August 29, 1979. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Army Special Forces Captain, was convicted of the savage murders of his wife and two daughters as they slept in their house within Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The case generated the sort of sensational publicity that would not be evident again nationwide until the mid-1990s — during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Joe McGinnis's book about MacDonald, Fatal Vision, and a subsequent television mini-drama of the same name, succeeded in searing a deeply-flawed version of the facts into the public imagination. Years later, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm eviscerated McGinnis's methodology, without — paradoxically — coming to grips with the reality of the case. Now comes acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris with his latest book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald(Penguin Press). Morris examines all of the existing evidence; subjects the investigators, the prosecutors, and the courts to rigorous smell testing; and with infinite care and painstaking subtlety demonstrates the staggering fraudulence of the case against MacDonald — who remains imprisoned. I spoke with Morris by telephone recently, just after his return from North Carolina where he observed a court hearing aimed at getting MacDonald a new trial.
How did you get interested in the Jeffrey MacDonald case? I had finished The Thin Blue Line and I became aware of Janet Malcolm's book. We had moved to Cambridge from New York and had become friends with photographer Elsa Dorfman and attorney Harvey Silverglate. At that time, Harvey was Jeffrey MacDonald's appellate counsel. My wife's aunt had lived just south of Fayetteville, and one Christmas morning we went up to Fort Bragg and visited the scene of the crimes. I was taking a number of small steps. Then I thought about the possibility of making a movie about the case. What I wanted to do was dramatize the two disparate accounts of what had happened in the house that night. Fatal Vision gives you one account, really the account provided by the prosecutors at the 1979 trial, but it doesn't really give credence to the possibility that there really were intruders in the house that night. And I came to believe over the years that the account of intruders had been unfairly dismissed. There was more than a considerable amount of evidence to support the case, including this one fascinating character, Helena Stokely. From 1970 until she died, Stokely repeatedly confessed to being in the house that night.
Your thoughts after the most recent hearing? If anything, the hearing establishes even more forcefully that this alternative account — if that's how you want to describe it — is still with us. We have even more reason to believe in its validity than before. There's this character in my book, Jerry Leonard, he was appointed in 1979 as Stokely's attorney. For years Leonard was asked about what Stokely had said to him, and he declined to answer. So Stokely has now been dead for close to 30 years and you would think, since Stokely's family is all in favor of him speaking, that he would be allowed to reveal what she said to him. . . . Finally, on the last day of the hearing, Leonard was allowed to testify in court about his conversations with Stokley. Guess what? She told her attorney that she had been in the house that night. That she was part of Satanist cult. That she had disliked MacDonald because he had been a hard-ass emergency room physician at Fort Bragg and had treated a lot of her friends. In Stokley's opinion, MacDonald had performed badly, turning Stokely's friends in for minor drug abuse. . . . This was very, very powerful stuff. No one — no one in the general public, that is — had it heard before.
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