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Gene Weingarten on Jeffrey MacDonald and "A Wilderness of Error"

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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.

Earlier on statutes of limitations and on game-show litigation tactics.

11 Comments

Mr. Weingarten's perspective was welcomed after so many journalists accepted Errol Morris's thesis at face value. Any reasonable person who has read the trial transcripts (they are available on line)and who therefore understands the powerful physical evidence presented against Macdonald will see Morris's book as superficial and unpersuasive. Helena Stoeckley, the key figure in Morris's argument, was conclusively shown to be unreliable---the numerous "confessions" she made were properly excluded from the jury. I hope that Brian Murtagh will consider publication of his rebuttal of the Morris book----and perhaps write a book of his own.

Sadly this gentlemen praises a prosecution and original judge
That were clearly corrupt. Some members of team even disbarred.
Yes witnesses die conveniently for the prosecution. This isn't
A hero prosecutor. He is one of those prosecutors who used
This case to build a reputation and cannot look
Outside his blinders. The "Shockley " mess want a mess at all. She confessed to a
Minimum of four people including family and in her death bed.
A policeman saw her and he was basically ignored.
And McGinnis a dishonest author who decided his concocted story
If a guilty man would sell much better than an innocent one

So he wrote the book that would sell.

This is a sad story but one about the justice system.

That the prosecutors and judge were corrupt is a conclusory allegation made by MacDonald's advocates that has yet to be proven to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, or the U.S. Supreme Court. The disbarment of James Blackburn, the lead prosecutor, occurred years after MacDonald's conviction and had nothing to do with his tenure as a AUSA or his actions regarding the MacDonald case.

Kenneth Mica did not see Helena Stoeckley. He saw a woman and, as I recall, never identified Stoeckley as the woman he saw. Again, that is a conclusory allegation made by MacDonald's advocates that has never been proven by evidence, i.e. testimony from Mica identifying Helena Stoeckley as the woman he saw.

There is no dispute that Helena Stoeckley claimed at various times to have been involved in the murders. There can be no dispute that she also recanted those "confessions" when not under the influence of alcohol/drugs. The story she eventually told to Ted Gunderson was not supported by MacDonald's story and remains unsupported by any physical evidence since both Stoeckley and Greg Mitchell were excluded as the sources of fingerprints and DNA found at the crime scene.

MacDonald's latest claims have also been refuted by evidence. Documents prove that Jimmy Britt did not transport Helena Stoeckley from South Carolina to Raleigh. Testimony from the prosecutors, as well as fellow U.S. Marshalls showed that Britt would not have been present when Helena Stoeckley was interviewed by prosecutors.

I don't think he did it. You must be guided by the evidence in these sort of cases and not by opinions from the court of public opinion.

Weingarten of the Washington Post should have declared an interest in his wife being a former colleague of the trickster lawyer Murtagh. The McGinniss book is just opinions and strange beliefs and it isn't evidence. For McGinniss to suggest that speed was involved in the MacDonald murders is just his opinion and it was never a proven fact, or legally admissible in court.

The evidence against Dr. MacDonald is quite ludicrously unsatisfactory and the real culprits have never been thoroughly or professionally investigated. Dr. MacDonld's story is plausible and consistent with the evidence. The jury and the judges got it wrong and they were biased and mistaken. It wasn't right judgement.

McGinniss is not qualified to render an opinion in this case and neither was Stombaugh with regard to fabric impressions, or the blood and bedding evidence which wrongly convicted Dr. MacDonald.

Very little space is given to reports of of any but sensational or unusual cases, and unless someone makes a scene, irregularities and even serious injustices, pass unnoticed. Unfortunately, newspaper reports are so often inaccurate that even when they do expose some miscarriage of justice little notice is taken of the matter.

"both Stoeckley and Greg Mitchell were excluded as the sources of fingerprints and DNA found at the crime scene."

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The DNA results are not in yet. They never tested the hair found underneath Kim's fingernails; Weingarten misdirects by saying hair found in Colette's hand was Jeff McDonald's.

Murtagh's evil recantation of his specious theory caps a terrible piece.

@TedFrank, where are the manufactured claims of innocence? MacDonald is not a proven liar.

