How I Changed My Mind About the Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

Yves here. Even though this piece may seem off topic for Naked Capitalism, I suggest you read down to the section, “Why the MacDonald Case Matters to Everyone.” It describes some sea changes in our criminal justice system that you may not be aware of.

By Lynn Parramore, a senior editor at Alternet. Cross posted from Alternet

Remember the perceptual illusion where you look at a picture and you’re certain that you see the bust of a young woman? Then, if someone draws your attention to certain details, suddenly the picture transforms into the profile of an old woman. It’s a disorienting trick. You think you know what you’re seeing, but then you aren’t so sure.

The Jeffrey MacDonald murder case is one of the most disturbing in living memory. There are only two possible pictures, both nightmares.

Picture #1. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton-educated Green Beret doctor with no history of violence and a sterling record, butchered his pregnant wife and two young daughters using a knife, ice pick and club. Then he injured himself and set up the scene to make the crimes appear to be the work of intruders. He claimed they chanted, “Kill the pigs!…Acid is groovy!” and scrawled the word “PIG” on the wall in his wife’s blood.

Picture #2. Jeffrey MacDonald, a bright young man with everything in life to look forward to, lost his wife and children to senseless, horrific violence. A military hearing found charges against him “untrue,” but he was convicted nine years later in a civilian trial. He has been imprisoned for three decades for a crime he did not commit.

Two possibilities: MacDonald is a monster, or he is a victim of terrible injustice. Young woman; old woman.

Until recently, most people saw Picture #1. So did I. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, about an hour from the Fort Bragg army base in Fayetteville where the murders occurred on Feb. 17, 1970, in the middle of the night. I was born in May of that year, and would thus be the same age as the child Colette MacDonald was carrying when her life was snuffed out. In the early '80s, I whipped through a dog-eared copy of Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss’ sensational true-crime novel about the killings. It was almost as scary as Helter Skelter – the story of the Charles Manson murders in Californa that are said to have inspired Jeffrey MacDonald in the coverup for his homicidal rampage.

In 1984 I was glued to the TV, like millions of other Americans, watching the popular miniseries based on McGinniss’ book. McGinniss made the murders sound like the work of a diabolical genius, a man who could transform in a moment from a loving father to a homicidal maniac, and again, in the blink of an eye, to a calculating conman. I thought of devils that lurked in human flesh, like in The Exorcist, another popular based-on-a true-story-book-turned-movie of the period that floated around our house. When the show was over, I retired to the safety of my bed, safe from unpredictable evils.

A Shifting Picture

McGinniss’ stark rendering of Picture #1 stuck in my mind until recently when a friend from North Carolina told me that Errol Morris had published a book suggesting MacDonald was innocent. That got my attention: the Oscar-winning Morris, whose film The Thin Blue Line exonerated a Texas man wrongfully convicted for murder, is one of the world’s great documentary filmmakers. He is both a careful researcher and a profound investigator of the human condition.

My friend and I sat around in her backyard, tossing up what facts about the case we could recall. I even laughed at the idea of hippie murderers in North Carolina. Of all places! But then I felt uneasy. “You sure Errol Morris wrote the book?” She was sure.

Soon I was reading Morris’ A Wilderness of Error, feeling skeptical and wondering why this reputable man would involve himself in a case that everyone and their mother (including mine) knew the truth about.

But it didn’t take long to realize that something was wrong. Enough somethings to fill the long, solitary chapters of a man’s life unfolding behind prison walls.

Morris researched the MacDonald case for 20 years and knows each labyrinthine turn of its progress through the criminal justice system. Even before bureaucratic stalling and federal machinery overtook the search for truth, things were working against Jeffrey MacDonald. A crime scene was left open to bystander traffic. Inexperienced military police failed to pick up a woman near the house who fit MacDonald’s description. Many think this woman could have been Helena Stoeckley, a drug abuser and professed member of a witchcraft cult who repeatedly confessed to having been at the MacDonald house the night of the murders, but recanted her story whenever she seemed to fear prosecution. Now deceased, she remains a pivotal figure in the case.

As I read Morris’ meticulous examination the evidence, the picture in my mind became less clear. I began to see that Joe McGinniss’ creation of Picture #1 might be just that: a creation. Some of the “facts” I thought I knew began to look more like ideas conjured by eager prosecutors and a journalist who had dealt so disingenuously with Jeffrey MacDonald in writing Fatal Vision that he was sued after publication. McGinniss' publisher settled with MacDonald out of court, after the judge called the author a “conman.”  (This story, in its own right, became a famous book about journalistic ethics by Janet Malcolm.)

The story many of us think we know tells that MacDonald's wounds were superficial. But he had multiple bruises and puncture wounds, and two stab wounds, including one that collapsed his lung — a serious injury that left him falling in and out of consciouness. The popular story says there was no evidence of intruders. But there was, including wax drippings (MacDonald insisted that one of the intruders carried a candle), fibers, and hairs that did not belong to the household or family members.

McGinniss drew on pop-sociology to render an image of a psychopathic killer in the guise of the friendly doctor-next-door; the kind we know from endless horror movies. He theorized that diet pills caused MacDonald to fly into a fit of rage. McGinniss had to be creative, because the man’s character never fit the crime. MacDonald had no history of violence or temper. When the initial military hearing was conducted in 1970, no one in his life could be found who had a bad thing to say about him. Psychiatric professionals on both sides pronounced him incapable of having committed the crimes. On the evening of the murders, Jeffrey MacDonald had taken his kids to ride the pony he had bought them, fed them dinner while their mother took a night class, and put them to bed. It didn’t make sense.

