If you’re a self-proclaimed true crime nerd like myself, you likely have a repertoire of cases that you know way better than the average person and can’t help but gab about.
For film director and author Errol Morris, Jeffery MacDonald is his juicy fascination. Morris befriended MacDonald’s lead appellate attorney Harvey Silverglate in the early 1990s and has been obsessed by the case ever since. He has even taken multiple trips to the crime scene — 544 Castle Drive in Fort Bragg, North Carolina — with his wife over the years! Spooky.
In 2012, Morris published A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffery MacDonald, which covers the entire history of the MacDonald case as well as evaluates the mistakes made by investigators in the first hours of the crime scene response. These mistakes, which muddied the proverbial waters for both the prosecution and the defense during the trial, eventually contributed to a skewed public perception of the case.
Academy Award-nominated film producer Marc Smerling directed “A Wilderness of Error,” a five-part docuseries that is based on Morris’ book. The first three episodes of the series were released by FX on September 25, 2020, and the final two are scheduled to release on October 2. In only watching the first three hours of the program, I finally understand why Morris is so captivated by the case — it’s not as cut and dry as the media initially portrayed.
For the general public, the gist of the case is as follows: Army Surgeon Jeffery MacDonald was living at Fort Bragg with his pregnant wife Collette and their two young daughters, Kimberley and Kristen. On a rainy February night in 1970, military police were called to the MacDonald residence around 3:30 a.m. to investigate a disturbance.
When the police arrived, they found Collette dead on the bedroom floor, covered in blood and with Jeffery passed out next to her. In their respective rooms, Kimberley and Kristen had each been stabbed to death. Various weapons were found outside of the house, including a knife and an ice pick, and the word “PIG” had been written in blood on the bedroom wall.
Jeffery told the authorities that three men and a young woman in a white floppy hat broke into his home and started attacking him and his wife. The “crazed hippies” were chanting “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” as he tried to fight them off. Jeffery received only artificial stab wounds, but was knocked unconscious and awoke to find his wife dead. He told police that he tried to resuscitate her via CPR but to no avail.
From the get-go, authorities felt that Jefferey’s account of this horrific night was suspect. Sure, the MacDonald case closely resembled the Manson murders from just a year prior, but something was amiss. Mainly, Jeffery’s lack of comparable injuries to his family and the general inconsistencies in his story never seemed to fit his version of the events.
Jeffery was cleared in an Article 32 hearing with the Army, but the justice department went after the case and convicted him of multiple murders in 1979. Jeffery continues to profess his innocence.
Morris’ investigation of the MacDonald case is much less clear cut than his claim to fame, “The Thin Blue Line.” While the latter led to the release of a wrongfully incarcerated man, “A Wilderness of Error” leaves viewers with numerous questions for both the prosecution and the defense. In turn, no definitive conclusions can be drawn about MacDonald’s culpability.
“A Wilderness of Error” reveals how competing stories can effectively obscure reality and thereby encourages people to think critically about convenient versus inconvenient truths. If investigators obtained multiple confessions from the woman in the white floppy hat (revealed to be Helena Stoeckley), why was Jeffery MacDonald still convicted? Morris is still unsure.
The docuseries is smart, challenging, and impeccably produced (a common characteristic of Blumhouse productions). While no new conclusions are drawn, the audience is given a rare opportunity to revisit the original investigation and to compare their initial interpretations of what happened with Morris’ artful recreations and presentation of differing perspectives.
Will Jeffery MacDonald go free? Probably not. But, now you have another case to rant about at your next (virtual?) social gathering. Score!