Enough excuses for the sociopathy of an amphetamine-addicted, narcissistic philanderer who was bedding women within a month of his pregnant wife's brutal death.

Enough.

Enough stupid talk about some mysterious wandering gang of savages who decide on a whim to call at a random house, stab and beat a woman and her girls dozens of times using whatever weapons are to hand, all the while leaving the husband (despite his "life and death struggle") with the most minor of wounds, then leave without stealing money or drugs, never to be seen again, their fingerprints or DNA never to be found again at any crime scene.

Enough!

Let MacDonald rot, and let me know when he dies in jail, so I can cheer.

You are misdirecting the discussions with mis-statements.

No hair was found under Kim's fingernail. A hair was found under Kristen's and was DNA tested and found not to belong to Stoeckley or Mitchell.

A hair found in Colette hand - one that he had claimed for years belonged to the "killer" was matched to MacDonald by DNA testing.

Wendy - Stoeckley also recanted and changed her story numerous times. You can't just think of her confessions and not think of that fact as well. Which story should we believe? Why did she change them? Why did 2 private investigators feel they had to keep her in a motel room for 5 days to get her to confess (yet again)?

Henri - there isn't sufficient evidence? Really? Blood all over the house except for where MacDonald was allegedly attacked? Pajama threads all over the rooms and even on the club but not where he was allegedly attacked? Blood of a victim in a room he says the victim wasn't in? It's the evidence that 4 to 6 intruders invaded his home and attacked everyone that is quite insufficient - no fingerprint matchups to Stoeckley and her friends', no DNA matches, no evidence they had ever been in the MacDonalds' house - Stoeckley didn't even recognize which apartment it was when a reporter took her out to the street. The evidence is, the murders did not happen and could not have happened the way MacDonald said they did. Furthermore, MacDonald was the one who wrote in notes, in his own words, that he had been taking speed -- diet pills to lose weight. When "60 Minutes" confronted him on it, he tried to lie about it but admitted to it being his handwriting of the notes McGinness cited in his book.

Mark - MacDonald was proven over and over again to have lied. He lied about women being in his BOQ room when he was under arrest. He lied to his stepfather about having killed one of the supposed intruders -- that is an absolute fact. He confessed to his stepfather he lied and he told a Grand Jury he lied! He lied to Colette and many, many things - all the women he was with, supposedly going with a boxing team to Russia. The evidence of the crime shows he lied about many, many things. What kind of dream world do you live in?

I could not have said this better myself, sir. I thank you for your comments!

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," is only applied when the absence of evidence is in the convicted killer's favor. You can't have it both ways. If the absence of evidence exonerates a convicted killer, then it should likewise exonerate the alternative suspects named by the killer.

The hairs found were tested and the DNA was unidentified, i.e. it didn't belong to the MacDonald family members, Stoeckley or Mitchell. Two initial examinations of Kristen's fingernail scrapings found no hairs, so whether the hairs were under Kristen's fingernails or not is a matter that is disputed by the prosecution.

For years, MacDonald's camp claimed that a hair found in Colette's hand would identify the "real killer." DNA testing showed that the hair found in Colette's hand belonged to MACDONALD, which confirms the result of the original trials, i.e. MacDonald's conviction.

There tends to be blood at a murder scene. None of the blood evidence or bedding evidence proves Dr. MacDonald was involved. There were fibers found which have never been properly explained by the prosecution.

The crux of the prosecution case was that there is supposed to be no evidence of intruders. What did the prosecution expect to find? Muddy footprints or an identity card of the culprits?

The Army CID just decided who did it from the start and then went about to 'find' evidence. Leads and suspects were disregarded. It was bad police work. Shaw thought Colette murdered the two little girls and Kearns thought he did it because he was a womanizer and Ivory had a theory without facts that bodies had been carried in a sheet.

Colonel Rock correctly said that Helena Stoeckley should have been professionally and properly investigated, and so should Greg Mitchell and Allen Patrick Mazerolle. There are others who knew what happened and are keeping their mouths shut. There should have been a careful investigation. It was a tragic miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately officialdom never admits a mistake.

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