Forty-two years ago, Green Beret Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald stabbed and bludgeoned to death his pregnant wife, Colette, and his two little girls ... or he didn’t. One currently popular theory is that he didn’t. That’s the contention of the renowned film documentarian Errol Morris, director of “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War.” When he couldn’t find backers for a movie about the case, Morris wrote the newly released “A Wilderness of Error,” which concludes that MacDonald was railroaded by incompetent cops and overzealous prosecutors, and very likely is no murderer. A New York Times book reviewer agreed, declaring that the book will leave readers “85 percent certain” of MacDonald’s innocence. Also weighing in with an online review was, of all people, Sarah Palin. She loved the book, for reasons of her own.
This evidentiary hearing in September in Wilmington is part of what many believe to be MacDonald’s last chance at freedom. It’s probably the penultimate step in an appeals process that began after the doctor’s initial conviction in 1979 and has continued ever since, driven and financed by a steadfast band of supporters. Private investigators have been deployed; teams of attorneys have been hired and replaced; appellate actions have been filed, argued, dismissed.
This most recent one — the one that brings us here — involves newly surfaced reports that a woman, long dead, had confessed to participating in the crime but was bullied into silence by prosecutors. Also, that there is new DNA evidence said to support what has been MacDonald’s contention all along — that the murders were committed by drug-addled hippie intruders imitating the Charles Manson killings.
It’s all laid out in Morris’s book. The flamboyant filmmaker sits in the courtroom, beaming as witness after witness takes the stand to raise doubts about the official version of the crime. Morris scowls whenever cross-examination makes these claims seem less solid, which is often.
Many old, familiar faces are here, including Bob Stevenson, 73, the murdered woman’s surviving brother, who sits ramrod straight, with carefully modulated, white-knuckled fury, unapologetically declaring to reporters that his sacred mission in life is to watch Jeffrey MacDonald continue to suffer in custody, and then outlive him. There is also Kathryn MacDonald, the 51-year-old children’s drama teacher from Columbia, Md., whom MacDonald married 10 years ago, and with whom he has never been alone. Defiantly upbeat, she declares her husband “the strongest, most honorable and wonderful person” she has ever known, and claims they share an intimacy that would be envied by many conventionally married couples.