A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
Penguin Press HC
For me, the dread moment of awakening happened two-thirds through Errol Morris’ A Wilderness of Error, when I realized I had known of the MacDonald murders before word of this text’s impending release after all. How I knew of them made me rather nauseated; as Morris described a motive for murder proposed by Joe McGinniss in Fatal Visions, the first “true crime” book about the brutal deaths of a pregnant mother and her two children on February 17, 1970, it dawned on me that McGinniss’ sensational claim–diet pills as an explanation for Jeffrey MacDonald savagely beating his wife and children to death with multiple implements–had been the only detail to stick.
By this juncture in Morris’ own account of the MacDonalds’ murders and their legal aftermath, the power of a normalizing story to supplant truth had already been well-established. But my own brush with the implications of this statement–the realization that my only pre-existing knowledge of this whole, terrible history amounted to little more than sensationalist speculation–was a humbling reminder of how easily we humans can be swayed.
We like to think of ourselves as distinct critical agents, of course. We particularly like to think certain aspects of ourselves inviolate, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Memory, for instance–that’s supposed to be a stable aspect of the self, no? But as Morris charts the compounding failures of the American justice system to deliberate fairly upon the question of Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt, the fickleness of human recall plays prominently over the near-decade-long conviction process.
For one, we get the two sides of Fred and Mildred Kassab, parents of Jeffrey’s deceased wife, Colette, who were militant defenders of Jeffrey through the first hearings, and equally militant accusers after Jeffrey would not help Fred find the real killers, electing instead to move to California and try to put the whole situation behind him. According to Morris’ research, the Kassabs’ account of the family’s last Christmas Day changed considerably depending on their militant stance at the time of the telling.
On the other hand, we have the legal system’s persistent refusal to include the testimony of or around one Helena Stoeckley, a woman who originally matched Jeffrey MacDonald’s description of one of the intruders. When she was eventually brought in for questioning, the officer took no notes from their conversation; and then, during the Article 32 hearing of Jeffrey MacDonald, an interrogation of the officer in question, William Ivory, by defence council Bernard Segal (under presiding military arbiter Colonel Warren Rock) yielded this gem about the potential murder suspect:
SEGAL: Now, did you ask Miss Stoeckley whether she would be willing to come here to this inquiry and tell us what she knew about her wheareabouts of February 17th, 1970?
IVORY: Yes, I did.
SEGAL: And what, if anything, did she say?
IVORY: She said no, she would not.
SEGAL: Did you ask her why she would not come?
IVORY: She indicated she didn’t want to become involved.
ROCK: I’m sorry. She didn’t want what?
IVORY: To become involved. (p. 66)
Colonel Rock’s findings for that first hearing stated that “All charges and specifications against Captain Jeffrey R. MacDonald be dismissed because the matters set forth in all charges and specifications are not true.” (p. 70) Nonetheless, after Fred Kassab’s marked transformation of interest in these proceedings, Jeffrey would be arrested into the civilian courts, where nearly ten years later he would be found guilty of one count of murder in the first degree, and two counts of murder in the second.
In that same period, at least six witnesses would report Helena Stoeckley informing them that she had indeed been present at the murders. Many would also report that she conveyed a detail about the crime scene that had not been published, and was not evident from photos: a broken spring on the children’s hobbyhorse. The number rises to seven if you include a now-deceased U.S. Marshall, Jimmy Britt, who claims he observed a meeting between the prosecuting attorney and Helena Stoeckley that went as follows:
Ms. Stoeckley told Mr. Blackburn the same things she had stated to me on the trip from Greenville to Raleigh. She specifically mentioned the hobbyhorse and various other things, and specifically told Mr. Blackburn that she, along with others, had been inside Jeffrey MacDonald’s home on the night of the murders. She also said that she had gone to the MacDonald house to acquire drugs…
After Helena Stoeckley had given the history of her visit to Jeffrey MacDonald’s home, Mr. Blackburn stated: ‘If you testify before the jury as to what you have told me or said to me in the office, I will indict you for murder.’
