Jeffrey MacDonald might have killed his family—but we don’t know for sure.
And Murtagh, a plodding and careful man in Weingarten’s view, decided that MacDonald was guilty right from the start, when he entered the case late as an inexperienced 27-year-old and was shown the files and photos. He said so himself, speaking to Vanity Fair in 1998:
As Murtagh immersed himself, Kearns kept bringing more materials, culminating with the crime-scene photographs of Kimberly and Kristen. “I was feeling sick looking at them,” says Murtagh. “I must have made then some kind of emotional commitment that however long it took—whatever it took—I was going to do nothing that, either through act or omission to act, was going to see this guy get away with this.”
But … believing MacDonald guilty was one thing, finding someone willing to prosecute him something else.
There is no distance in the piece between Weingarten’s version of events and Murtagh’s. For nearly 1,000 words, the prosecutor walks us through how the crime went down. One of the daughters, according to Murtagh, slept through the murderous beatings of the other two victims, whose rooms were a few steps from hers in a small apartment. (It helps him if that’s true.) He narrates as if he’s relating facts: “[MacDonald] goes into the living room and breaks down. An upstairs neighbor hears what she identified as either laughing or crying. There’s a magazine on the coffee table with a story about the Manson murders. He gets his idea.”
In a rare interjection, Weingarten asks about one of MacDonald’s clever moves, “He was thinking that analytically?” Yeah, I was wondering that too. Murtagh posits a man so devilishly brilliant in his cover-up that we’re still debating the crime 42 years later, but so dumb that he intentionally stabbed his wife through his own shirt as part of his frame job. He then called the police, satisfied he had his story straight, and consistently told investigators that he was still wearing the punctured shirt in the other room when his wife was killed. So, he was thinking that analytically? Murtagh answers, “By the end, he was. When he was moving the bodies.” Oh, OK, carry on.
Another source Weingarten chooses is McGinniss, whom he calls “Joe.” Weingarten has McGinniss air his theory about why MacDonald asked to re-enter his house some time after the murders. (He was denied because it was still a sealed crime scene.) “They never found the scalpel blade he used on himself. I think he knew where he’d hidden it. Maybe between floorboards. I think he wanted to get rid of it.” The quote closes a section of the piece, as if Weingarten wants to emphasize it. He seems impressed, though it’s hard to tell since he has no response of his own. Occam’s razor suggests a possibility that Weingarten does not: Perhaps this hidden blade was never found because it did not exist.
Weingarten relates damaging testimony from an evidentiary hearing held this year, in late September—and some of it was indeed damaging—but he leaves out the notable moment that hurt the prosecution. A central question in the MacDonald case is whether an addict named Helena Stoeckley was the woman with the floppy hat and blond hair and boots whom MacDonald said was among the intruders that night. Stoeckley confessed repeatedly and no one has provided an alibi for her. She was known to wear a floppy hat and boots and owned a blonde wig that she said she burned just after the crime. In the 1979 trial, she denied any memory of the MacDonald house and said she could not recall her prior confessions, a massive blow to MacDonald’s defense. In September, after the judge waived attorney-client privilege owing to Stoeckley’s death, her lawyer testified that after initial denials, she confessed to him privately, during the week of the trial, that she was there when her companions committed the murders.
Weingarten strongly emphasizes, with reason, that Stoeckley was a troubled young woman who waffled over what happened that night and sometimes offered claims that did not add up. It’s difficult to know what to make of her confessions. To McGinniss and Weingarten, though, it’s easy: You dismiss them. Granted, people often falsely confess to crimes. What concerns me is that Stoeckley is the very person MacDonald needed to confess for his story to hold water. You might think a guilty man would cast a wider net, but he told a strange story and gave a fairly detailed description. What incredible luck that it matched a person who not only had no alibi but then repeatedly incriminated herself. Stoeckley said she was with her boyfriend that night, Greg Mitchell. He passed a polygraph but later also confessed repeatedly. The former L.A. County Coroner, hired by the defense, gave the opinion that there were multiple killers and that one was left-handed. Mitchell was left-handed, and MacDonald is not. Weingarten does not speak to any of this. He is utterly confident that it means nothing.
How can Weingarten and McGinniss be so sure? This is a difficult case. There were no witnesses, no incriminating fingerprints, and no evident motive. The crime scene was badly compromised by inexperienced military police. Items were moved and even stolen; gawkers were allowed to wander through the house; more than 40 fingerprints and a footprint were destroyed. This is what Murtagh had to work with when he entered the case. Weingarten grants the shoddiness of the police work in an aside, as if it were barely relevant. For him it was a gotcha moment when a bloody hair found in MacDonald’s wife’s hand turned out to be Jeffrey MacDonald’s. He accuses Morris of slipping past this fact. But it is not actually revealing: When the police arrived, MacDonald was sprawled across his wife’s body, both of them covered in blood. No one disputes this.
An open-and-shut article like Weingarten’s may be comforting, but there are reasons this case has remained controversial for decades. Weingarten and McGinniss write as if only a deluded person could have any doubt—and they unfairly portray Errol Morris as a devious conspiracy theorist. Reasonable people can disagree here, and for 42 years they have. In the first inquiry into the case, the Army Colonel who presided over a month’s-long hearing found the charges against MacDonald to be “not true.” One circuit court judge, Francis Murnaghan, wrote in a 1982 opinion, “The case provokes a strong uneasiness in me. … I believe MacDonald would have had a fairer trial if the Stoeckley related testimony had been admitted.” Janet Malcolm has been cagey about her view, but in 1997 she said, “The more I read about the case, the more I move toward the view that he could very well be innocent.” All these people must be deluded too.
Evan Hughes is the author of Literary Brooklyn.