A trial is not a science fair, but rather a magic show.
Where does one even begin when trying to describe Errol Morris’ new book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald? I actually finished this book a couple of weeks ago but have been unable to put my feelings–my discomfort and horror–into words. It will, in turns, baffle, incense, sicken, and disconcert you. It will get under your skin and become an unwanted obsession, as Morris lays out a true story so fraught with impossibility that you can’t put it down because somewhere in its 500 pages there has to be justice, somewhere amidst all the wrongs there has to be a right. Doesn’t there?
I am too young to have first-hand knowledge of the MacDonald murders–the 1970 killings of Jeffery’s pregnant wife and two little girls–so I am not sure how this book reads to someone who remembers the crime and trials from when they originally took place. As a result, I am sure I’m biased towards Morris’ take on the trials: they consitute a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Jeffery MacDonald was a doctor and former Green Beret living on a military base in North Carolina, when his family was killed and he, himself, was severely injured. The initial crime scene was bungled by the investigators, most of whom had never encountered such a gruesome murder before, and many errors were made in the recording and preservation of evidence. MacDonald was subjected to a hearing by the military to determine his guilt in the crime and whether he should be court marshalled. He was cleared of all charges, largely as a result of the mishandling of evidence, but also based on psychiatric evaluation and a lack of motive. MacDonald always maintained his innocence and the story that at least four hippies had broken into his home that night and were the ones responsible for the murders–on the heels of the Manson murders, this was not an infeasible claim. 4 years later the case was reopened and brought to the federal court, where he was convicted of killing his family. To this day, Jeffery MacDonald remains in prison and is still fighting the convivtion.
Though Morris never explicitly says so, I would guess that he believes MacDonald is innocent and has been wrongly convicted. With his documentary, The Thin Blue Line, Morris did help save an innocent man from prison, who was likewise wrongly convicted of murder. Nothing in the MacDonald story, however, is cut and dried. Evidence is mishandled and withheld from the defence. Witnesses are supressed and threatened by both sides. Contradictions abound to such a dizzying extent that everything exists in a haze.
What Morris is clear about is that Jeffery MacDonald was never given a fair trial, that his guilt was never proven beyond a reasonable doubt. He methodically provides trial and interview transcripts for the case and talks to as many people involved as possible, laying out a timeline of events, evidence, and testimony. No matter what you believe about who did or did not murder the MacDonalds, nothing about how the trial was conducted bears the mark of a fair system of justice, nor is there evidence that Jeffrey MacDonald was treated as “innocent until proven guilty.” He was treated as guilty from the start, and the most outrageous things were admitted in (or kept out of) the courtroom. It is astounding and unsettling to see the U.S. justice system leap over so many checks and balances–to work with an agenda, or at least definite bias.
Unless you are completely of the opinion that Jeffery MacDonald killed his family, there is not even a clear villain in the story. It’s all one big mess, where people are doing their best to force jagged pieces of fractured tale into a recognizable shape, where someone can be blamed for such a terrible tragedy. But on both sides, important pieces are missing and edges are misaligned.
I have a history of abandoning nonfiction, but I could not put this book down. Morris has an excellent sense of pacing and narrative. He tells his version of the MacDonald case well, parsing information into managable bits, and while his own frustration with the proceedings shows through, I never felt he was withholding information to skew the story. He interviews people who are sure MacDonald killed his family, those who are sure he’s innocent, those who see the case for the mess it is, in addition to talking to MacDonald himself.
If you pick up this book hoping for resolution in the matter, I can tell you unequivocally you will not get it. Yet that desire does drive you as a reader. As emotionally draining as it is to read, this book is worth your time and attention because, by its very existence, it manages to create an alternate avenue of hope. It seeks to expose rather than cover up, and such an act could set an innocent man free. It could also help prove his guilt. But at least something would be proven based on the evidence rather than the simple desire to prove or convict.
Errol Morris recently tweeted, “THE MACDONALD CASE. I cannot and will not let it go.” If you read A Wilderness of Error, I doubt you will be able to let it go either. This book, then, is a sort of first step towards justice. I sincerely hope it is found.
Among events which are within the bounds of possibility, some are very probable and other highly improbable, and still others are in between the two… If we do not give judgement even on the basis of a very strong presumption, the worst that can happen is that the sinner will be acquitted, but if we punish on the strength of presumption and suppositions, it may be that one day we shall put to death an innocent person; and it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death. –Maimonides*
*Quotation taken from pg. 447 of A Wilderness of Error