Fatal Causes

Date Published 08.29.12

My heart sunk when I first saw a tweet from Errol Morris about his new book, “A Wilderness of Error,” which he says is the result of years spent reinvestigating the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case.  I hated the title, and not just because it’s too grandiose.  What I hated was the last word, because I love Errol Morris.  I love his documentaries, particularly “The Thin Blue Line” and “Tabloid.”  I admire his contrarian point of view.  But being a dedicated iconoclast can become its own sort of status quo, and in this case I fear Morris the provocateur is prevailing at the cost of common sense.


Fatal Vision,” the book by Joe McGinnis about the MacDonald case, was one of the first true crime stories to grip me.  Now older and more discerning, I see that the book is problematic.  In order to gain access to his subject McGinnis purported to believe vehemently in MacDonald’s innocence long after he’d decided he was guilty (see Janet Malcolm’s "The Journalist and the Murderer" for more on this).  I don’t entirely trust McGinnis’ impressions of MacDonald, because I think it’s possible, as Malcolm argues, that he was far more interested in crafting a compelling subject than in conveying one truthfully.


That said, one detail from “Fatal Vision” has always stayed with me, and it’s a fact that as far as I know neither side has ever disputed, though they may have argued over its meaning.  This detail more than any other convinced me of Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt, and I say this as one of the few people who actually bought and read “Fatal Justice,” the “devastating rebuttal” to “Fatal Vision.”


I’ll get to the telling detail in a moment, but for those murky on the MacDonald case, here’s the condensed version.  Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army doctor and Green Beret stationed at Fort Bragg, called the police on February 17, 1970 to report a stabbing at his home at 544 Castle Drive.  When police arrived they found MacDonald injured but alive; his pregnant wife, Colette, and their two young daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, were dead.  A group of hippies entered the home while the family slept and beat and stabbed them, MacDonald reported.  The violent episode echoed the recent Manson murders, down to the “Pig” written in blood on the headboard.

Jeffrey MacDonald


The case took many twists and turns.  Military police questioned his story almost from the start.  An Army Article 32 hearing initially dismissed charges against MacDonald, but later, after a push from Colette’s family, the Justice Department convened a grand jury and he was indicted, and later found guilty.  MacDonald has always steadfastly maintained his innocence. 


Depending on your view MacDonald was either an exemplary Ivy League-educated military doctor who was wrongfully accused of the slaughter of his beautiful young family, or he was an amphetamine-addicted adulterer and sociopath who coldly took out his wife and kids when he no longer wanted them around.


MacDonald’s defenders hang a lot on a local woman named Helena Stoeckly, a troubled drug-user who resembled the hippie with stringy, long-blonde hair and a floppy hat who held a candle and chanted “acid is groovy, kill the pigs” the night of the murder, according to MacDonald’s story.  Stoeckley is now dead, but she allegedly confessed to being there that night, though when asked to take the stand she denied it.


MacDonald’s accusers point to the hippie story as evidence of his guilt.  It was too similar to the Manson story, and an Esquire magazine found in the living room contained an article on the Manson murders.  The feeling was that MacDonald, in a panic, had used some of the details from the story to craft a narrative for his crime.


I never felt that angle held much weight.  As unlikely as it sounds for a group of hippies to reenact the Manson murders, after years of reading about crimes and criminals I operate under one main assumption: crazy inexplicable shit happens all the time.  The Manson family and their murders are evidence enough of that.


The forensic evidence didn’t look good for MacDonald.  I imagine Morris gets into that in his book, but what I remember is that the murder weapons came from the house, and fibers from MacDonald’s torn pajama top were found in and under the victims’ bodies, places where they shouldn’t be according to his story.  The blood evidence didn’t track with how he said it went down.


I can believe that the crime scene was contaminated, or that new technology has revealed earlier results to be faulty.


What I can’t wrap my head around is a lie MacDonald told Colette’s stepfather, Fred Kassab.


First let me say that I accept that innocent people lie in criminal cases all the time, mostly to cover unflattering behavior.  Gary Condit is an example of a liar who was innocent.  He caused himself a great deal of hassle by not coming clean immediately about his relationship with Chandra Levy.


But MacDonald’s lie was different.  It wasn’t a lie of omission, or a cover-up of bad behavior.  It was a lie that, if MacDonald was in fact innocent, served to thwart the search for the real killers.


Kassab initially believed in MacDonald’s innocence, but he was naturally interested in finding justice for Colette and the girls.  He frequently spoke to his son-in-law about the search to find the killers, as one would do when loved ones have been murdered.


One day Macdonald told his father-in-law that he’d tracked down one of the killers and murdered him.  Kassab was astonished, and pressed for more information, which MacDonald wouldn’t give him. 


MacDonald’s story was eventually revealed to be untrue.  He alleged that he simply wanted to put Kassab’s persistence to rest.


But why?  Why, if your pregnant wife and two young daughters had been brutally murdered, would you create a diversion in the search for their killers?  MacDonald characterizes Kassab’s persistence as something that needed to be ratcheted down.  I’ve tried to think of a possible reason for an innocent person to feel that way.  I’m still thinking.


Of course the lie is not the kind of rock solid evidence a criminal case is built on, nor should it be.  But for me it spoke volumes, and I’ve never been able to shake it.


A new hearing on the MacDonald case takes place next month, after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court had failed to consider the entire body of evidence.


Errol Morris is probably pleased with that, but I'd warn that new developments don’t always bode well for defendants.  Consider the Eastburn case, which superficially resembles the MacDonald case, and in my opinion is just as fascinating.


In May, 1985 Katy Eastburn, the wife of an Air Force Captain, and two of her three young daughters were murdered in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  A few days after the murders police arrested Tim Hennis, a young Army sergeant, and charged him with rape and three counts of murder.  A civilian jury convicted him and handed down a death sentence.  But three years later he was acquitted during a retrial.


Hennis went on to lead an exemplary career in the Army.  He married and raised two children.  The Eastburn murders  became a cold case.  But in 2006 a detective sent a vaginal swab from Katy Eastburn to the lab.  The results:  the sample was 1.2 quadrillion times more likely to be from Tim Hennis than any other white person in North Carolina.  In short, it was a match.

Tim Hennis


Due to double jeopardy the state couldn’t try Hennis again.  That wasn’t an issue for the Army.  They court-martialed him.  Nearly 25 years after the murders --- years spent fighting in the First Gulf war, and serving as a Boy Scout leader --- a military jury found Tim Hennis guilty, and sentenced him to death.





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RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.