Upon conclusion of the interview, I took Helena Stoeckley from the eighth floor by stairway down to the seventh floor, and took her into the courtroom. (p. 402)
In that courtroom, defence attorney Segal would find his witness providing answers counter to his initial expectations. This would lead him to break from his questioning to ask the sitting judge’s permission to treat her as a witness under cross-examination instead. (This same judge, Franklin T. Dupree, refused admission into the record any of the six witnesses who claimed Stoeckley had told them of her presence at the MacDonalds’ house on February 17, 1970.)
The day Stoeckley was on the stand, a man named Jimmy Friar “provided the FBI with an afidavit about his call to the MacDonald house on the night of the murders.” On May 21, 1982, Ted Gunderson got Stoeckley to tell her account in full for an un-aired 60 Minutes interview, in which she attested to answering the phone at the MacDonalds’ house. Her claim that she “was pretty high on mescaline, and [just] giggled” matched Friar’s affidavit. (p. 290)
There was another confession, too: Ann Cannady, volunteer at a Christian halfway house, reported that in 1971 a man who came to them for shelter asked the group to pray for him as “[h]e began to confess that he had murdered”; the next morning, the man who called himself “Dave” was gone, but three people found the words “I KILLED MACDONALD’S WIFE AND CHILDREN” written on bright red on the bedroom wall. As Morris writes, “Each of the witnesses from the Manor House was shown the twenty-five photos and identified ‘Dave’ as Greg Mitchell, Stoeckley’s boyfriend.”(p. 329)
It is not my intent to get mired in all the evidentiary issues surrounding the mess of a case Morris describes: the compromised initial crime scene, the absence of FBI fingerprint submissions, the destruction of fingerprints later identified at the crime scene, the withholding of full lab reports by the prosecution, the withholding in general of exculpatory data (foreign candle wax, foreign clothing fibers in Colette’s mouth, a foreign hair under one of the children’s fingernails, and the non-existence of 24-inch tearable saran hairs in dolls’ heads, coupled with the use of saran in wigs and the presence of such a hair at the MacDonalds’ residence, as would match Jeffrey’s claim of a female intruder in a wig), the experiments that either did not match crime scene specs (e.g. the tipped table test) or were presented counter to the exculpatory fullness of their findings (e.g. the overlapped stab wounds test on Jeffrey’s pyjama top), and above all else the appalling use of psychopathy in a non-falsifiable fashion by suspect prosecutorial psychiatrists (such that there was suddenly no way for MacDonald to behave that would not confirm, in their minds, a diagnosis of psychopathy).
I will certainly concede that Morris’ text makes for a highly compelling defence of Jeffrey MacDonald. I will even go so far as to say I currently stand convinced that Jeffrey should not have been convicted on the basis of the evidence presented by the prosecution. But these issues–while certainly conveying a gross miscarriage of justice–are to me of secondary importance in evaluating Morris’ text. I suspect they are also of secondary importance to Morris himself.
I feel this needs to be emphasized, because I made the mistake of visiting Amazon.com after reading this book, and also reading the comments appended to online newspaper reviews that themselves almost all focus on the case itself, and almost none of which pick up Morris’ more intricate comments about our cultural conflation of evidence with narratives of evidence, and the stymying relationship both sets of information have with the discovery of truth. (For instance, Morris’ criticism both of Joe McGinniss and Jane Malcolm, who wrote about McGinniss’ problematic manipulations of Jeffrey MacDonald and the evidence in her own book, The Journalist and the Murderer, provides some telling media culture insights in Chapter 54.)
But the Amazon.com reader comments in particular were often staggering in their single-mindedness of purpose; if ever there were a genre vulnerable to heated negative views by persons who either did not read the book or did not read it very closely, the exculpatory crime novel would be it. Thankfully, others agreed with my assessment of these comments, and in turn condemned many a review as not at all engaging with the value of Morris’ book unto itself. I replied myself to one comment by a “Sparkle P”, who wrote:
I just finished this book and was sorry to have spent so much time on it. Oppositional is the perfect word..always easy to blame the dead people for the crime. I wonder how Helena’s family feels about that conclusion. Erroll [sic] Morris is a genius in so many ways..what a strange departure for him.
