In this profoundly original meditation on truth and the justice system, Errol Morris—a former private detective and director of The Thin Blue Line—delves deeply into the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. MacDonald, whose pregnant wife and two young daughters were brutally murdered in 1970, was convicted of the killings in 1979 and remains in prison today. The culmination of an investigation spanning over twenty years and a masterly reinvention of the true-crime thriller, A Wilderness of Error is a shocking book because it shows that everything we have been told about the case is deeply unreliable and that crucial elements of case against MacDonald are simply not true.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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A CONVINCING STORY
If God were suddenly condemned to live the life He has inflicted on men, He would kill Himself.
—Alexandre Dumas, “Pensées d’album”
It’s a nineteenth-century image. An island fortress, forbidding, dark, isolated, surrounded on all sides by cliffs and the sea. In Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo, that fortress is the Château d’If.
Dantès (who will become the Count of Monte Cristo) has been taken prisoner. In a rowboat, he is pleading with his captors. He demands to know where he is being taken.
“Unless you are blind, or have never been outside the harbor, you must know.”
“I do not.”
“Look round you then.”
Dantès rose and looked forward, when he saw rise within a hundred yards of him the black and frowning rock on which stands the Château d’If. This gloomy fortress, which has for more than three hundred years furnished food for so many wild legends, seemed to Dantès like a scaffold to a man condemned to death.
“The Château d’If,” he cried, “what are we going there for?”
The gendarme smiled.
“Surely, I am not going there to be imprisoned,” said Dantès; “it is a prison for high crimes of state and is used only for political prisoners. I have committed no crime.”
Dantès, a fictional character, has been framed for a crime he did not commit. He has been convicted and condemned by Dumas, his creator, to a prison from which there is no possibility of escape.
And yet Dantès does escape. Under an improbable set of circumstances that have been told and retold and that have inspired countless other stories. Dumas’s tale is a variant of the theme “never say never.” There is no fortress, no prison from which there is no escape. We marvel at Dantès’s daring—the fake burial at sea, the swim to a nearby island, the construction of a new, fabulous identity. But we know that he has escaped only because Dumas wants it so. There can be no denying his innocence, just as there can be no thwarting his inexorable climb to a position of wealth, power, and influence. Dumas has written it that way.
In a fictional narrative all of the pieces can be engineered to fit perfectly together. But reality is different. We have to discover what is out there—what is real and what is merely a product of our imagination. A real Dantès could turn out to be a schemer, a rat, a traitor. There is in principle no limit to what we might find out about him, to what we might uncover. A real Dantès, like all real characters, is bottomless. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, captured this in his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, written while he was in prison as a conscientious objector to World War I. Prisoners often have the time to reflect on the difference between artificially constructed stories and reality.
When you have taken account of all the feelings roused by Napoleon in writers and readers of history, you have not touched the actual man; but in the case of Hamlet you have come to the end of him. If no one thought about Hamlet, there would be nothing left of him; if no one had thought about Napoleon, he would have soon seen to it that some one did.
It’s now the twenty-first century. And we have a model of a prison that makes the Château d’If pale in comparison. Not an imagined prison of stone and steel, but a real prison built out of newsprint and media. A prison of beliefs. You can escape from prison, but how do you escape from a convincing story? After enough repetitions, the facts come to serve the story and not the other way around. Like kudzu, suddenly the story is everywhere and impenetrable.
Take the case of Jeffrey MacDonald. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the story was endlessly retold in the media. It was enshrined in a bestselling book (Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss), in TV journalism (60 Minutes with Mike Wallace), and ultimately in an incredibly popular TV miniseries with the same title as the book, starring Karl Malden, Gary Cole, and Eva Marie Saint. The 60 Minutes segment on September 18, 1983, was the season premiere of the show. It was watched by thirty million people. The book appeared a couple of months later and in the following years sold five million copies. The two-part miniseries on NBC was the most popular miniseries of the year.
Eventually, the media frenzy ran its course, and the public was sated with the version of events it had been fed. The case was cracked. Punishment was administered. Justice had been done. And Jeffrey MacDonald was condemned to the story that had been created around him.
