James Jordan · Jeffrey MacDonald · True-Crime Tropes
Plus more Mormons, "Miracle Fishing," and a discount code!
The filmmakers behind Murder Among The Mormons talked to The Hollywood Reporter about their “history with the saga.” I had a note in my piece about the docuseries on the Mormon-forgery bombings about the series’ relationship to the case — to wit, co-director Tyler Measom’s father (I assume; they have the same last name) went to college with bomber Mark Hofmann, and appears on camera for a talking-head interview. That got cut for space; I was interested to read more about the connection in THR. Well, that connection isn’t made explicit, though Measom talks a lot about the “mythology” of the case in Utah — and about other, less lethal paths Hofmann could have taken:
Measom goes on to imagine an alternate outcome, where Hofmann could have used his skills to catch forgers instead of becoming one. "If Mark would have, prior to the bombings, just said, 'Guys, I’m a fraud. I’m a forger. I owe you a lot of money,' he would have been convicted on fraud. He probably would have done five to 10 [years]. And then he would have pulled a Catch Me If You Can, would have gotten out and he would have been working with the FBI," he says. "But, for some reason, he felt that he had to kill innocent people in order to perpetrate and perpetuate this lie. Lie became lie became lie and he just had to continue this until two people wound up picking up pipe bombs in their driveway and in the front of their office. That perpetuating lie is dangerous, that slippery slope, and I’d just like to know what it was that made him want to keep fooling individuals or entities."
Well, Hofmann’s a sociopath, and as chilling as it was to hear interview footage in MatM of Hofmann making exactly that clear, there’s not much else to know — and I think Measom’s conception of Hofmann’s sliding door is compelling, it boils down to illuminating a “how,” versus a “why,” and I wish the docuseries itself had gone in more of a “how” direction. And maybe in retrospect Measom agrees? — SDB
But that was my Primetimer piece from last week; this week, I’m talking about seven TV-true-crime tropes that need to go. I wrote the list a while ago so my bosses could run it during a quiet week, and frankly had forgotten about it, but rereading it now, I wouldn’t change anything. I talk about everything from tiresome B-roll, to purposefully fuzzy timelines, to the corny interview clichés survivors and family members are obliged to participate in:
These people have been through hell, they aren't professional commentators, and they're not going to give a director notes when their priority is to share their stories. So it's that much more important for directors to stop 1) letting loved ones describe their late sibling/child/spouse as "lighting up a room" (seriously, it's every time, and no doubt sometimes it's true, but it's also okay for your late friend or sister to have been shy or socially average — nobody deserves to get murdered!); 2) creating saccharine visuals like loved ones gazing tearfully at horizons or headstones; 3) making survivors stare, unblinking, into the camera for thirty full seconds so that the chyron that inevitably follows about how they didn't get justice is more of a gut-punch.
There’s nothing a Dateline segment producer loves quite as much as a bridge over a burbling creek, the better to film a grieving friend or sibling crossing it at a stately pace…I’m not unsympathetic towards these producers’ trying to do their jobs, in the piece or generally, but come on.
Did I miss any docuseries shortcuts, or do these seven about cover it? — SDB
Jeffrey MacDonald is again petitioning to get out of prison — using a different angle from his traditional “I didn’t do it”/Sixth Amendment filings. This time, he’s using advanced age, failing health, and COVID concerns to petition for compassionate release, under a “criminal justice reform law signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018 called ‘The First Step Act.’” MacDonald is currently serving three life sentences for the 1970 murders of his wife Colette and two young daughters; Colette’s brother Bob Stevenson is not having it and plans to attend the hearing — which is scheduled for tomorrow, March 11 — to testify against his former brother-in-law.
MacDonald has already petitioned prison officials for release and been turned down, so his team taken the matter to federal court:
The lawyers said:
MacDonald is 77 years old and has served 39 years.
He has health problems include chronic kidney disease, skin cancer, and high blood pressure.
Those factors plus his age “make him extremely vulnerable to severe illness or death if he were to contract COVID-19.”
MacDonald has been exposed to inmates who had COVID, and the prison is poorly equipped to deal with a pandemic.
The health factors are the extraordinary and compelling reasons that MacDonald should qualify for release.
If he were to be released, MacDonald would settle with his wife, Kathryn MacDonald, whom he has been married to for 18 years, his lawyers said. She lives in Columbia, Maryland.
