Military police arrived, summoned by a gasping phone call from Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, 26. He told them he’d been awakened to the screams of his family, and was immediately set upon by scruffy intruders who were chanting, “Acid is groovy — kill the pigs.” He lost consciousness, he said, and when he awoke the intruders were gone and his family was dead. “Pig” was written in blood on the headboard of a bed.
The doctor’s wounds were trivial, at least compared with those of his family. He had a small, neat incision between his seventh and eighth ribs, just deep enough to partially collapse a lung. He had a lump on his forehead, a cut on his left arm and some superficial lacerations. Only the lung required treatment.
Almost from the start, investigators focused on MacDonald, whose account of the attack seemed to contradict the physical evidence: the locations of bloodstains and spatters and of torn fibers from his pajamas, and the lack of evidence of a furious defensive struggle. Although the doctor was initially cleared by a preliminary Army hearing — “insufficient evidence” — he was prosecuted in 1979 in federal court, where he was convicted after a six-week trial. The jury was out only six hours. The prosecution’s methodical use of circumstantial evidence had overcome a signal weakness in the case: The state never presented an entirely convincing motive.
The lurid crime was an international story that became even bigger with the publication in 1983 of “Fatal Vision,” the bestseller about the case by journalist Joe McGinniss; the book would lead to a TV miniseries and, later, to an excruciating spasm of self-examination by the media. The MacDonald murders had spawned a second Big Story.
From prison, MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of contract, alleging that the writer had betrayed him. During trial and its preparations, McGinniss had been embedded with the defense team, ostensibly to write a book about an unjustly accused man. At some point, the writer became convinced of the doctor’s guilt but never told MacDonald, fearing he would lose the doctor’s cooperation. So, as he was ingratiating himself with the convicted killer, feigning incredulity over the verdict, encouraging MacDonald to send deeply self-revealing letters from prison, McGinniss was writing a book describing MacDonald as a narcissistic, psychopathic monster. McGinniss contends he behaved ethically in dealing with MacDonald under enormously difficult circumstances.
The civil jury deadlocked — McGinniss’s publisher wound up settling out of court — but after reviewing the trial transcripts and exhibits, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm in 1990 wrote an article that eviscerated both McGinniss and the entire profession of journalism. Its famous first line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Malcolm contended that McGinniss’s tactics were symptomatic of what all journalists do, to some degree: fool people into trusting them, then betray them by spinning facts, or distorting them, to create whatever compelling narrative they wish. Every story, she implied, is on some level a con job.