The MacDonald case was once well-known but is quickly lapsing into obscurity. MacDonald was on the fast track: Princeton for three years, medical school at Northwestern, a Green Beret captain at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He had been accepted for a residency in orthopedics at Yale to follow his service in the military. He was young, handsome, and married to his childhood sweetheart, Colette Stevenson. They had two young daughters—Kimberley, aged five, and Kristen, aged two. They dreamed of owning a farm in Connecticut; they had a bright and promising future.
That ended early in the morning on February 17, 1970. The MPs who had responded to a call for help had found Colette, who was four months pregnant with a son, lying on the floor of the master bedroom. She had been brutally beaten and stabbed. Both her arms had been broken, her skull had been fractured, and there were numerous knife stabs in her chest and neck as well as twenty-four of what appeared to be ice-pick stabs to her chest and arm. Kimberley and Kristen had been found dead in their beds. Kimberley had been stabbed and the right side of her head had been crushed in with a club. Kristen had been stabbed but there were no fractures. There was blood everywhere.
MacDonald told Ken Mica, one of the first MPs at the scene, “Check my kids. I can’t breathe.” Mica began to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. MacDonald was lapsing in and out of consciousness, but he described to Mica how he had been sleeping on the couch in the living room, then was awakened by screams. He saw people at the foot of the couch. Mica asked whom he had seen, and MacDonald described the assailants: “There were four of them. One blonde Caucasian female. She had a floppy hat on. Two male Caucasians, and one male Negro. Why did they do this?”
Mica told Lieutenant Joseph Paulk, one of his superiors, that he had seen a woman matching the description on his way to the MacDonald home. But no effort was made to pick her up.
Within minutes, MacDonald was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Womack Army Hospital, where he was treated for multiple bruises, an abrasion, small punctures, two stab wounds (one in his stomach and one on the right side of his chest), and a collapsed lung—a serious injury, but not a mortal one. Specialist Seventh Class William Ivory was the investigator on duty for the Fort Bragg office of the CID, the Criminal Investigation Division of the army. He arrived about fifteen minutes after the first MPs and took detailed notes on what he saw:
A woman, apparently dead, is lying on her back next to a green armchair. The upper portion of her body was extremely bloody. She was clad in what looks like pink pajama pants. Across her abdomen a towel or bath mat is laying. Across her chest was some blue cloth with a part of it trailing across the floor to her left side. This was later identified as a blue pajama [top].
Ivory observed that Colette MacDonald had multiple head injuries and stab wounds in her chest and throat. And a large pool of blood was found under her head and shoulders. Nearby there was a pajama pocket, apparently torn from the pajama top. And then he found what appeared to be a murder weapon. “Between the green armchair & the dresser on the north wall there is observed a small wooden-handled knife. A close inspection revealed a blood stain near the point of the blade.”
Ivory went on to note that the living room was relatively tidy:
The furnishings on the west side of the living room did not appear to have been disturbed. A coffee table in the east side of the living room in front of a brown divan was tipped on its edge & under the edge there were numerous magazines the titles of which were not noted at that time. There is a plant with the roots in dirt a few feet east of the overturned table & a white plant pot sitting upright just north of the edge of the table.
About a half hour later, Robert Shaw, another CID investigator, arrived. His case file continues the story of the investigation. Three weapons were discovered just outside the back door of the house:
At 0642 hrs, a search of the outside of the quarters was conducted by this investigator. Found, located near the NE entrance to the quarters, a wooden club which appeared to bear blood stains and a paring knife with a brown handle; and an ice pick with a tan wood handle. The location of these items was sketched and the weapons were collected as evidence…The decision was made to collect this evidence…because the photographer on the scene had run out of film or bulbs or had some other tech problem and there would be an appreciable delay before he could take a picture.
Ivory, a young and relatively inexperienced agent, quickly came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the crime scene. There were signs of a struggle, but perhaps not enough to suggest the presence of four intruders. It wasn’t long before Ivory and Shaw devised their own theory of the crime.
