Jeffrey MacDonald, labeled the Green Beret Killer by the media, has steadfastly maintained his innocence, as many convicted criminals are bound to do. In his new book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, Errol Morris raises the question: What if MacDonald really is innocent?
Morris, who previously helped free a Texas man wrongfully convicted of murder, methodically examines every questionable aspect of the case, from the amateur initial investigation to MacDonald's multiple appeals, all of which have been denied. Though the book is lengthy, at just over 500 pages, Morris does not waste words, relying heavily on transcribed conversations with key players in the case or snippets of court records to tell the story.
There is a wealth of information contained in this book, as it covers a four-decade time span. At the front of the book are six pages indexing the people associated with the MacDonald case, which looks daunting at first, but proves to be a valuable reference. Morris's arguments could easily get lost amongst the details--there are a lot of fine details important to the case--but thanks to his superb writing and storytelling skills, the arguments stand out and the inconsistencies of the case are brought to the forefront time and again. I particularly liked the division of the narrative into seven separate "Books" and 65 short chapters. This organization kept it from feeling too overwhelming at any one time, and made it a much more enjoyable read.
I was impressed with the amount of time and research Morris has put into this undertaking. It is obvious that the plight of Jeffrey MacDonald has weighed heavily on him for many years. The case is a fascinating one to begin with, and Morris publicizes many startling facts that have long been suppressed or disregarded by the courts, the media, and the public. I read many parts aloud to my husband (we both work in the law enforcement/prosecution fields), alternately shocked and disgusted at the multiple missteps in the investigations, the alleged suppression of evidence by both prosecutors and judges, and the mishandling of potential key witnesses.
Do I think Jeffrey MacDonald is guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and children in February 1970? Maybe; maybe not. There are some very legitimate questions about his account of the events of that night. But I kept coming back to the lack of any sort of legitimate motive. I just can't buy that this Green Beret doctor, a surgeon who would have been specially trained to exert control over any type of situation, would lose control to any extent that would cause him to lash out at his family in such a brutal way.
Still, the bigger question remains: Do I think Jeffrey MacDonald got a fair trial? Not in the least. He didn't even get a fair investigation, as alternate potential leads were brushed off and dismissed and evidence was admittedly disturbed and corrupted.
Morris sums it up nicely in the closing passages of the book:
Whether MacDonald is innocent or guilty, the case is a terrible miscarriage of justice....
We may never know all the details of the night of February 17, 1970, a 544 Castle Drive. Perhaps it was once but it is no longer possible to know. Forty years of wandering in a wilderness of error. Not a wilderness created by some metaphysical obstacle to knowledge, but a wilderness created by ourselves.
I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for review. All opinions expressed are entirely my own. For more reviews and information about this title, check out the full tour post here.