For decades, the scariest sentence in the English language was “Mike Wallace is here to see you.”
Now it’s “Errol Morris is fact-checking you.”
Errol Morris, who makes Academy Award-winning documentary films? Yes, that one. With “The Thin Blue Line,” he won the freedom of a convicted killer --- in Texas. In “The Fog of War,” he got former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to consider that maybe it wasn’t so clear we were the good guys in Vietnam.
Two decades ago, he got interested in a 1970 murder at an Army base in North Carolina. In the middle of the night, Jeffrey MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters were stabbed and bludgeoned to death. MacDonald was stabbed but survived. He told the military police that a band of hippies had burst in to his home, chanting “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” After they dealt death, they wrote “PIG” on a wall in the master bedroom --- in blood.
The Army investigators did not find those hippies. Not that they were hard to find. It was more that the investigators really didn’t look for them. They had a better suspect: the husband and father.
Jeffrey MacDonald was a Princeton-educated surgeon noted for his self-control. If he had a motive for killing his wife and kids, it was deeply buried. But in 1979, it took a jury only six hours to find him guilty. The judge sent him to jail for three lifetimes.
MacDonald is now 68 years old. He has been in jail for 30 years. He continues to proclaim his innocence. (His case will come before an appellate court this month.)
"A WILDERNESS OF ERROR...is not a book you should start on a day when you have a long to-do list. This is not one of those dull, paint-by-numbers crime books. It doesn’t start with the murders and then double back. It starts with a challenging idea: a comparison of the MacDonald case and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO."
Why would Errol Morris spend 20 years reading thousands of pages of testimony and legal documents and interviewing scores of witnesses? And why, in “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald,” would he then create a 500-page appellate brief? [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Because on the basis of the evidence presented at trial and the evidence that was not allowed to be presented at trial, Errol Morris does not believe that Jeffrey MacDonald is guilty.
If you followed this case, you know different.
You know different because you watch TV and, three decades ago, you --- along with 30 million others --- saw a long segment about this case on the season premiere of “60 Minutes.” Or maybe you were among the 5 million who bought a book by Joe McGinniss called “Fatal Vision.” Or perhaps you watched a two-part NBC miniseries about the murders --- the most popular of the year.
In short, you know whatever you know about this case because of a media narrative. You don’t know the facts. You know the story.
A WILDERNESS OF ERROR: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald is not a book you should start on a day when you have a long to-do list. This is not one of those dull, paint-by-numbers crime books. It doesn’t start with the murders and then double back. It starts with a challenging idea: a comparison of the MacDonald case and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.
You remember that story: an innocent man, convicted of a crime he did not commit, is condemned to live out his days in an island prison from which there is no possible escape. But he does. And then he triumphs. Because this is fiction. Because Alexandre Dumas has written it that way.
In our century, Morris says, we have a prison that makes the Count’s seem modest. It is “the prison of belief.” How, Morris asks, do you escape from a story that pretty much everybody believes? That is Jeffrey MacDonald’s prison. The Army investigators made mistakes, the police and prosecutors followed their lead, and then Joe McGinniss --- “a sloppy journalist who confabulated, lied, and betrayed while ostensibly telling a story about a man who confabulated, lied, and betrayed” --- hammered the nails in.
Them’s fighting words.
I asked Joe McGinniss for a comment on this book. Through his publisher, he sent this: “Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of the murders of his wife and two young daughters in 1979. In all the years