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. There is fiction, and there is nonfiction. And one of the differences between fiction and fact is that a fictional character is controlled by its creator. It has no reality off the page. There is no physical evidence that can prove that Edmond Dantès is guilty or innocent of a crime. Only what the writer—the author—ultimately decides.
But what happens when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted—or is left uncollected at the crime scene—simply because it does not support the chosen narrative? It is easy to confuse a search for revealing plot details with a search for evidence. But there is a difference. In one case, we are wandering through a landscape of words. In the other, we are in the physical world.
By all accounts, the crime scene was horrific. Three bloody and battered bodies. But one detail stood out. On the headboard in the master bedroom, the word “PIG” was written in blood, recalling—perhaps reenacting—the Manson family murders committed only months before. In a real sense, the story of the MacDonald murders begins in the summer of 1969 with Charles Manson and his drug-crazed followers.
Table of Contents
People Associated with the Case x
Prologue: 544 Castle Drive 1
1 A Convincing Story 11
2 Lee Marvin Is Afraid 19
3 Breaking the Sound Barrier 25
4 A Subtly Constructed Reflex Machine 29
5 The Impossible Coffee Table 35
6 Ten-Hour Drive 40
7 The Flowerpot 51
8 The Girl with the Floppy Hat 59
9 No Evidence 67
10 Not True 71
11 Totally Wrong 81
12 Terrible, Terrible, Terrible Idea 86
13 Colonel Rock 89
14 A Great Fear 96
15 Convinced in Her Mind 103
16 The Impossible Coffee Table, Part II 111
17 A Losing Proposition 118
18 Media Freak 125
19 A Conclusion Could Not Be Reached 131
20 Mute Witness 135
21 I'm Not a CSI Guy 143
22 A Comb and a Toothbrush 149
23 The Jail Cell 157
24 Things Do Not Lie 163
25 Pigs on Ice 167
26 Forty-eight Holes 173
27 Target in Motion 179
28 California Evil 187
29 Troublesome Psychopathy 193
30 Round in Circles 200
31 Ace in the Hole 209
32 Wanted 222
33 In My Mind, It Seems That I Saw This Thing Happen 227
34 The Journey's End 235
35 Unclearly Trustworthy 241
36 The Four-Legged Table 246
37 The Slaughterhouse 251
38 The Use and Abuse of Physical Evidence 261
39 A Rounded Picture 267
40 Absolutely Batshit Crazy 272
41 The Sound of Music 279
42 A Satanic Cult 287
43 E-323 and Q-89 299
44 It Wasn't a Doll 306
45 1-821-3266 318
46 In Bright Red 325
47 The Almost Inescapable Conclusion 334
48 Cops Who Came In from the Cold 342
49 Just Be Jeff 349
50 I Can't Talk About What I Think 355
51 A Book Story 365
52 Eskatrol 371
53 Essential Integrity 379
54 Delightfully Blue 392
55 Before the Law 401
56 I Know. I Know. I Know. 404
57 Crumbs 419
58 The Morning Newspaper 427
59 The Five Percent 433
60 Coincidences 447
61 Gene Stoeckley 449
62 Two Prisoners 461
63 Flame-out 464
64 Specimen 91A 471
65 A Black Sky 479
What People are Saying About This
"The literary equivalent of one of [Morris's] movies. It’s a rough-hewed documentary master class.... A Wilderness of Error upends nearly everything you think you know about these killings and their aftermath. Watching Mr. Morris wade into this thicket of material is like watching an aggrieved parent walk into a teenager’s fetid, clothes- and Doritos-strewed bedroom and neatly sort and disinfect until the place shines. ...He will leave you 85 percent certain that Mr. MacDonald is innocent. He will leave you 100 percent certain he did not get a fair trial... If this headstrong book doesn’t change your sense of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, I'll eat my Chuck Taylors."
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Critics sometimes confuse great books with important books — exceptionally written literature isn't always the same as literature that can powerfully affect society. But A Wilderness of Error is both great and important — it's a beautifully written book, and it has the potential to change the way the country thinks about a justice system that has obviously lost its way."
