How I Changed My Mind About the Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case
Remember the perceptual illusion where you look at a picture and you’re certain that you see the bust of a young woman? Then, if someone draws your attention to certain details, suddenly the picture transforms into the profile of an old woman. It’s a disorienting trick. You think you know what you’re seeing, but then you aren’t so sure.
The Jeffrey MacDonald murder case is one of the most disturbing in living memory. There are only two possible pictures, both nightmares.
Picture #1. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton-educated Green Beret doctor with no history of violence and a sterling record, butchered his pregnant wife and two young daughters using a knife, ice pick and club. Then he injured himself and set up the scene to make the crimes appear to be the work of intruders. He claimed they chanted, “Kill the pigs!...Acid is groovy!” and scrawled the word “PIG” on the wall in his wife’s blood.
Picture #2. Jeffrey MacDonald, a bright young man with everything in life to look forward to, lost his wife and children to senseless, horrific violence. A military hearing found charges against him “untrue,” but he was convicted nine years later in a civilian trial. He has been imprisoned for three decades for a crime he did not commit.
Two possibilities: MacDonald is a monster, or he is a victim of terrible injustice. Young woman; old woman.
Until recently, most people saw Picture #1. So did I. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, about an hour from the Fort Bragg army base in Fayetteville where the murders occurred on Feb. 17, 1970, in the middle of the night. I was born in May of that year, and would thus be the same age as the child Colette MacDonald was carrying when her life was snuffed out. In the early '80s, I whipped through a dog-eared copy of Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss’ sensational true-crime novel about the killings. It was almost as scary as Helter Skelter – the story of the Charles Manson murders in Californa that are said to have inspired Jeffrey MacDonald in the coverup for his homicidal rampage.
In 1984 I was glued to the TV, like millions of other Americans, watching the popular miniseries based on McGinniss’ book. McGinniss made the murders sound like the work of a diabolical genius, a man who could transform in a moment from a loving father to a homicidal maniac, and again, in the blink of an eye, to a calculating conman. I thought of devils that lurked in human flesh, like in The Exorcist, another popular based-on-a true-story-book-turned-movie of the period that floated around our house. When the show was over, I retired to the security of my bed, safe from unpredictable evils.
A Shifting Picture
McGinniss’ stark rendering of Picture #1 stuck in my mind until recently when a friend from North Carolina told me that Errol Morris had published a book suggesting MacDonald was innocent. That got my attention: the Oscar-winning Morris, whose film The Thin Blue Line exonerated a Texas man wrongfully convicted for murder, is one of the world’s great documentary filmmakers. He is both a careful researcher and a profound investigator of the human condition.
My friend and I sat around in her backyard, tossing up what facts about the case we could recall. I even laughed at the idea of hippie murderers in North Carolina. Of all places! But then I felt uneasy. “You sure Errol Morris wrote the book?” She was sure.
Soon I was reading Morris’ A Wilderness of Error, feeling skeptical and wondering why this reputable man would involve himself in a case that everyone and their mother (including mine) knew the truth about.