Fatally Flawed

Jeffrey MacDonald might have killed his family—but we don’t know for sure.

Jeffrey McDonald.
Jeffrey MacDonald speaks about his appeal attempts on Aug. 19, 2004 at the Federal Correctional Institute in Maryland

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.

The 1970 triple homicide of Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife and two children, at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., has been the object of a remarkable level of scrutiny. MacDonald, a Princeton-educated doctor and a Green Beret at the time, has always maintained that a group of intruders attacked him and killed his family. An Army investigation cleared him initially, but he was convicted of the murders in Federal court in 1979. Joe McGinniss’ 1983 best seller about the case, Fatal Vision, later made into an NBC miniseries, convinced many people that justice had been done. Janet Malcolm then wrote a famous critique of journalistic ethics, The Journalist and the Murderer, which focused on McGinniss’ duplicity toward MacDonald as he reported the book. This past September, Errol Morris published A Wilderness of Error, which criticizes both McGinniss and Malcolm and makes the case for MacDonald’s innocence.

Finally, last week, McGinniss published a 22,000-word e-book, right on the heels of a 6,500-word magazine feature about the case by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. Both of them say, essentially, “Don’t worry, MacDonald obviously did it.” The Weingarten piece in particular has garnered widespread and near unanimous praise online. But Weingarten’s piece and McGinniss’ e-book are seriously flawed, and both are much too confident of their conclusions.

This past summer, I read the four major books on the MacDonald case, numerous articles, and a decent chunk of court testimony and other primary sources. Morris’ book makes some missteps, as I noted in a review-essay about it, and Weingarten and McGinniss point out a few that I did not catch. But Morris’ account is nonetheless far more persuasive than McGinniss’. Fatal Vision, which posits that MacDonald went into a homicidal rage unleashed by an excess of diet pills, tries to turn readers against MacDonald so thoroughly that they do not notice how much McGinniss relies on innuendo, omission, and unsupported inference. Vast portions of the book rest on a logical error that Weingarten also dabbles in: MacDonald is a creep. Ergo, he killed his entire family. As I wrote then, it’s a dishonest and unserious book—dishonest to the reader, not just MacDonald.

As Janet Malcolm exposed, McGinniss led MacDonald to believe he was in his corner while working on the book that would work so hard to persuade readers of his guilt. Shortly after the jury rendered its verdict, he wrote to MacDonald, “What the fuck were those people thinking of? How could 12 people not only agree to believe such a horrendous proposition, but agree, with a man’s life at stake, that they believed it beyond a reasonable doubt?”

But in his modestly titled new e-book, Final Vision: The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald, which is dedicated to debunking “Morris b.s.,” McGinniss is just as certain as he was in Fatal Vision that, in fact, “the full truth about the murders did come out at his trial.” McGinniss has to massage the timeline to account for the blatant contradictions in his letters. He says now that he knew MacDonald was guilty during the trial, but that after the conviction,

my doubts revived. He was such a good guy, how could he have done such a terrible thing? I must have missed something. The prosecution must have fooled me, and the jury, with sleight of hand.

For more than a year, I expressed sympathy to MacDonald. Finally, I came to believe he was a psychopath …

But we should trust him this time.

Weingarten does. He has been a champion of McGinniss’ book and his view of the case for years. “It is impossible to read Fatal Vision and not KNOW that [MacDonald] killed his wife and children,” Weingarten wrote in 2011. “Impossible.” Back in 1989 he wrote a letter of support to McGinniss after Janet Malcolm seriously damaged his reputation. In the Washington Post piece, Weingarten calls Fatal Vision “among the best true-crime books ever written.” As a person with great respect for Weingarten, I find these statements baffling.

But leave McGinniss aside for a moment and consider Weingarten’s own case for MacDonald’s guilt. Weingarten focuses on Brian Murtagh, the prosecutor in the case—and a co-worker of Weingarten’s wife for years. (Elsewhere he has described them as “good friends.”) Weingarten discloses this; indeed, with Janet Malcolm’s shadow looming, he acknowledges, “I intend to spin you toward a certain conclusion. The process is stealthy and has already begun.” These are honest admissions on Weingarten’s part, but they also play a strategic role. Weingarten grants that stories “are seldom completely arm’s-length,” and that journalists are liable to spin you. But then he poses his own piece as an exception, owing to his full disclosure. “OK, I think we’re at arm’s length now,” he writes. “We’re good to go.” Weingarten seems to want it both ways—he’s hoping you’ll trust him because he admitted that you shouldn’t.

I object, Your Honor. My point is not that MacDonald is definitely innocent—it’s that you ought to keep checking your wallet to be sure that Weingarten and McGinniss haven’t picked it.

Weingarten portrays Murtagh, his wife’s friend, as the unassuming, unsung hero of the MacDonald saga. Unlike MacDonald, an Ivy League womanizer with a yacht, Murtagh is a “resolutely boring” government employee who wears suspenders not as a fashion statement, but because “I need ’em to hold my pants up.” (Think about why Weingarten is telling us this.) “Through it all,” he writes, “Murtagh alone persisted.” (I would say that MacDonald has persisted too, but never mind.) Weingarten says that Murtagh wrote out a long rebuttal to Errol Morris but “didn’t release it to the media,” because he’s above that or something—but apparently he showed it to a columnist for the Washington Post, because Weingarten quotes from it.

Murtagh’s determination to keep MacDonald behind bars is, to Weingarten, a self-evident virtue: “He has stayed on because of an abstract sense of justice, but also because of a concrete duty he feels to three people who died very badly.” Weingarten then notes that to Murtagh, “it is personal.” And of course it is. But hang on, does Murtagh’s personal investment make him a good person to listen to or a bad one? Weingarten has hung his account of a huge controversy on a man with an enormous stake in the matter. After MacDonald called Murtagh a “viper,” the “resolutely boring” public servant drove around with a vanity license plate: “VIPR.”