—Michael Shaub, NPR
"Mr. Morris has produced a brilliant book about the vulnerability of justice to the preconceptions of prosecutors and the power of certain narratives to crowd out all others, even highly plausible ones. I strongly recommend this book."
—Wall Street Journal
"A Wilderness of Error is a beautifully produced book, with chapters set off by line drawings of crucial objects in the case: a toppled coffee table, a flower pot, a rocking horse. It’s reminiscent of the recurring images in 'The Thin Blue Line,' iconic and mysterious, always on the verge of revealing the secrets they stand for but never quite yielding them. Morris may geek out on minutiae and hypotheticals, but he is enough of an artist to convey that every crime scene is a dialogue between time, as it sweeps away the irrecoverable past, and the material world."
"Morris’s thoroughly engrossing and exhaustively researched book is the product of more than two decades of work... As is nearly always the case in any Morris project, the character studies are magnificent, the attention to detail extraordinary, and the effect on the audience is dizzying, disorienting, and thought-provoking."
—The Boston Globe
"Morris has been researching the case for over two decades, and the result of his inquiries is a thorough and compelling argument for the incarcerated doctor's innocence, a sobering look at the labyrinthine justice system, and a feat of investigative perseverance."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Since 1985, I have had a long, twisting journey with the Jeffrey MacDonald case. It started with Fatal Vision, the miniseries, and progressed to Fatal Vision, the book about the case penned by Joe McGinniss. I followed those over time with The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Fatal Justice by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost and Scales of Justice by Christina Masewicz. I visited various websites and read anything I could find about the case. Throughout the years my views on the case changed dramatically. I penned my changing thoughts here (at my book review site). In short, I believed MacDonald was guilty but something was off with the case, then there was a great chance that MacDonald was innocent and wrongly imprisoned and, finally, that MacDonald was guilty of the horrible crimes he was convicted of. When I heard that filmmaker Errol Morris (he of the documentary The Thin Blue Line, which helped to free Randall Dale Adams, wrongly convicted of the murder of a Dallas police officer) had written a book in which he takes on the government's case against MacDonald, I knew that I had to read it. I will admit that I went into this book deadset on MacDonald's guilt and mentally telling myself that no matter what Mr. Morris wrote in his book, I simply couldn't believe that MacDonald was anything less than guilty. Perhaps not exactly fair to Mr. Morris but given that the murders happened in 1970, MacDonald was convicted in 1979 and so much has been written about the case, both for and against MacDonald, it's not surprising. If you are not well read or versed on the MacDonald case, A Wilderness of Error is probably not the place to start. Not because it's not well written - - because it is and Mr. Morris does a fine job of supporting his statements. But the book reads for someone already familiar with the background of the murders and the lengthy process in which MacDonald was brought to justice as the background of the crimes themselves is not nearly in-depth as the follow-up. Mr. Morris excels at bringing to life Helena Stoeckley, the young hippie girl bearing a remarkable resemblance to one of the intruders MacDonald described to the military police following the murders, and who was to be the smoking gun for the defense during the 1979 trial. As Ms. Stoeckley herself was deceased by the time Mr. Morris began research for his book, he did interview family members, neighbors and people who knew and associated with her. She is presented both as a police informant living in Fayetteville's Haymount neighborhood (and hippie district), who partook in drugs and witchcraft and the sad, depleted woman MacDonald and his attorneys hung their hopes on. Mr. Morris also shone a bright and unforgiving light on Colette MacDonald's mother and stepfather Mildred and Freddy Kassab. The Kassabs were presented in McGinniss' Fatal Vision as the martyred and heartsick family members who made it their life mission to bring their daughter's and granddaughters' killer to justice. Freddy Kassab, in particular, was the tenacious bulldog who grabbed ahold of Jeffrey MacDonald and wouldn't let go, joining forces with the government's prosecutors to see that his former son-in-law had his freedom taken away. The information that Mr. Morris outlined in his book, and supported by long-time friends of the family, is vastly different than the majority of what I have read and it did give me pause. Mr. Morris didn't appear to have a lot of communications with MacDonald himself