think you know—that MacDonald was driven to unspeakable crimes by amphetamines and a long-suppressed hatred of women—is false: a figment of McGinniss’s imagination, concocted to explain the unexplainable.
Morris’s stance toward McGinniss’s narrative is one of contempt. He shows considerably more respect for the one offered by the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her meditation on the 1987 fraud trial brought by MacDonald against McGinniss on the grounds that he falsely portrayed himself as a friend and supporter in order to ensure MacDonald’s cooperation. (McGinniss paid MacDonald a $325,000 settlement after the trial ended in a hung jury.)
Malcolm appears to harbor considerable doubts about MacDonald’s guilt. Ultimately, though, she is concerned not so much about whether MacDonald did or didn’t do it, but about the nature of journalism. She famously begins with this toxic description of the relationship between reporter and subject: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” In other words, Malcolm’s account of the MacDonald case is animated more by McGinniss’s betrayal of MacDonald’s trust than by what Morris depicts as McGinniss’s more consequential betrayal of the truth. Indeed, she describes herself as ignoring the voluminous documents MacDonald sends her, writing that McGinniss’s narrative has come to be seen as “definitive,” overpowering any attempt to set the record straight.
“I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material,” she writes. “It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower—it all depends on how you read the evidence.”
It is this expression of nihilism from a journalist whom Morris admires, more than anything McGinniss wrote, that inspires Morris to an impassioned defense of journalism and its possibilities.
“Is this what it all comes down to?” Morris asks. “Two journalists—one who betrays MacDonald by twisting the facts and another who tells him the facts don’t make a difference?” In the same section, he writes in response to Malcolm: “What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the pursuit of truth. This applies to the law, as well. The real story is in our attempt to separate fact from fiction. The real story is in our attempts to find out what really happened—no matter how difficult that might be.”
This is Morris’s purest statement of why journalism matters. Because if narrative has indeed imprisoned MacDonald, it is truth that may set him free. “There is an escape from narrative,” Morris said in an interview on NPR’s On the Media. “Any investigator believes that evidence can lead us out of a narrative prison to the world out there.” The purpose of journalism is not to craft a narrative. Rather, narrative is just one tool in a journalist’s kit, to be used—or not, as in the case of Morris’s book—in order to advance the truth. For a journalist, I can think of no higher calling.
Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on WGBH-TV in Boston. His blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net. His book The Wired City will be published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2013.