A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
A Novel by Error Morris
2012 / 524 Pages
The facts are as follows: In the early morning hours of February 17, 1970, responding to a call about a stabbing, four military police officers arrive at 544 Castle Drive, the home of Jeffrey MacDonald, his wife, and their two young daughters. Eventually entering the home, they discover the murdered bodies of Collette, Kimberly, and Kristen. Jeffrey is still alive, but he’s been beaten and is suffering from a collapsed lung. What happens from that moment forward will go down as one of the most mismanaged crime scene / murder investigations / trials in United States history.
Did Jeffrey MacDonald murder his entire family, or was the crime perpetrated by a drug-fueled hippie cult as he claimed? That’s the question private detective / documentary film maker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) sets out to answer in his probing new book, A Wilderness of Error. It quickly becomes clear that this will not be an easy case to solve.
First, there’s the problem of time. The crime occurred over forty years ago, and a lot of the principle players involved in the investigation and subsequent trials have died. Then, there’s the evidence itself. Not only was the crime scene horribly mismanaged, but DNA testing was still years away, so what was preserved from the scene, if not outright contaminated in some way, was certainly not kept with any kind of future processing in mind. Finally, there’s the disturbing question of narrative.
Originally hired by the defense, writer Joe McGinniss had virtually unrestricted access to MacDonald during the trials. He befriended him and then once he was found guilty betrayed him by writing a book titled Fatal Vision that cast MacDonald as a psychopath who most definitely, without question, murdered his wife and kids. The book became a miniseries on NBC that was watched by millions. How do you get a fair trial when that staggering a number of people believe that they already know all they need to about the crime in question?
In the end, Morris is all but forced to do the best he can with trial transcripts, archival interview footage, sworn statements, and whatever interviews he himself can conduct himself with those who remain. Over the course of 500 pages, in mostly chronological order, he reports his finding.
The answer doesn’t come in the form of a magic bullet. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the book comes down to the difference between being not guilty of a crime and innocent of committing one. Only Jeffrey MacDonald will ever know if he’s truly innocent. The question comes down to whether or not he would he have been found not guilty at trial if all of the evidence that was collected was properly presented to the jury. Based on Morris’s findings there seems to be little question. There’s not enough solid evidence left to either convict or clear MacDonald of the crime, but there most certainly is more than enough to cast a reasonable doubt with regards to his involvement.
Morris takes a very matter-of-fact approach throughout the book – letting the facts speak for themselves for the most part, and offering his interpretations and opinions based on his experience as a private detective, only when necessary. This isn’t a book that was written to sway the reader in one direction or the other. There are no pictures of MacDonald’s family. No pictures of the bloody crime scene. No pictures of any of the prosecutors, witnesses, or potential suspects. In fact, MacDonald’s picture only appears once in a reprint of a Playboy article, and it’s a blink-and-you-might-miss-it moment, because little attention is called to highlight the fact that the reader is looking at a photo of the book’s subject. It’s a brilliant move on the part of Morris. Let the evidence speak for itself. Don’t let the reader base their opinions on anything other than the facts. Of course though, for a book of this length and about this type of subject, you have to do something to break up the mountains of overwhelming textual information.
That’s where the wonderful graphic design work by Pentagram Design and Graphic Illustration comes into the play. Their drawings of items key to the case and the crime scene diagrams they created are stunning in their ability to call attention to, and never detract from, the key facts of the case. Flip to any one of their full page illustrations throughout the book and you’ll be almost instantly reminded of a crucial piece of evidence related to the case. They serve as a great visual queue to refresh the brain and also as built in bookmarks that you quickly jump back and forth between areas.
By the conclusion of A Wilderness of Error the reader can’t help but feel angry. Not over the lack of definitive proof of MacDonald’s guilt or innocence, but about the government’s horrible handling of the case. This is a crime that could have been, no, that SHOULD have been easily solved. Instead, investigators determined their narrative of events and then collected and examined only the evidence that would support their story.
Evidence never lies. Only the people who interpret incorrectly it do.