and that, to me, is a shortcoming with the book. What small amount of communication he did have was saved for the conclusion of the book. He is honest in his presentation - - that MacDonald is unlikable, annoying and quite full of himself but a good doctor and some of his off-putting qualities make him a good surgeon. Perhaps Mr. Morris' strongest argument for MacDonald lies within the weakness of the government's supposed shoe-in evidence. He takes on their pajama top experiment and invalidates their results, as well as their assertion that saran hair fibers found in a hairbrush at the crime scene were not those of one of the MacDonald children's dolls but had come from a wig. Helena Stoeckley owned a wig of the same color as those hairs found and during one of her confessions, claimed to be wearing that wig at the time of the crimes. Despite my assertions that I would not be moved by Mr. Morris' writing, I was. He made a clear and concise argument that Jeffrey MacDonald did not receive a fair trial - - from Judge Dupree's relationship with the original prosecutor (his son-in-law) to inaccurate government tests that were presented as gospel to threats of prosecution given to Helena Stoeckley should she testify to being present at the crime scene and vouching for MacDonald's innocence - - and there was no shortage of reasonable doubt. A Wilderness of Error did not change my stance on MacDonald guilt or innocence, however well written it was. And here is why. I can throw out all the evidence - - the blood evidence, the pajama top, the bedsheets, the fibers, Helena Stoeckley's confessions and recanting of same . . . but what gets me is the difference between MacDonald's injuries and those inflicted on his family. If a group of drug addicted hippies wanted to get even with MacDonald for ratting them out or not giving them drugs or whatever their reasoning may have been, wouldn't they have taken the largest threat - - MacDonald - - and eliminated him first? Why attack a pregnant woman and two little girls - - a 5 year old and a 2 year old - - before even addressing MacDonald? Why crush the skulls of a woman and a 5 year old and leave MacDonald with one bruise on his head? A bruise with no broken skin? Why would MacDonald have one clean cut to his chest when his wife and children suffered many? One daughter had over thirty stab wounds. Does it make sense to massacre two children who could never identify one intruder and leave behind the one person who could? None of that makes sense to me and taking that into consideration, I can't believe MacDonald's story about hippie intruders. What I can believe though is that he didn't get a fair trial and guilty or innocent, everyone deserves a fair trial. So while I think he's guilty, he was wrongfully convicted and that's just not right. For those of you out there that have a similar obsession with the MacDonald case, I would not hesitate to recommend A Wilderness of Error. If you appreciate true crime and are unfamiliar with the case, I would suggest some background research through one of the handful of sites devoted to the case on the Internet or reading Fatal Vision, Fatal Journey or Scales of Justice. (The Journalist and the Murderer is about Joe McGinniss' role in his relationship with MacDonald and resulting lawsuit and not about the case itself). Very well done, Mr. Morris. You presented us with a well-written, thought provoking book and one that may expose the many missteps of the government to the public. ©Psychotic State Book Reviews, 2012
DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY!!! Go to one of the pro-jeff websites to read this garbage instead. Yes, the forensic evidence collection was sloppy. There is still enough proof of jeff's guilt and no real evidence to support his crazy story.
This book has made a huge impact on my thinking. I too have read all of the other books and this one should upset and disturb anyone who cares about our justice system. It seems to me that for the people involved with this that it is less about justice than it is about self validation of past actions. Thank you Errol Morris for writing this book.
A perfect counterpoint to Joe McGinniss' Fatal Vision. The story presents compelling evidence to support Jeffrey MacDonald's story. I would highly recommend the book.
A page-turner of a thriller in its own right, this book provides a radical new take on a famous case most of us thought settled long ago. Morris's explorations are unsettling and disturbing as he demonstrates the fragility of the prosecution's case and raises important questions about the relationship between justice, journalism, and truth. Highest recommendation: one of the best books of the year.
This book, while interesting, is way too long. The author goes over the same material again and again. I read 143 of 500+ pages, and by then I was bored stiff. Unless you are extremely interested in Jeffery MacDonald's cases and trials, I suggest you not waste your time or money.
Great book and a sad story.
