Errol Morris Takes On the Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case -- Before Joe McGinniss Gets the Last Word

Jeffrey MacDonald
Jeffrey MacDonald

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*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament

Film director Errol Morris is, as they say in Hollywood, bankable. He's made some of the best, most critically acclaimed documentaries of the last 25 years, including The Thin Blue Line, in which Morris proved that a convicted Texas cop killer was innocent and got the real murderer to confess.

In his new book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, Morris recounts how he pitched several studios on a film that would raise the possibility that MacDonald, the Green Beret doctor convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters back in 1970, was innocent.

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He met a stone wall of resistance.

"We can't make that," he recalls one studio exec telling him. "He's guilty. The man killed his family."

Such is the enduring power and influence of Fatal Vision, the 1983 best-seller by Joe McGinniss that delved deep into the MacDonald murders. After signing a contract with MacDonald to write a book about his case, McGinniss shocked the doctor by concluding that the jury was right to convict him -- and wrote just that.

But rather than Fatal Vision being the final word on the matter, the MacDonald case became a cottage industry for lawyers and writers. MacDonald felt betrayed by McGinniss' book, and from his prison cell sued the writer for breach of contract. The 1987 civil suit was settled out of court, with McGinniss' insurance company paying MacDonald $325,000 -- money that eventually went to MacDonald's father-in-law, who'd lost his daughter and grandchildren in the murders.

MacDonald's suit against McGinniss inspired the New Yorker's Janet Malcolm to write The Journalist and the Murderer in 1990. Her book explores the issue of whether McGinniss betrayed MacDonald and opens with a line that has become infamous in journalism circles: "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."

Presumably, she wasn't talking about Errol Morris. The filmmaker started out as a private investigator and has never actually worked as a journalist, although his documentaries have a distinctly journalistic feel.

Joe McGinniss lived with MacDonald during his 1979 trial, sat in on defense meetings and had access to MacDonald's private papers. Armed with all that inside information, he told the chilling story of how MacDonald was found guilty of murdering his family in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1970, in their home at Fort Bragg, N.C. 

He even came up with a motive, something the prosecution had been unable to do. MacDonald, McGinniss wrote in Fatal Vision, was a psychopath who wanted out of a troubled marriage and had been taking diet pills, leading him to erupt in a fit of amphetamine-fueled rage over a minor domestic incident -- a child's bed-wetting.

From the very beginning, MacDonald insisted that the brutal murders were committed by a group of four drug-addled hippies, one of whom held a candle and chanted, "Kill the pigs. Acid is groovy." The word "PIG" was written in blood on the headboard of the bed in the master bedroom. But there were few signs of the ferocious struggle MacDonald described, and no explanation for why the hippies would kill his family in such a savage manner but leave MacDonald with only a few injuries, so minor they could have been self-inflicted. MacDonald currently is awaiting a ruling on his latest motion for a new trial.

Following McGinniss' book, the 1984 miniseries Fatal Vision featured Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint as MacDonald's crusading in-laws, who refused to rest until MacDonald was finally convicted and sent to prison. And if perpetual good guy Malden and the aptly named Saint were sure their cinematic son-in-law had killed his wife and his two little girls, well, that was good enough for most Americans. 

Not Morris. After following the MacDonald case for more than 30 years, the filmmaker pitched Hollywood. When he was turned down all over town, he set out to write his own book. A Wilderness of Error argues that, from the start, MacDonald was the victim of a rush to judgment, which later influenced everyone who handled his case, from investigators to prosecutors to judges.

After more than 500 pages of a dense slog dissecting the forensic evidence that led a jury to convict MacDonald after only six hours of deliberation, Morris concludes: "We may never be able to prove with absolute certainty that Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent. But there are things we do know: that the trial was rigged in favor of the prosecution, that the CID, the FBI and the Department of Justice pursued an unethical vendetta against Jeffrey MacDonald, that evidence was lost, misinterpreted and willfully ignored. We know that Jeffrey MacDonald was railroaded."

Morris has only contempt for McGinnis, describing him as "a craven and sloppy journalist who confabulated, lied and betrayed."

McGinniss soon will publish in Byliner a 27,000-word piece titled, ironically, "The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald." He denied all of Morris' accusations. "He wasn't able to point out a single, factual error in Fatal Vision," McGinniss told the Weekly. He claimed that Morris never even attempted to speak with him.

"That's appalling," he said.

Morris didn't respond to requests for comment. While McGinniss admitted that Morris' lofty reputation is a big boon to MacDonald's claims, he insisted Morris' book will backfire: "It will end up diminishing Morris' own credibility. He was looking for another Thin Blue Line but picked the wrong case." 

As for betrayal, McGinniss notes that MacDonald gave him complete editorial control over the book. And it was only after  the trial, as McGinniss continued his own investigation while MacDonald was in prison, that he decided MacDonald was guilty." Look, the better story would have been an innocent man wrongly convicted," he said. "But it was clear he was guilty."

After reading all three books -- McGinniss on MacDonald, Malcolm on McGinniss and MacDonald, and Morris on McGinniss, MacDonald and Malcolm -- the only thing that's clear is that the verdict isn't clear. Yes, McGinniss was right: MacDonald almost certainly killed his family. But Morris is also right: MacDonald was railroaded by the justice system. It's hardly an earth-shattering conclusion to anyone who pays attention to the way law enforcement works. 

The real moral of the Jeffrey MacDonald story, then, may be this: If you want your story told your way, don't ask a journalist. Do it yourself.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We're red-faced to admit that a previous version of this story misspelled Joe McGinniss' name. It also referred imprecisely to the arrangement between McGinniss and MacDonald. After MacDonald approached McGinniss, the two signed a contract agreeing to share in the proceeds from a book, but MacDonald did not actually "hire" McGinniss. Also, MacDonald's $325,000 settlement came from McGinniss' insurance company. We regret any suggestion to the contrary.

See also:

*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament

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