And Murtagh, a plodding and careful man in Weingarten’s view, decided that MacDonald was guilty right from the start, when he entered the case late as an inexperienced 27-year-old and was shown the files and photos. He said so himself, speaking to Vanity Fair in 1998:

As Murtagh immersed himself, Kearns kept bringing more materials, culminating with the crime-scene photographs of Kimberly and Kristen. “I was feeling sick looking at them,” says Murtagh. “I must have made then some kind of emotional commitment that however long it took—whatever it took—I was going to do nothing that, either through act or omission to act, was going to see this guy get away with this.”

But … believing MacDonald guilty was one thing, finding someone willing to prosecute him something else.

There is no distance in the piece between Weingarten’s version of events and Murtagh’s. For nearly 1,000 words, the prosecutor walks us through how the crime went down. One of the daughters, according to Murtagh, slept through the murderous beatings of the other two victims, whose rooms were a few steps from hers in a small apartment. (It helps him if that’s true.) He narrates as if he’s relating facts: “[MacDonald] goes into the living room and breaks down. An upstairs neighbor hears what she identified as either laughing or crying. There’s a magazine on the coffee table with a story about the Manson murders. He gets his idea.”

In a rare interjection, Weingarten asks about one of MacDonald’s clever moves, “He was thinking that analytically?” Yeah, I was wondering that too. Murtagh posits a man so devilishly brilliant in his cover-up that we’re still debating the crime 42 years later, but so dumb that he intentionally stabbed his wife through his own shirt as part of his frame job. He then called the police, satisfied he had his story straight, and consistently told investigators that he was still wearing the punctured shirt in the other room when his wife was killed. So, he was thinking that analytically? Murtagh answers, “By the end, he was. When he was moving the bodies.” Oh, OK, carry on.

Another source Weingarten chooses is McGinniss, whom he calls “Joe.” Weingarten has McGinniss air his theory about why MacDonald asked to re-enter his house some time after the murders. (He was denied because it was still a sealed crime scene.) “They never found the scalpel blade he used on himself. I think he knew where he’d hidden it. Maybe between floorboards. I think he wanted to get rid of it.” The quote closes a section of the piece, as if Weingarten wants to emphasize it. He seems impressed, though it’s hard to tell since he has no response of his own. Occam’s razor suggests a possibility that Weingarten does not: Perhaps this hidden blade was never found because it did not exist.

Weingarten relates damaging testimony from an evidentiary hearing held this year, in late September—and some of it was indeed damaging—but he leaves out the notable moment that hurt the prosecution. A central question in the MacDonald case is whether an addict named Helena Stoeckley was the woman with the floppy hat and blond hair and boots whom MacDonald said was among the intruders that night. Stoeckley confessed repeatedly and no one has provided an alibi for her. She was known to wear a floppy hat and boots and owned a blonde wig that she said she burned just after the crime. In the 1979 trial, she denied any memory of the MacDonald house and said she could not recall her prior confessions, a massive blow to MacDonald’s defense. In September, after the judge waived attorney-client privilege owing to Stoeckley’s death, her lawyer testified that after initial denials, she confessed to him privately, during the week of the trial, that she was there when her companions committed the murders.

Weingarten strongly emphasizes, with reason, that Stoeckley was a troubled young woman who waffled over what happened that night and sometimes offered claims that did not add up. It’s difficult to know what to make of her confessions. To McGinniss and Weingarten, though, it’s easy: You dismiss them. Granted, people often falsely confess to crimes. What concerns me is that Stoeckley is the very person MacDonald needed to confess for his story to hold water. You might think a guilty man would cast a wider net, but he told a strange story and gave a fairly detailed description. What incredible luck that it matched a person who not only had no alibi but then repeatedly incriminated herself. Stoeckley said she was with her boyfriend that night, Greg Mitchell. He passed a polygraph but later also confessed repeatedly. The former L.A. County Coroner, hired by the defense, gave the opinion that there were multiple killers and that one was left-handed. Mitchell was left-handed, and MacDonald is not. Weingarten does not speak to any of this. He is utterly confident that it means nothing.

How can Weingarten and McGinniss be so sure? This is a difficult case. There were no witnesses, no incriminating fingerprints, and no evident motive. The crime scene was badly compromised by inexperienced military police. Items were moved and even stolen; gawkers were allowed to wander through the house; more than 40 fingerprints and a footprint were destroyed. This is what Murtagh had to work with when he entered the case. Weingarten grants the shoddiness of the police work in an aside, as if it were barely relevant. For him it was a gotcha moment when a bloody hair found in MacDonald’s wife’s hand turned out to be Jeffrey MacDonald’s. He accuses Morris of slipping past this fact. But it is not actually revealing: When the police arrived, MacDonald was sprawled across his wife’s body, both of them covered in blood. No one disputes this.

An open-and-shut article like Weingarten’s may be comforting, but there are reasons this case has remained controversial for decades. Weingarten and McGinniss write as if only a deluded person could have any doubt—and they unfairly portray Errol Morris as a devious conspiracy theorist. Reasonable people can disagree here, and for 42 years they have. In the first inquiry into the case, the Army Colonel who presided over a month’s-long hearing found the charges against MacDonald to be “not true.” One circuit court judge, Francis Murnaghan, wrote in a 1982 opinion, “The case provokes a strong uneasiness in me. … I believe MacDonald would have had a fairer trial if the Stoeckley related testimony had been admitted.” Janet Malcolm has been cagey about her view, but in 1997 she said, “The more I read about the case, the more I move toward the view that he could very well be innocent.” All these people must be deluded too.