Jeffrey MacDonald: A reading list

Fatal Vision and beyond.

Fifty years ago today, Dr. (then Captain) Jeffrey MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters were brutally slain in their Fort Bragg home. MacDonald, who claimed that drug-crazed hippie intruders attacked him and his family, suffered relatively minor injuries — just one of the things that made his account of a Manson-Family-esque home invasion hard to believe. And it was not believed by a jury, who convicted him in 1979; MacDonald got a life sentence, and has been whining about it ever since.

You can probably tell where I come down on MacDonald’s guilt based on that last sentence, but in case it’s unclear: he did it, then tried to blame it on “druggies” (with a dash of “it was a black guy” for “good” measure)…which, given that he was probably overusing dangerously speed-y diet pills at the time, is technically not incorrect. You can read that theory and much more in the book that made the case legendary, Fatal Vision; get the latest edition you can, one that contains the various epilogues about MacDonald suing McGinniss and his publisher — because that’s where the case and its story really start to become a larger discussion about the nature of working in this genre.

I’ll list even more reads and watches below; please feel free to supplement in the comments, or to defend the Errol Morris.

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  • The Fatal Vision miniseries // It’s available on YouTube, below. Excellent performances all around, and a reasonably clear retelling of the evidence as well; Karl Malden won an Emmy for his performance as Colette’s avenging stepfather, Freddy Kassab. I talked about it way back in Ep 003 with Leah Kwan.

  • Final Vision, ID’s take on MacDonald’s and McGinniss’s doubts about, well, each other. // Starred Scott Foley and Dave Annable, and was not great, if memory serves; John Ramos and I talked about that in Ep 035. If you’re going to dig into a project with that name, you’re better off with…

  • Final Vision: The Last Word On Jeffrey MacDonald. // McGinniss wrote this Kindle Single, which I’m not sure you can even get anywhere anymore, as a rebuttal to Errol Morris’s book, and while it’s preaching to the choir to an extent, I think it’s essential reading in this case. Please go bug Amazon to re-issue it, or “someone” around here is going to have to reeeeeally lean on the fair-use statute to do a dramatic reading of it…

  • The Journalist And The Murderer. // You can read a scanned copy of Janet Malcolm’s famous takedown of McGinniss here if you don’t feel like plumping for the whole book. Malcolm is a very good prose stylist with a lot of good points at her disposal about the relationship generally between reporters and subjects; the relationship between ethics in a police interrogation and ethics in a journalistic interview; and so on. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to take her indictment of McGinniss’s conduct and technique seriously when 1) she couldn’t bear to confront the case evidence, and 2) she is quite evidently harboring a crush on MacDonald, one that doesn’t merit the disdainful scrutiny brought to bear on McGinniss’s work and objectivity. Still, this is a critical part of the “file” overall.

  • A Wilderness Of Error. // This is now my third attempt to get through Errol Morris’s re-examination of the case and trial without throwing it across the room. The broader point that MacDonald didn’t receive due process — that it took the government far too long to start proceedings; that critical evidence was excluded by Judge Dupree — is absolutely well taken; I don’t think Helena Stoeckley’s highly malleable account of what happened that night is worth a damn, but by that same token I don’t think it would have made a difference to let the jury hear it. The crime scene was mishandled even by the laxer standards of the time; the government was probably guilted by the Kassabs into taking another bite of the apple. But Morris’s often disingenuous, bordering on cutesy presentation is off-putting from the jump, plus by page 40 he’s misspelled victims’ names and averred that psychopathy is a myth. My understanding is that he’s walked back some of his click-baitier comments about MacDonald’s innocence in recent years, but I’m not sure I can get through a book whose raison d’etre is very likely that the author, having gotten one guy off death row thanks to a documentary he made, thinks he’s more important to criminal justice than he actually is. Like his films a lot, but if I should just turf this one permanently, let me know in the comments.

  • The Fayetteville Observer’s anniversary coverage. // The prose is labored, but the archival pieces give good insight into how the case was covered at the time.

  • The Devil And Jeffrey MacDonald.” // I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this 1998 Vanity Fair longread got a whole new generation of true-crime consumers interested in the case.

  • A 2012 WaPo profile of prosecutor Brian “That Little Viper” Murtagh. // Gene Weingarten’s writing is excellent, and his handling of the McGinniss/Malcolm folie a whatever is swift and elegant.

  • MacDonald’s local counsel reflects on his client’s innocence. // A 2012 piece on Salon that incorporates a rare interview with MacDonald’s co-counsel, Wade Smith; I could have sworn there was another longform piece on Jim Blackburn, one of the prosecutors, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. (Blackburn did write a memoir about his fall from grace, a fall that subsequent MacDonald defenders have pointed to as further evidence that MacDonald was jobbed by the government.)

  • And we’re talking about this 1989 Inside Story episode, “False Witness,” in our next episode. // It’s not entirely clear to me what the show’s take is, but the occasional drily British observation about MacDonald’s performative remembering of the fatal night is worth the price of admission.


    Tuesday on Best Evidence: Clowns, when the family business is robbery, and more from Eve’s brain!


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