Other comments were equally puzzling in their assertions about the absolutely incriminating nature of certain trial evidence (without actually demonstrating any knowledge of how Morris problematized one and the same; and often while asserting details counter to what the reports actually say), but this one took the cake for me because Morris’ text quite explicitly includes an affidavit by Stoeckley’s mother, confirming her daughter’s confession, and an ensuing interview with Helena’s brother, Gene, who first brought the family’s knowledge to Jeffrey’s lawyers. (Chapter 61) Another comment similarly condemns the book for skipping over a presumably incriminating interview with Jeffrey on April 6, 1970… but that’s the whole of Chapter 5.
More than anything, I had to marvel at the emphatic nature of the average commentator’s valuations–not just of Morris’ text, but also of MacDonald’s guilt. Mentalities ranged from accessions that the judicial process was poor, but that Jeffrey is still unequivocally guilty, to the selection of a single subjective detail (how Jeffrey reacted when Helena finally took the stand; how Jeffrey chose to move to California after leaving the military; how a psychopath cannot be discerned from a “normal” person; the scattered way in which Jeffrey described being woken into a beating by intruders) as unwavering proof of his guilt. Here might be my “favourite”, though, by Marilyn A. Hickey:
Dull book on exciting subject
Wilderness of error seemed a poor portrayal of an interesting case. But it’s a hard sell for me to believe MacDonald should get out of prison. What sticks in my memory is the fact that he moved to California after getting out of the Army and started living the life of a playboy. I think that is the life he really wanted all along. I think he was tired of family life and his wife being pregnant again. I think he deserves to stay where he is.
In an Intro to Poetry tutorial I led on Monday, I explained to students why asserting authorial intent in critical analysis is unwise unless you have primary documents that explicitly attest to your claims. Instead of writing, say, that “‘The Sick Rose’ is about Blake’s personal heartbreak” (as some of my students were speculating), you stick to making evaluations solely on the evidence in front of you: in their case, the text of the poem itself. The statement, “This poem conveys heartbreak”, can far more easily be defended than any relying on access to information outside the critic’s purview–information like Blake’s mental state when writing that poem, for instance; or related biographical data, which the students did not have at hand.
I was reminded of this lesson when reading these reviews by people who had so rigidly laid claim to a kind of certitude that, really, can only be accessed by Jeffrey himself. But to me, Hickey’s comment added an extra dimension to this troubling mentality, for in it the phrases “exciting subject” and “interesting case” recalled my previous post on our culture’s mainstream representations of horror–how everything shocking and extraordinary is still expected to resolve into moral certitude, since our greatest collective fear is really the dissolution of clear causal relationships in the world.
I got this sense, too, from other reviews insisting that if Helena Stoeckley and a gang of drug-and-cult-enamoured hippies were at fault, surely they would have gone on to perpetrate more mass murders after the fact. Putting aside that this goes against Stoeckley’s comments in Morris’ text about a conscientious breaking up of the group after the MacDonalds’ murders (p. 293), here again we see people imposing their own, idealistic belief in a necessarily coherent and sustained system of evil upon the unrelated question of Jeffrey’s guilt.
Morris addresses this himself in part of his central log-line for the book: “I wondered if people needed him to be guilty because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.” In the course of the text, Morris provides two ways in which this alternative could be too horrible to contemplate: first, the notion that a group of hippies murdered most of a family in their beds and then dispersed, some thereafter becoming untraceable; and second, the notion that the lone survivor of these attacks, after being made to witness the deaths of his family, has unjustly spent forty-two years in prison for their murders.
In both cases, the possible alternative shatters our illusions of a clear differentiation between good people and bad, and of the phrase “the truth will out” having any intrinsic and practical value in the universe. It is no wonder, then, that narratives like Errol Morris’ are so difficultly received–why readers, that is, are more comfortable talking about their preconceived ideas and pet theories than evaluating the very complex and problematic means by which humans claim the right to arbitrate truth in the first place. It is, however, consequently a small wonder that destabilizing texts like Morris’ A Wilderness of Error are permitted to exist in this rigidly moralizing media environment at all.
For the record, though: I am so very glad they do.