But did hippie intruders make sense? Maybe more than I would have thought as a teen. Vietnam-era Fayetteville was not sleepy Raleigh in the 1980s. There was violence. Soldiers’ corpses arrived at Fort Bragg stuffed with heroin. In 1970 America was gripped by the horror of the Manson murders – a fact used against MacDonald because he subscribed to Esquire magazine, which had run a story about the dark side of hippie culture. The Esquire story, for all its salaciousness, touched upon real issues that plagued many communities outside of California. In Fayetteville, an army town, strong tensions existed between army types like Jeffrey MacDonald on one side of the war, and hippies and protesters on the other. Helena Stoeckley confessed many times that MacDonald’s willingness to turn heroin addicts into the police infuriated local drug dealers. She knew this world, and was herself a police informant. According to her, they wanted to teach MacDonald a lesson and rough up his family the night of the killings. But things got out of hand.

In October 1970, following an investigation and hearing, the military dropped its case against MacDonald, and he was honorably discharged from the army. He moved to California to become the director of emergency medicine at St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach. But an unfortunate thing happened in the following years. MacDonald’s relationship with his father-in-law, originally a staunch supporter, became strained. Freddy Kassab had inserted himself into the 1970 military hearing and made himself the center of a media circus, holding news conferences and firing off letter to members of Congress. He wanted his son-in-law to stay on the east coast and pursue the killers. Eventually, he turned on the man he had once so ardently defended. Through his aggressive pursuit of the case, MacDonald was indicted.

MacDonald was tried in a civilian court in 1979. Many felt that his acquittal would be a cinch, but much more was to go wrong. The nine-year lag between the murders and the trial is extremely unusual; experts consider such a lag to pose a great danger of wrongful conviction. Appearances didn’t help MacDonald, either. He looked angry on the stand. Worse still, Judge Franklin Dupree seemed to have his mind made up before the trial began. Some said he should never have taken the case because his former son-in-law was the prosecutor in the original army hearing. Dupree would not admit overwhelming psychiatric testimony in MacDonald’s favor, nor the testminony of witnesses to whom Helena Stoeckley had confessed her involvement. Bernie Segal, a long-haired Jewish lawyer from Philadelphia, took the lead in the case and managed to alienate the entire courtroom. Segal took up nearly all the time in the critical period for closing remarks and left only a few minutes for co-counsel Wade Smith, an eloquent native Carolinian who understood the jury.

One thing about this case is never in doubt no matter who’s talking: If Wade Smith had been able to lead and give his closing remarks, MacDonald would be a free man today.

The list of misfortunes goes on: exculpatory evidence withheld; possible prosecutorial misconduct; and fallible humans who twisted the MacDonald story to fit their own agendas. MacDonald was convicted twice, both in the courtroom and in the all-important court of public opinion, which was sealed by McGinniss’ book and miniseries.

Since 1979, the MacDonald case has continued to trouble those who delve beneath the surface of the media narrative. The social justice movement is now involved; the Innocence Project, a prestigious nationwide network dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, has worked strenuously for MacDonald’s conviction to be overturned. In a 2011 press release, the Innocence Project stated:.

Since MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979, considerable evidence of his innocence has come to light.  Most recently, retired US Marshall Jimmy Britt came forward with information that another suspect in the case, Helena Stoeckley, admitted to the prosecutor that she was in the house on the night of MacDonald’s murder and that he treated to indict her for first degree murder if she admitted that in court.  In addition, DNA testing on evidence that was recovered from the fingernails scrapings of one of the victims and a hair found under another victim did not match MacDonald.  Earlier, evidence came to light that a FBI forensic examiner mislead the jury about synthetic hair evidence.  MacDonald claimed the hairs were from the wig of one of the murders, but the forensic examiner incorrectly claimed they were from one of the children’s dolls.

None of this has set MacDonald free. By now, many members of the original hearing and 1979 trial are dead, including Judge Dupree. Judge James Fox, a close friend of Dupree's and quite elderly himself, has taken over and has dismissed appeals. Recently, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ordered Fox to consider new evidence, and to examine all the evidence as a whole. On Sept. 17, 2012, in Wilmington, N.C., a crowd of familiar faces assembled for a new hearing. Jeffrey MacDonald, Joe McGinniss, prosecutor James Blackburn (who went to prison himself for defrauding his clients), Wade Smith and others newer to the case gathered once again to testify.

MacDonald now waits to see if the federal judge will vacate his 33-year-old conviction. He could get an answer by the end of this year.

Wade Smith rarely grants interviews. I contacted his office, and to my surprise, he was willing to talk to me. What follows is the transcript of our conversation.

Interview: The Spookiest Case Wade Smith Ever Encountered

Lynn Parramore: In all your years as a lawyer, what makes this case stand out?

Wade Smith: It’s a very spooky case. It’s a case that if you were telling scary stories around the dining room table and you had all your family gathered, people could hardly believe it. It’s a scary, spooky story that sounds made up. It has witchcraft in it. It has Helena Stoeckley, the dominant person who continues to play a remarkable role. She’s haunting this case. In the hearing we just had in Wilmington she played an important role, decades after her death. It is also a Manson-like killing. It has Charles Manson written all over it. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the late 1960s and early '70s there were spooky, weird people on acid—back then it was believable.

