In his new book, Academy Award-winner Errol Morris has taken on one of the highest-profile murder case of the last 50 years.
Morris, known for The Fog of War, his documentary about Robert S. McNamara, just published his second book — A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (affiliate link) — a revival of the story of a young Army doctor convicted in 1979 of murdering his pregnant wife and two children.
Americans of a certain age (i.e., older than me) almost certainly remember MacDonald, whose story was told and endlessly picked apart on television, in Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, and The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm. But Morris’s new book is perhaps the first serious investigative look at the idea that MacDonald may very well be innocent.
Morris’s book, which has already garnered positive reviews in the New York Times and the Atlantic, is at once a thrilling true crime story and challenging philosophical look at the tricky nature of facts and the importance of narrative in the American legal system.
Let’s hear more about the book and chat with Morris….
MacDonald’s case is a long, complicated, and unsettling story, no matter how you slice it or what you believe about it.
In a very brief nutshell, here’s a synopsis from the New York Times:
The case began when Mr. MacDonald called the military police at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, to his home and told them that a band of marauding hippies, including a woman in a floppy hat, beat and stabbed his family while chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” Mr. MacDonald’s pregnant wife and daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristin, 2, died in the violence, and Mr. MacDonald was injured but survived.
Coming, as it did, in the months after the Manson murders and during a period of civil unrest and burgeoning drug use, the crime created widespread suspicion and worry. But soon after the murders Army investigators began to focus on Mr. MacDonald, believing that he had killed his family in a rage and staged the scene to mimic the Manson murders.
Mr. MacDonald eventually found himself not only convicted and sentenced but also rendered as a calculating sociopath in “Fatal Vision,” a 1983 book by Joe McGinniss that has sold over 2.5 million copies, and in a matching NBC mini-series, which was watched by an average of around 30 million people on each of its two nights. Without the car chase and acquittal, he was the O. J. of his time.
In “Wilderness,” Morris explores the story of Helene Stoeckley, the woman in the hat, who, Morris told me, “confessed to a couple dozen people — anyone she could get her hands on.” He examines myriad instances of alleged prosecutorial misconduct and investigates a host of other bizarre circumstances that may have led to MacDonald’s wrongful conviction.
In addition to the story itself, what make the book particularly gripping and thought-provoking — and of particular interest to attorneys — are Morris’s ruminations on the legal system:
Narratives are ubiquitous. They are part of the way people see the world. Part of the way people think. ALl of us. Myself included. Without them we would be overwhelmed with undigested, raw facts. But that doesn’t mean that all narratives are created equal.
Morris is openly passionate about the subject. He’s dealt with wrongful conviction before, in another documentary called The Thin Blue Line. And he’s had one eye on MacDonald’s case for two decades. The book project began about a year ago, after he started writing Opinionator columns at the New York Times where he honed his essay-writing style.
Keep reading to see more about what Morris has to say about his book….