Gene Weingarten has won two Pulitzer Prizes in the last five years for his powerful and all-too-rare feature writing. He has another un-put-downable feature in the upcoming Washington Post Sunday magazine on the Jeffrey McDonald case, with some implicit criticism of the unskeptical coverage of Errol Morris's "A Wilderness of Error" positing a conspiracy theory to railroad MacDonald. It's an extraordinary tale not just of a prosecutor who devotes his career to seeing justice done, but of the amazing smoke screens that can be woven by defense attorneys working decades after the fact as memories fade and peripheral (or even uninvolved) witnesses appear who are willing to lie for ulterior motives—and of a media eager to consume and repeat such stories, all over the backdrop of a chilling crime and a glamorous sociopath.
The story is important for three additional policy reasons beyond the obvious ones about media bias (ironic, given the controversy over "Fatal Vision," another book about the case). First, a Salon/Alternet story (also gullibly credulous of Morris's book) asserts as "never in doubt" that if a different attorney on MacDonald's team had given the opening and closing argument at his murder trial, MacDonald would have walked. I don't know if that's true; the jury that convicted them took only six hours to do so, and Weingarten quotes one of the jurors relaying the strength of the presumption of innocence they had given a citizen with MacDonald's upstanding record; it's hard to believe that what made the difference was the long-haired Jewish lawyer who did speak the most. But if it is, it shows the degree to which jury trials are contests of "game show" tactics rather than effective truth-finding mechanisms—and the degree to which we as a society find that acceptable.
Second, the sort of nonsense of manufactured claims of innocence that we see in this murder case is not unlike that we see in other murder cases. Decades after witnesses die and evidence is discarded, private investigators looking hard enough can find someone willing to change their story or invent an entirely new one. Most people are honest, but it takes only a couple on the periphery to create an alternative scenario that results in a best-selling book. And most murder cases don't have someone as meticulous and with as much institutional knowledge as Brian Murtagh, willing to spend decades on a single case finding outside-the-box ways of refuting every new conspiracy theory that arises. (And luck played a role in this case. Indeed, a major witness apparently planned the timing of his lie around the scheduled destruction of the documents that would have refuted him; by happenstance, the documents hadn't been destroyed.) The Innocence Project has done a lot of good springing convicts through documentation of decades-old DNA evidence that was unable to be contemporaneously considered, but I hadn't realized that they're also involved in cases like MacDonald's based entirely on improbable witnesses (the DNA evidence, according to Weingarten, is entirely consistent with MacDonald's guilt), and makes me very much rethink my willingness to endorse them in the future. I will be more skeptical of decades-old innocence claims in the future—and I was already far more skeptical than most.
Third, the case and the story shows the importance of statutes of limitations in holding accurate civil trials. Witnesses die; memories fade; physical evidence is destroyed naturally or in the regular course of business; grudges and motives to lie multiply. Only an accident of fate permitted the prosecution here to rebut a 2005 fiction told about 1979 events where most of the witnesses had died.