LP: Then why did MacDonald, the emblem of law-and-order, the Green Beret, become a suspect? Why did people in the community believe he did it?

WS: In every murder of a spouse, the remaining spouse is the number-one suspect and is almost always charged. Often, the spouse turns out to have committed the murder, so it’s not surprising that the case turned to McDonald. The crime scene was so messed up that you couldn’t depend on it. So MacDonald was the logical choice. And yet there are thousands of people in North Carolina who do not believe he did it.

Even back then, if you polled Fayetteville folks, you might have found that a lot of people did not believe that he did it. The military hearing found that the charges against MacDonald were not true. He was given an honorable discharge. He could have gone on with his life, and he should have. But he taunted the police. He made fun of them. He did interviews. When Victor Worheide, who was a federal prosecutor, later became interested in the case at the urging of the parents of Colette MacDonald, the case was gone.

LP: In Joe McGinniss’ book, Fatal Vision, Freddy Kassab, MacDonald’s father-in-law, was presented as the protagonist. What do you recall of the in-laws in the trial?

WS: They were a very normal-looking mama and daddy. Nothing unique in any way. I think that one of the problems MacDonald had was that they expected him to undertake to find these killers, to go on a mission to find them. He didn’t do that. He continued to work as a doctor and moved to California. Some people would say that was the wrong thing to do. Others would say that that was a healthy thing to do. But his mother and father-in-law did not want him to do that.

LP: Did anything new come out in the Wilmington hearing in September?

Oh, yes. Back in the 1979 trial, a lawyer named Jerry Leonard represented Helena Stoeckley. No one ever knew what it was Helena told him because of attorney-client privilege. He was the lawyer she was talking to one-on-one who had been appointed to advise her of her rights. I used to joke with him when I saw him around – “Hey Jerry, isn’t there something you want to tell us?” But he couldn’t, and he likely would have gone to his grave carrying the secret of what Helena told him had it not been for that hearing. Finally, in Wilmington, Jerry Leonard was ordered to tell what she had said to him 30 years ago. And she told him she had been there, at the MacDonald home, the night of the murders.

LP: She said that to her lawyer at the time of the 1979 trial? Thinking that he could never reveal it?

WS: Yes.

LP: One of the things that struck me in reading Errol Morris’ book was the use of the “psychopath” diagnosis in court and how problematic that is. Wherever you see the label “psychopath," you could almost substitute “monster” or “vampire” – you’re talking about an unnatural person who does not behave according to normal human rules, and with that label, you can believe anything of them. What’s your sense of this?

WS: It’s an enormous problem. Take a guy like MacDonald. He’s the guy that lives next door. The loving husband and father. You trust him. If he could have a psychotic episode and destroy his family – stab them with an ice pick and a knife 100 times, beat them with a stick, then Billy Graham could. Anybody could. That was my closing argument.

LP: The one you never got to make?

WS: Yes. I would have told the jury that it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that this man, with no history of violence, went crazy like that. It all was intruders. I would have said to the jury: they were not there, and neither was I. They don’t know the truth any more than I do. The idea that people that were so certain who don’t know any more than I do  — I don’t believe I’ll ever understand how they could be so sure.

LP: What has this case revealed about the flaws in our judicial system?

WS: We all depend on excellent, honest detective work. And police officers knowing how to take care of a crime scene and preserve it. The walls will tell you what happened if you keep it pristine. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. That didn’t happen here. And so there are going to be cases where there is a reasonable doubt as to what actually happened. That is the way our legal system is set up. The defendant has no obligation to prove anything whatsoever. That huge standard protects us from miscarriages of justice.

LP: Judge Fox is a close friend of Judge Dupree, who presided over the 1979 trial. Is it possible that Jeffrey MacDonald will get justice under these circumstances?

I thought the world of Judge Dupree. He was a true gentleman, even though there were things in the trial and there were decisions he made that I disagree with. Judge Fox is also a good man. I’ve had many cases in court. I don’t know what the odds are. But I’m an optimist generally about our system of justice, and I hope that MacDonald get a break.

LP: Is Jeffrey MacDonald innocent?

WS: For me to say that he is innocent would require magic. I don’t have that magic. I wasn’t there that night. But there is a reasonable doubt, and because there is a reasonable doubt it is absolutely clear that he should be set free.

Why the MacDonald Case Matters to Everyone

I have read transcripts, articles, books, opinions, blogs, and bizarre rantings about psychopaths on Joe McGinniss’ Web site to help me more clearly see the picture of the MacDonald case. Like Wade Smith, I’ve been struck by how many people speak of absolute certainty about what happened that February night over 40 years ago. As if they had seen it with their own eyes. Such is the power of a good story.

Or maybe there’s something else at work: Picture #2 is even more awful to see than Picture #1. When a terrible crime is committed, society comes together to find someone to blame and to pay for the collective sense of violation. When you accept Picture #1, you’re deciding that Jeffrey MacDonald is the Person Who Must Pay. To dislodge an idea reinforced by a popular book and TV phenomenon would be hard enough, but to add the sickening sense that the wrong man has been paying is nearly unthinkable. It implicates us all.