The Fayetteville Observer’s Paul Woolverton drily notes that “Separately, MacDonald last year submitted twice submitted requests to be considered for parole to U.S. Parole Commission, but then canceled those requests.” You can read more about that here, although MacDonald’s attorney declined to discuss why MacDonald waived either the April or the August request. If I had to guess, it’s because admitting to guilt was a condition and MacDonald still couldn’t bring himself to do it.
I don’t really care whether MacDonald is granted this request, per se — I don’t think he’s going to kill anyone else, so it’s not a safety issue. But at the same time, he’s my father’s age, and all these ailments just sound like standard old-man shit to me, so if you’re going to spring MacDonald for, as the aforementioned non-Zodiac dad would say, “living long enough to come down with something,” I think you’ve got to consider springing everybody in that age cohort, even inmates who didn’t request a hearing. A lot of ink has been spilled on this one high-profile white inmate over the years; maybe it’s possible to leverage his intransigence into more humane policies for everyone.
But…see above re: MacDonald allocuting. I’m not sure any release program that involves MacDonald finally dropping the “drugged-out hippies framed me” fairytale is going to get MacDonald himself on board. In any event, the shteez is all over my Google alerts today, so we’ll keep you posted. — SDB
We love keeping you posted on stuff — and paying our contributors what they’re worth to help us do so! We’re not quite there yet, but it’s a main goal around here, and your paid subscriptions definitely help up the rate we can offer freelancers, new and known. If you can free up a five-spot, we’d love it.
If you can’t, word of mouth is great too — and free as a bird.
And what a pleasure for me to use word of mouth on a documentary I talked about on The Blotter Presents last year — Miracle Fishing. My guest Jeb Lund and I both really liked it but we weren’t sure how the rest of y’all would get to see it, and happily, it’s coming to Discovery+ on March 25.
From our review last June:
Let’s start with Miracle Fishing, a son’s contemporary video journal of his father’s kidnapping by FARC guerrillas, the story of which formed the basis for the feature film Proof Of Life (as the meme goes, I said what I said). Relatable, process-y, and utterly unique, we both thought it was enjoyable, and you should set a search for it. And why IS the money drop always in el baño?
If you were on the fence about whether to sign up for Discovery+, hang out until the end of the month, then treat yourself to this one during the trial period; it’s a gooder. — SDB
A&E’s Real Crime blog interviewed Liza Rodman, the co-author of CrimeReads’s most anticipated crime book of the year, The Babysitter. I just stocked this one at Exhibit B., and weirdly, in the last week I’m running across a number of books in the inventory backlog about horrible Cape Cod crimes — “weirdly” because the conventional wisdom is that Cape Cod only has That One Murder Case, or at least that’s what you tell yourself when you’re up there alone during the off season and the house is making noises it’s too “young” for in your opinion?
Anyway, here’s the brief on Rodman’s book:
In the late 1960s, Liza Rodman spent summers hanging out with Tony Costa, the handyman at the Royal Coachman, the Provincetown, Massachusetts hotel where her mother, an alcoholic who loved going out to bars, worked. One of the many people Rodman’s mom enlisted to watch the 8-year-old and her sister, Tony was fun, funny and charming.
He was also a serial killer.
Anyone else got this on their library hold list? I snagged it from the wholesaler because it was a new title, not planning to read it first, but I might have to pull it out of the window now.
(I’m happy to pull it for you; help yourself to this one, or anything else on my shelves, for 10% off with discount code BESTEV10 until midnight ET tonight!)
And now, a handful of quick hits from the last couple of weeks that we want to use before they go stale.
IMDbTV sets a premiere date for Moment of Truth, the docuseries on the murder of Michael Jordan’s father [Futon Critic]
It’s election season here in NYC; are DA hopefuls running on what they don’t plan to prosecute if elected? [Gothamist]
I wish I cared about soccer, because man, the drama sounds intense. [New York Times]
Galen Beebe wonders what makes different styles of true-crime narrative “work.” [Bello Collective]
Lifetime’s Circle of Deception was an SVU mini-reunion of Tamara Tunie and Diane Neal, in a story based on an Ann Rule book. [TV Shows Ace]
Thursday on Best Evidence: Elon Green and the Freshwater Five.