September 5, 2012


A Wilderness of Error:  The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald by Errol Morris
Hardcover, 544 pages
Published September 4, 2012 by Penguin Press HC
ISBN: 1594203431                     
ISBN13: 9781594203435
Academy Award-winning filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris examines the nature of evidence and proof in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case

Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, called the police for help. When the officers arrived at his home they found the bloody and battered bodies of MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters. The word “pig” was written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom. As MacDonald was being loaded into the ambulance, he accused a band of drug-crazed hippies of the crime.

So began one of the most notorious and mysterious murder cases of the twentieth century. Jeffrey MacDonald was finally convicted in 1979 and remains in prison today. Since then a number of bestselling books—including Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision and Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer—and a blockbuster television miniseries have told their versions of the MacDonald case and what it all means.

Errol Morris has been investigating the MacDonald case for over twenty years. A Wilderness of Error is the culmination of his efforts. It is a shocking book, because it shows us that almost everything we have been told about the case is deeply unreliable, and crucial elements of the case against MacDonald simply are not true. It is a masterful reinvention of the true-crime thriller, a book that pierces the haze of myth surrounding these murders with the sort of brilliant light that can only be produced by years of dogged and careful investigation and hard, lucid thinking.

By this book’s end, we know several things: that there are two very different narratives we can create about what happened at 544 Castle Drive, and that the one that led to the conviction and imprisonment for life of this man for butchering his wife and two young daughters is almost certainly wrong. Along the way Morris poses bracing questions about the nature of proof, criminal justice, and the media, showing us how MacDonald has been condemned, not only to prison, but to the stories that have been created around him.

In this profoundly original meditation on truth and justice, Errol Morris reopens one of America’s most famous cases and forces us to confront the unimaginable. Morris has spent his career unsettling our complacent assumptions that we know what we’re looking at, that the stories we tell ourselves are true. This book is his finest and most important achievement to date.

My Thoughts on A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald

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.  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.

A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald is available for purchase at major booksellers, including Amazon.  I am an Amazon affiliate. If you make a purchase through my link, I will receive a small commission.

Review copy of this book provided by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. In no way did the provision of this book affect the outcome of my review.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!

For more information on author Errol Morris, please visit his website or Twitter.



Mason Canyon said...

A great review. I didn't realize there was another book out about this case. I have to agree with you about the evidence and your reasoning why MacDonald is guilty. He should have been the one injured the most. If they were going to hurt him by torturing this family, won't he have been tied up so that he couldn't have escaped and made to watch?

I'll definitely add this book to my list of TBR. Thanks again.

Thoughts in Progress

Lori Johnston said...

Hi Mason,

I stumbled upon this book accidentally and fortunately (thank you, Trish Collins!) and have been surprised over the general lack of push on it. Especially given MacDonald's fondness for the media.

In any event, it is well worth the read. It does raise so many questions. You brought up a valid point. Plus, the intruders were just lucky enough to show up on a night that the back door was unlocked and MacDonald was sleeping on the sofa? What if he had woken before the attack? What if he had been sleeping with a loaded gun? How did the neighbors not hear a life and death battle between 4 intruders and the MacDonald family? Why didn't the neighbor's dog bark when 4 intoxicated/high intruders stumbled through the neighborhood?

Questions, questions . . .

trish said...

Fascinating! I admit that I'm not familiar with the MacDonald case, but I could see how it could become an obsession. Interesting that Morris admits that Jeffrey MacDonald isn't a very likable guy. I wonder about that. But you're right, he certainly deserved a fair trial, which he didn't get.

Thanks for being on the tour!

Lori Johnston said...

Yep, I am definitely obsessed. It's one of those cases that just eats away at me, that there seems to be no absolute, direct resolution. Very frustrating.

While MacDonald seemed very much like a man's man (smart, outgoing, handsome, Green Beret, etc.), I'm not sure that he was liked by men. By women, sure. But he comes across in every book as cocky, arrogant and extremely selfish. It doesn't mean he's a murderer, of course, but it colors him in a different way than just the Ivy League Green Beret doctor.

I think there was so much prejudice in the prosecution's favor during the 1979 trial - - Judge Dupree made it very clear that he sided with the prosecution and heavily disliked MacDonald's lead attorney. Such emotions were likely transferred to the jury, intentional or not (much like the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, in which Judge Ito's evident favoritism of the defense was clear to the jury).

Thanks so much for having me on this tour!

threadogg said...

Finally what you have for the first time is a detective "Errol Morris" with an IQ that blows away the prosecution. Jeffery Mac Donald was railroaded pure and simple. Morris's book is mind blowing and will eventually rank as one of the most important investigative and judicial books ever written involving the United States court system. It presents evidence for the first time ever in a way that makes the reader confront the nature of truth and how events can unfold in the media that over shadows the real actual evidence. This is a monumental work that will eventually and rightfully free Jeffery Mac Donald and shame the Supreme Court.