Harvey Silverglate, a renowned civil liberties advocate, has been an appellate attorney for MacDonald. He is outspoken about MacDonald’s innocence, and when I called him, I could hear the years of outrage in his voice over the way the case has proceeded. Silverglate believes that Jeffrey MacDonald has been railroaded, and that this railroading exposes disturbing trends in our federal criminal justice system. He worries that we are moving into a period in which the finality of verdicts is so zealously protected (a legacy, in part, of 9/11) that new evidence offers little hope of challenging them. MacDonald has had mostly good lawyers, though not always the appropriate ones. But Silverglate points out that those lawyers have been up against an increasingly perverse system in which ancient legal rights like habeas corpus have been tossed aside in the name of preserving convictions at any cost. (See Silverglate's article on the case in Forbes.)

Out of all the evidentiary and procedural twists and turns, I asked Silverglate to name the one that bothered him the most about the MacDonald case.

“The one thing that sticks in my craw above anything else is this: There were lab results. There was a re-examination of the fibers found on the bodies of Collette and the children. These fibers on the bodies didn’t match any fibers found in the MacDonald house. There were fibers from a blonde wig that matched the description of Helena Stoeckley. The FBI lab guy turned over two copies to Brian Murtaugh, the prosecutor. There’s a note attached. This note says: 'Brian, I’m giving you this lab report. I’m giving you an extra copy for Bernie Segal [the defense counsel]. You can give it to him.' Brian Murtaugh says, ‘Sure, I’ll give it to him. I’ll be seeing him.’ Well, Bernie Segal told me that he never saw it.”

In other words, an FBI lab technician trusted exculpatory evidence to a member of the prosecution team. Evidence the defense never saw.

Silverglate predicts that even after examining the new evidence, Judge Fox will not grant Jeffrey MacDonald a new trial. But he is hopeful that the Fourth Court of Appeals, located in Richmond, Virginia, will take a careful look at the case and as a whole be more favorable to MacDonald. There may be hope that MacDonald will eventually gain his freedom and at least be able to live the last few years of his life outside of a prison cell.

After traveling a months-long journey that has led me from certainty to doubt to horror at a grave injustice, I’m going to turn in this article and then go run some errands and make myself a bite to eat. Mundane things that Jeffrey MacDonald has not been able to do for over 30 years. The simple acts of coming and going as I please and caring for my own basic needs have been denied him. His wife Colette and his children have also been forever denied these things — but not, I have come to believe, by the man who is currently serving three consecutive life sentences.

Tonight when I retire to my bed, I will not feel as safe from unpredictable evils as I did when I was a teenager reading scary stories. Even scarier stories, I’ve found, can be true. Stories about the innocent caught in a machine that perverts every possibility of justice. That kind of story never ends. There is no finality in injustice.

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  1. Paul P

    One thing that bothered me about Joe McGinnis’s book was his failure to tell us that the pattern of family murder attributed to MacDonald was a patten known to criminologists. Do people commit murders like this? A sudden errution of violence with no history of psychopathy?
    MacDonal’s love affairs were supposed to have supplied this connection, I suppose. But I thought it evidence that he wasn’t a guy who needed to murder his family had he felt trapped in a marriage.

    The OJ Simpson murder trial showed how a major city police department handles evidence. DA Garcetti, in a post trial press conference, blamed the jury for the verdict, but did not mention the horrible way the police handled the evidence. Not his responsibility.

    The prosecutorial indifference to truth is echoed in the police “investigation” and prosecution in the Central Park jogger case. If you get a chance to see “The Central Park Five,” now showing in NYC, you get to see how normal is the intransigence and tunnel vision of the prosection team.

    Law and Order distorts the workings of the criminal justice system.

  2. Elliot

    I barely remember the case, but this article sounds as inflammatory & slanted as it says the press for McDonald was, which is not very confidence building. I get that Parramore loved the book, but perhaps she should have waited a month or so before hitting ‘publish’.
    Plus, ‘witchcraft cult’? Really? Hippie murders? I know this is the era of Romney-bama and all things non-liberal, but still those sound like 80’s TV tropes. I’m an old Christian from the ultra conservative backwoods of Idaho, but even I know many wiccans, and murder-cults are not in their compass.

    And “acid is groovy”? Let’s think a bit about the mental state of a person committing such violent murders; that wording sounds a whole lot more like frameup –or coincidental, unconnected dopeheads, than butchery.

    1. Elizabeth

      And your point is what exactly? To come to the defense of wiccans? Besides the fact that you “barely remember the case” of Jefrey McDonald you also obviously know nothing about Errol Morris or his reputation for incredibly meticulous research.

    2. Ray Phenicie

      “Plus, ‘witchcraft cult’? Really? Hippie murders? I know this is the era of Romney-bama and all things non-liberal, but still those sound like 80′s TV tropes.”
      What support do you have for your speculation? The TV tropes may be based on reality for all we know and you have not informed us otherwise.

  3. blue

    One of the posts in the referenced thread I agree with:
    “So here is a green beret, in top physical condition, and having gone through years of armed combat training—and his precious babies are being slaughtered and stabbed to death, and he comes away with very minor injuries. I know that my husband would have been cut to shreds and on his last dying breath before his kids were slaughtered in our home.”

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Wow, is this a troll attack or a classic example of the cognitive bias called “backfire effect”? Or were you just too damned lazy to read the post?