Most reads favorable to MacDonald are based upon his "friends" and family. They, of course, are prejudiced against the facts. The evidence against MacDonald is compelling and irrefutable. The defenses attempt to sway evidence through Stokley is a pathetic effort to use typical "stir the muddy waters" to sway reader opinion and support for this murderer. This book and author are all about profit at the expense of the victims. "Destroy the credibility" of witnesses and evidence through smoke and mirror tactics destroys our justice system via deceptions and fabrications of the truth. MacDonald is exactly where he belongs...in prison for murder!
The MacDonald case is fascinating for many reasons. Errol Morris describes just how much evidence there is to show that intruders committed the crimes, which the Government prosecution suppressed. It is distressing that a government prosecution team would suppress any evidence, let alone the amount they supressed in this murder case.
Thank you for the review. I also have been fascinated w this case, only i think hes innocent. I completely understand your review and it makes me want to read it now too. Thanks again
A Wilder­ness of Error : The Tri­als of Jef­frey Mac­Don­ald by Errol Mor­ris is a true-crime non-fiction book about the Mac­Don­ald Trial. Jef­frey Mac­Don­ald, for­mer Cap­tain in the Green Berets, a med­ical doc­tor, Prince­ton grad­u­ate, father and hus­band was con­victed for mur­der­ing his fam­ily in 1970. 17 Feb­ru­ary, 1970 – a bru­tal mur­der takes place in the early hours of the morn­ing in Fort Bragg, NC. When the police arrive they find a preg­nant wife and two young daugh­ters bru­tally mur­dered. The man of the house, Jef­fery Mac­Don­ald is harmed but not dead and accuses drug crazed hip­pies in the crime. Errol Mor­ris has a career full of inter­est­ing and thought pro­vok­ing movies includ­ing “The Thin Blue Line” which freed Ran­dall Dale Adams from after being wrong­fully con­victed for mur­der and sen­tenced for life, as well as the acad­emy award win­ning doc­u­men­tary “The Fog of War”. I had a chance to revisit “The Fog of War” in the past few weeks, know­ing I would be read­ing Mr. Mor­ris’ book, the doc­u­men­tary has very lit­tle nar­ra­tion and relies on inter­views, but some­how is curi­ously inter­est­ing. In his book, A Wilder­ness of Error, Mr. Mor­ris employs much of the same style, a lot of inter­est­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion and inter­views with lit­tle nar­ra­tion in between. The premise is an inter­est­ing one, unlike many of the most famous drama­ti­za­tions of the tragedy (includ­ing 60 min­utes seg­ments and the book & 1983 TV movie “Fatal Vision”), Mr. Mor­ris does not set out to prove or deny Mr. MacDonald’s inno­cence of guilt, but rather that he has not got­ten a fair trial. At the time of this post, Jef­fery Mac­Don­ald is still in jail and for over 40 years has been fil­ing appeals. The book will leave the reader lean­ing towards the belief that Mac­Don­ald is inno­cent, but absolutely sure that even if he isn’t, he did not get a fair trial. At some point I had to put the book down (only to pick it up a few moments later) because it made me phys­i­cally ill and dis­gusted. The amount of fab­ri­ca­tions, sup­pres­sion of evi­dence and flawed analy­sis are astound­ing and very saddening. Much like oth­ers of its kind I read, A Wilder­ness of Error is scary. The gov­ern­ment decided that some­one was guilty, together with an overzeal­ous pros­e­cu­tor and will­ing judge they did every­thing they can, includ­ing refrain jus­tice and hide evi­dence, in order to stick some­one in jail and damned be the Constitution. What I absolutely loved about this book is that Mr. Mor­ris does not take pris­on­ers, play favorites or gives lee­way to his fel­low reporters and authors. He refutes Janet Malcolm’s book “The Jour­nal­ist and the Mur­derer” which exam­ines this case, tears apart Stone Philips inter­views about the case (t
Thanks to LHedgpeth, I no longer have to waste money on the purchase of the book. I read it through her review!!!!
To lhedgepath. Why do you feel the need to write a mini book on a simple review. Yiu reveal plot points that ruin it for others who may wish to read the book. Just state a simple opinion about if u liked it or not and stop trying ti rewrite the book. That is rude and irritating.