This story was originally published in the April 7, 1995 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Joe McGinniss's 1983 bestseller Fatal Vision offered up Jeffrey MacDonald as a modern exemplar of evil: a narcissistic, remorseless monster who beat to death his wife and five-year-old daughter in a diet-pill-fueled frenzy, then coolly killed the only witness, his two-year-old daughter.
Now come Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost with a devastating rebuttal. Fatal Justice (W.W. Norton, 463 pages, $25), the product of nine years of research, attempts to show that MacDonald was the victim of a botched investigation, a malicious prosecution, and McGinniss, whom they portray as an intellectually dishonest writer who turned on MacDonald and concocted an outlandish theory to boost book sales.
Potter, a novelist and nonfiction writer, and Bost, a journalist who's a retired military investigator, make a persuasive argument that MacDonald never would have been convicted had evidence not been destroyed and improperly withheld.
"Where do I hope it leads? I'm thinking about that right now," says MacDonald's current lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, a Boston attorney and a Phoenix contributing writer. The problem, he adds, is persuading the same system that convicted MacDonald to reconsider the case: "Nobody likes to admit that they sent an innocent man to prison for life."
Fatal Justice comes at a time when McGinniss's career is at rock bottom.
Following the success of Fatal Vision, MacDonald sued McGinniss for breaching the contract that gave the writer access to MacDonald and his defense team; McGinniss settled out of court for $250,000. In the late '80s, Janet Malcolm excoriated McGinniss's conduct in a celebrated two-part series in the New Yorker. And in 1993, McGinniss's biography of Ted Kennedy, The Last Brother, led to accusations of plagiarism (which he denied) and of attributing to Kennedy thoughts and feelings McGinniss couldn't possibly have known (which he admitted, calling the book a "rumination").
McGinniss honed his chops as a mindreader while writing Fatal Vision. For it was he alone who speculated that MacDonald was a closet misogynist and borderline psychopath who snapped while overdosing on speed.
Pressed at the breach-of-contract trial as to whether he believed his theory, McGinniss replied: "I'm not convinced that it actually happened."
In the early-morning hours of February 17, 1970, military police at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, received a call for help. Upon arriving at 544 Castle Drive, they found the broken bodies of Colette MacDonald and her young daughters, Kimberly and Kristen.
Colette's husband, Jeffrey, an Army captain and physician, was injured and disoriented. He told investigators he'd been sleeping on a couch in the living room when he was awakened by the screams of his wife and children. A woman with blond hair, wearing a floppy hat and holding a candle, had chanted, "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs," he claimed, while three men assaulted him and murdered his family. The word "PIG" was scrawled in blood on the headboard of the bed in the master bedroom.
Despite suspicions that MacDonald was the murderer, an Army investigation cleared him. But officials continued to pursue MacDonald even after he resigned from the Army and moved to San Francisco. A young Army lawyer, Brian Murtagh, went so far as to leave the military and persuade the US Justice Department to hire him so that he could continue his crusade.