      1. His injuries weren’t minor:

      The story many of us think we know tells that MacDonald’s wounds were superficial. But he had multiple bruises and puncture wounds, and two stab wounds, including one that collapsed his lung — a serious injury that left him falling in and out of consciouness.

      2. The fact that he was a Green Beret does not mean he was trained in hand-to-hand combat. The state of the art has advanced in that considerably. Even now, a lot of bodyguards aren’t trained in it, and my impression (from a guy who developed the hand to hand combat program for the Seals) was it was NOT standard training until the last decade or so. And martial arts training actually makes you worse at hand to hand combat. A lot of the effective moves aren’t permitted in martial arts, and the training is defensive oriented (when in an actual hand to hand combat situation, your aim is to disable the guy by injuring him or killing him).

      1. sgt_doom

        During Vietnam UnWar period, especially towards the latter stages when a variety of offbeat fighting methods were adopted (as in quick skeet shooting for quick response rifle firing without aiming), the Special Forces and SEALs were indeed experienced in unarmed combat — it was during the late 1970s to 1980s when things slacked off considerably, but improved over the last decade.

        Probably, physical training back then was considerably more arduous, as I recall that the pararescue training in the USAF I went through was considered the toughest physical training around, second only to the North Korean Special Programmed Assassin training (I kid thee not, but that program stared when the “candidates” were around 4 years of age).

        But I’m not offering this as evidence either way, as I’m ignorant of the details surrounding this case.

      2. maynardGkeynes

        Yves, the police dept photos of his injuries are available online. See for yourself. They are, indeed, quite minor. The one “serious” injury he suffered, a puncture wound that caused a collpased lung, was almost certainly self-inflicted by the surgical scalpel found in his house. Sadly, and sickeningly, the autopsy photos of his wife and children are also available online. I do not advise anyone to look at them. But if you doubt his guilt, compare them to the injuries he suffered. They are beyond brutal. It is impossible — impossible — that the people who did this to those poor little children would leave him like they did. Check it out and decide for yourself; the article you cite is shockingly careless, and it trivializes the mournful deaths of innocents by the hands of a father, and husband.

        1. Katherine

          Exactly. Further, there is very interesting information from a court transcript online in which a doctor/witness explains how intentional lung punctures were for a time sometimes used to treat TB patients – and that the procedure was something MacDonald would know.

          The part about Helena Stoeckley is also misrepresented in this article. She was a sad case, a drug informant and addict whose story changed multiple times. In one version, she claims to have had sex w/ MacDonald. She also at one point claimed that the candle she was holding while supposedly changing, Acid is Groovy, Kill the Pigs dripped blood rather than candle wax. One of the guys she fingered as participating was later found to have been incarcerated elsewhere at the time. There are many more inconsistencies with her – can’t remember them all now.

          I have no problem believing that this case was mishandled from the get-go, and realize that many innocent persons are wrongly convicted annually – usually people with a different skin color and fewer resources than MacDonald. I believe that in this case, the right guy was convicted, but quite probably in an illegal way.

          Morris has gone sadly astray on this one. And Parramore is following him. Will their necessary and important critiques of our criminal injustice system result in the erroneous exoneration of a brutal murderer? Freddy Kassab must be turning over in his grave.

  4. Richard Kline

    So Lynn Parramore, I read this piece originally over at Alternet. I find the points you raise regarding the hardening of the appeals process _against_ defendants germane. In fact, I would like, and prefer, further reportage from you on that subject specifically. In addition, I think your remarks, and the facts of MacDonald’s case, demonstrate that his trial was seriously flawed, notably by the very poor crime scene control and worse by exclusion of exculpatory evidence. Hence his conviction _on the merits of that trial_ is certainly open to question, sure.

    That said, I’m unconvinced of his innocence. Further, the presentation in this article strikes me as . . . not balanced. The fact that Joe McGinnis is a self-promoting ethical disaster is really beside the point, he never had access to the evidence. I get it that you are convinced of MacDonald’s innocence, but that does not justify the complete absence of information in your report regarding _why_ there is reason to believe he committed the crime, or was involved in it as a perpetrator in some way.

    It has been a long time since I had an even cursory engagement with the facts of this notorious murder and trial, but it is a serious omission that you do not report MadDonald’s extramarital affairs anywhere in your remarks. There is reason to believe he could have a motive. There is the further difficulty that Jeffrey MadDonald, a _trained green beret_ was physically overcome by alleged intruders who then managed to make his wife and children very, very physically dead beyond any doubt but did not inflict upon the putatively helpless and semi-conscious MacDonald any equivalent or even likely to be fatal physical trauma. A punctured lung can certainly kill you; over time. MacDonald was and is a physician, and would be in a good position to gauge where and how to inflict a nonfatal lung puncture. It is very difficult to explain how MadDonald, the one person capable of resistance and the ostensible target of ‘an intruding, vengeful drug gang’ in the scenario you present, received such comparatively minor injuries while his family members were physically destroyed. There then is ‘Jeffrey MacDonald, moving on with his life.’ Hmmm. Consider: Someone breaks into your home, slaughters your wife and kids and leaves you for dead. Yes, the police investigate you, but briefly and you are exonerated. And then you spend your time haranguing the police but largely indifferent to the deceased. And quite indifferent to further investigation of surely one of the most bizarre murders of recent times. MacDonald’s father-in-law, Freddy Kassab, came to believe he had been deceived at a basic level by MacDonald. Kassab is in a much better position to assess that than you, I, or MacDonald’s lawyer. Nothing in your presentation probes the father-in-law’s belief that MacDonald had something really wrong with him, Kassab is just presented as bitter and off his nut.

    You make the argument that this other person, a local woman, ‘told someone she was present that night.’ So, what of it? Present working for whom? In what way? That woman is described as a) a junkie, b) a police informant, c) a notorious and longtime hanger-on surrounding the murder. Let us say that her credibility, not to speak of her motives, is open to question. And conveniently, she is very dead and not in a position to explain anything to anyone. And by the way, it is Prime Move #1 of Jailhouse lawyers to find a bystander to ‘cast serious doubt’ after the conviction, usually a down-and-out substance abuser with their own problems with the criminal justice system. I’m baffled at the credence given this person’s unchallengable allegation unless ones mind is already made up on MacDonald’s innocence and one is only looking for scraps of confirmation.

    There is the larger problem here that you say that you, and numbers of others motivated to prove Jeffrey MacDonald’s innocence, don’t ‘get how someone ”normal” could just snap.’ It is clear to me that you do not have particular experience with genuine psychopaths, personality disorders, speaking clinically and not in a derogatory sense. There are in fact individuals who are quite capable of fitting in (in most respects) in a more or less normal fashion who at a more basic level completely lack any empathy with those around them. They don’t so much have a sudden psychotic episode were they do things off their behavioral map as reach a situation where someone is in there way or threatens them and the fundamental inhuman willingness kept largely concealed in their personality is deployed to eliminate that obstruction. I’ll skip details, Lynn, but my point is that a certain small percentage of people just like this DO very much exist. Here’s one specific example to keep closely in mind: Scott Peterson. The physical evidence against him isn’t great either, but I don’t think anyone seriously questions he did the murders for which he has been convicted. Part of that is that the pattern of his surrounding behavior, as with MacDonald, does not engage with the loopy and unbelievable explanations he advanced.

    Deep psychopaths are excellent deceivers, Lynn. They spend their whole lives concealing who they really are, they are skilled at it. Part of their success is that because they experience no guilt or remorse they often convince _themselves_ that they are right and innocent and never harmed a one in their lives. They easily pass lie detector tests for example for just that reason, they believe themselves blameless, “It was all so-and-so’s fault” and hence “they brought all this about, I’m just an innocent bystander to their fatal incident.” Their wives, business partners, in-laws, and supervisors often don’t have a clue until and unless that person acts to get something they are blocked from having. Those other folks _should_ have a clue, yes, but they have been drawn into the pattern of buying the smooth packing and ready explanations rather than believing their own ‘[not] lying eyes.’ A lot of folks thought Ted Bundy was a great guy. Jack Unterweger charmed his way _out_ of prison, only to go on killing. I simply mention them because folks like this REALLY DO EXIST, and so that possibility has to be taken into account in assessing Jeffrey MacDonald’s pattern of behavior.

    Yes, it’s hard not go give away _some_ indication. Yes, skilled psychological forensics will detail whether or not someone has such a disorder. It’s notable Lynn that we hear nothing of such psychological forensics in your presentation. Squishy ‘everybody liked him’ remarks are the very opposite: they are not to be trusted because a person capable of the kind of crime mentions is _very, very good_ and charming others along. I think it could be solidly established by psychological professionals whether or not MacDonald is a personality disorder. That single fact, whether yay or nay, would count far, far more in supporting having his conviction overturned than any dead, drug-dependent witchcraft dabbler or putatively hard-hearted pair of gentleman judges of the Old South persuasion. But this prime, salient fact never enters the account. That concerns me.

    There are thousands of deep cons in prison, Lynn, who are there on merit. Not a few are there for murder. Is Jeffrey MacDonald one of them? Honestly I have no idea. I have a ton of respect for Errol Morris; that said, even good minds can get it wrong, and folks do get old and out of touch as well, to be frank. I have respect for your reportage and advocacy to this point as well let me add here. I’m not questioning your motives here, only your conclusions. Sam Shepard: did he kill his wife? Amanda Knox: hand on the blade or never there? These make for fascinating stories, but in the end it’s the evidence to which one must return. The evidence presented in trial for Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt is perhaps on the other side of reasonable doubt from a conviction, that seems fair to say. Nothing in your presentation, at all, convinces of his innocence, however. And a great deal that does not reflect well on Jeffrey MacDonald is omitted. I would suggest that you review _all_ of the situation regarding MacDonald before further advocacy. Not just the blindness of the state, and the weakness of the case but all the patterns of behavior involved. If, having done that, you stay on track then that’s an informed take and of course your choice. I’m sorry to differ and say that from where I stand I’m not convinced that you presently have full command of this issue.

    Here’s something to consider on a tangent: Jeanette Rubin surrendered to the FBI at the Canadian border today. The Feds are going to do all in their power to put her away as a terrorist, a loose end in a gross misapplication of state power against rather loony but not violent ecological activists. Rubin needs someone like you in her corner. And to my mind deserves that far more than Jeffrey MacDonald. There are many injustices done to be sure . . . .

      1. Laurence Smith

        As a Psychotherapist Your points regarding Jeffrey MacDondald are quite accurate, injcluding not every murderer has to have had a history of violence, as many murders involved in love triangles never had a history of violence. Jeffrey had a solid motivation behind what he did in that he saw himself as a ladies man but was encumbered with a wife and kids. Jeffrey was never in a life threatening condition regarding the wounds that he himself inflicted.

        In murder cases I don’t believe in coincidences such as his wounds just happened to be in places that were not life threatening. After many years in prison a convicted person who was actually guilty and is maintaining their innocence comes to believe the story they are telling everyone.

  5. Tim Mason

    This is an interesting piece, and revealing of many of the flaws that have made of the criminal justice system in the USA an institution that needs root and branch reform. Morris, of course, already uncovered many of these in his film ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ (about which I have blogged at – the first of a series of ten posts on the film). An excellent place to go is The Innocence Project, which has been using DNA evidence to get people off death row and out of prison. They have a series of films on the reasons why wrongful convictions arise here : . Some of the material in these films is truly mind-boggling.

    One major cause of wrongful conviction is prosecutorial misconduct, which often goes hand in hand with poor police work – this was the case in the Randall Adams affair, and judging by this article, may have played a large role in the MacDonald affair.

    BTW, it is best to avoid all speculation about what MacDonald would or would not have done, and what is realistic or not. People do totally weird things all the time. What should count is the evidence. In this case, it seems to have been badly handled. This is unfortunately not so unusual as to leave one with great confidence in the system.

    BTW2. I am talking about the US system. Other systems also have their problems, but juridicial populism is particularly acute in your system.

    1. Lynn Parramore

      You have hit upon one of the most troubling aspects of this case. People constantly make reference to how a person “should” behave after undergoing trauma. Jeffrey MacDonald’s behavior has been endless scrutinized, and if you believe he’s guilty, you will have a tendency to see any behavior as evidence of guilt. MacDonald was not the type to cry publicly — he was a surgeon and a Green Beret — though he wept about the case when interviewed by psychiatrists at the 1970 hearing. They pronounced him pscychologically normal. But to those that were convinced of his guilt, his calm delivery of facts when questioned in more public forums was considered abnormal. Similarly, when he became angry on the stand at the 1979 trial, this was considered inappropriate by many. And yet, if you were an innocent man who had suffered the trauma of having your family slaughtered and pursued by prosecutors for years, would anger not be a “normal” affect to display? Jeffrey MacDonald admitted to having extramarital affairs. Does that kind of behavior suggest a homicical maniac who uses multiple weapons to slaughter his family? Again, once the narrative of guilt has taken hold, there is no end to the interpretations of behavior that can reinforce the believe. If he cried publicly, the “psychopath” camp would say that he is a conman. On and on it goes.

  6. fresno dan

    ” It describes some sea changes in our criminal justice system that you may not be aware of.”

    ts a “legal” system – not a “justice” system…

    Although many of the rulings recently have been outrageous,(so much yammering about the constitution and original intent, and so little constraining of the prosecutor state) prosecutorial and police misconduct is common and long standing. There is a crony, old school view of the “bar” that simply prevents any real investigation of prosecutors and judges – remember the Duke rape allegations? The defendants were large enough in number and well resourced – I don’t think anyone could seriously dispute that if Nifong was prosecuting poor black defendants….all of them would be in prison now.

    And even when there is videotape of the police murdering someone, the community has to pitch a fit to get any action.

    Ask yourself this – the evidence was there. Why didn’t the prosecutor start indicting? Not until a groundswell of local activism and news media made this an issue was anything done – and that’s business as usual.

    I used to be a big believer in the honesty of our legal system – but even the most cursory review shows an utterly corrupt system – unable and unwilling to prosecute documented bank fraud, and all too willing to gin up fake convictions for political ambition.

  7. bmeisen

    Am grateful to live in a country with a thoroughly independent, apolitical judiciary and exclusively bench trails.

  8. TomV

    WOW!! “Who is that masked-man” Richard Kline? That was a very impressive response. It we be interesting to see how this plays out.

  9. Fred H

    Facts and truth are not related in the bastardized system of justuce found in America.

    No facts, no problem.

  10. indio007

    I implore everyone to go to criminal court and just observe. I really really hate to say this but the courts are nothing more than an extortion racket.

    I went the other day for my nephew who is in the process of coming face to face with the debauchery.

    Here’s a representative sample of one case.
    Girl comes in on a driving after suspension charge. This is a criminal charge with jail time.
    The prosecutor says “The State is looking for a $200 fine.
    The judge says to the girl , “The state wants to settle this for $200.”
    He never asks her about a lawyer or anything. This is the only exchange.
    The girl says, “My license isn’t suspended.”
    The judge says, “So you don’t want to pay the $200?”
    Girl: “No.”
    Judge: “I’m assessing you a $150 lawyer fee. Your case is continued to blah blah blah … next case.”

    Girl walks away dumbfounded.

  11. PQS

    I found this article very interesting, but unfortunately not terribly new information. Our so-called criminal justice system is full of injustice, railroading, and politically motivated players. The only thing unusual about the MacDonald case is that he is a well-connected white guy. If MacDonald was any other race, nobody would have heard a thing about him, ever, despite the notoriety of the case.

    Recently “Frontline” ran an episode about the unreliability and general unscientific nature of most “forensice” evidence – even the so-called utter uniqueness of fingerprints has recently been called into question. The only thing that isn’t questionable is DNA evidence, but I can recall watching another show years ago in which prosecutors, so desperate to maintain their conviction, completely denied that the presence of another person’s DNA at the crime scene could exonerate the defendant. It was chilling, frankly, to see these well-educated laywers say things like “Just because his DNA wasn’t at the crime scene doesn’t mean he isn’t guilty.” It’s truly a “1984” world we live in, and I would submit to any young person to stay out of trouble, because when the wheels start to turn, you will be crushed under them.

  12. Lynn Parramore

    I’d like to point out something about the diagnosis of “psychopath.” It’s a term that came into vogue through the work of an idiosyncratic Georgia psychiatrist named Hervey Clerkley. He also gave us “multiple personality disorder”, a diagnosis that has been much discredited. Both terms have been popularized in film and the media for many decades.

    Clinical psychiatrists hardly ever use the psychopath diagnosis; it has become highly controversial. Forensic psychiatrists, however, use it all the time. The diagnosis is extremely useful in swaying juries because it raises the specter of a killing machine who will continue to kill if released. It’s also extremely vague and has the perverse logic associated with it that the more “normal” a person appears, the more diabolical he is supposed to be. “But he’s sitting there so calm!” “Exactly! That’s what a psychopath does.” And so on. The term “witch” was used with much the same efficacy in earlier trials in our judicial system. Morris has an intriguing chapter on the use of the pschyopath diagnosis in A Wilderness of Error.

    1. LucyLulu

      “Clinical psychiatrists hardly ever use the psychopath diagnosis; it has become highly controversial.”
      I’ve worked in the mental health field since 1979, and whether one calls it “antisocial personality disorder”, “sociopath”, or “psychopath”, no psychiatrist I’ve encountered has doubted the existence of this diagnosis, nor was I aware it was deemed controversial. It is once again included in the latest revision to the diagnostic reference “Bible” used by psychiatrists, DSM V, along with the criteria for establishing the diagnosis. Sociopaths do not typically seek psychiatric help however and are not always found in the criminal justice system. Many lead quite successful careers, are even seen as pillars of the community.

      McGinniss’ epilogue from the link posted up the page was a compelling narrative for MacDonald’s guilt.

  13. just me

    This passage in the article struck me funny:

    Bernie Segal, a long-haired Jewish lawyer from Philadelphia, took the lead in the case and managed to alienate the entire courtroom. Segal took up nearly all the time in the critical period for closing remarks and left only a few minutes for co-counsel Wade Smith, an eloquent native Carolinian who understood the jury.

    I get that “long-haired” puts him in with suspect hippies, but Jewish is relevant how? Is this one of Morris’s points? This might be telling us as much about the jury and the courtroom — but I’m grasping.

    Also, from the interview – did the eloquent, jury-friendly Smith make this point in court – surely he had enough time? In the end, shouldn’t this be what matters?

    LP: Is Jeffrey MacDonald innocent?

    WS: For me to say that he is innocent would require magic. I don’t have that magic. I wasn’t there that night. But there is a reasonable doubt, and because there is a reasonable doubt it is absolutely clear that he should be set free.

  14. skippy

    WOW all the personal verdicts based on non exculpatory evidence, bias conformation duh…

    It was a poorly handled case from the get go and on the prosecutions side IMO. Having said that his defense team was half and half, Bernie Segal had some personal issues and I would never hire him.

    Anyway some stuff..

    Skippy… more than anything, the Green Beret stuff is projection on peoples parts than a cognitive one. Too many movies and weekend warrior books, methinks.

    PS. NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft secretly records NYPD top brass giving orders that tickets must be written and arrest must be made or there will be hell to pay. He goes on to say that orders were given to harass people so vigorously that they will not even want to step foot outside in fear of being arrested or ticketed.

    The police are nothing more than an organized crime syndicate which has fooled us into believing they are here to protect us. When was the last time you seen a cop save somebody or help you for that matter? You can’t even look at a cop without him giving you a dirty look and finding you suspicious of a crime, that’s if your not a young pretty girl or boy for that matter.

    I can personally testify to constant harassment and intimidation by the NYPD, we are a city literally under siege as we are all being ticketed into poverty by these bogus protectors. Lines are wrapped around the corner at criminal court houses over tickets that cops seem to be giving out because they need to meet their quota aka “productivity goal” which is to make money for this corrupt Justice system and corporate owned prison industry

  15. Kim Kaufman

    This piece is one reason I like NC so much — a surprise and “off topic” piece like this that is so compelling and makes me think about “our system” as a whole and how broken it is on many levels and how it affects actual people.

  16. vlade

    if you haven’t read, I’d suggest reading “Mistakes were made (but not by me)”. It has a great (well, not so great when you think about implications) part on the interrogation techniques the US police generally follows (the premise is “we do not interrogate innocent people” *shudder*)

    For example, it’s not illegal for them to lie to you in the interrogation, which most people don’t know. Combine that with “people who are innocent would never admit guilt” (which sounds sensible, but actually doesn’t work like that) and escalation of commitment can very easily lead to innocents ending in jail and little or no chance of ever getting out – and the people who put them in jail fighting he most any efforts to clear them.

    1. Ben

      Most of the comments back and forth actually confirm the main hypothesis of the article. it is easier to label a seemingly normal man a killer than to accept that crazy strangers might invade our homes and kill us for little reason.
      It does happen and it creeps us out, but usually Dad dies too. The ‘in cold blood’ murders, the Richmond New years Harvey family murders are so horrifying we want to imagine them as rare as possible. Because they don’t make sense doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

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