Jeffrey MacDonald might have killed his family—but we don’t know for sure.
Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.
The 1970 triple homicide of Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife and two children, at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., has been the object of a remarkable level of scrutiny. MacDonald, a Princeton-educated doctor and a Green Beret at the time, has always maintained that a group of intruders attacked him and killed his family. An Army investigation cleared him initially, but he was convicted of the murders in Federal court in 1979. Joe McGinniss’ 1983 best seller about the case, Fatal Vision, later made into an NBC miniseries, convinced many people that justice had been done. Janet Malcolm then wrote a famous critique of journalistic ethics, The Journalist and the Murderer, which focused on McGinniss’ duplicity toward MacDonald as he reported the book. This past September, Errol Morris published A Wilderness of Error, which criticizes both McGinniss and Malcolm and makes the case for MacDonald’s innocence.
Finally, last week, McGinniss published a 22,000-word e-book, right on the heels of a 6,500-word magazine feature about the case by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. Both of them say, essentially, “Don’t worry, MacDonald obviously did it.” The Weingarten piece in particular has garnered widespread and near unanimous praise online. But Weingarten’s piece and McGinniss’ e-book are seriously flawed, and both are much too confident of their conclusions.
This past summer, I read the four major books on the MacDonald case, numerous articles, and a decent chunk of court testimony and other primary sources. Morris’ book makes some missteps, as I noted in a review-essay about it, and Weingarten and McGinniss point out a few that I did not catch. But Morris’ account is nonetheless far more persuasive than McGinniss’. Fatal Vision, which posits that MacDonald went into a homicidal rage unleashed by an excess of diet pills, tries to turn readers against MacDonald so thoroughly that they do not notice how much McGinniss relies on innuendo, omission, and unsupported inference. Vast portions of the book rest on a logical error that Weingarten also dabbles in: MacDonald is a creep. Ergo, he killed his entire family. As I wrote then, it’s a dishonest and unserious book—dishonest to the reader, not just MacDonald.
As Janet Malcolm exposed, McGinniss led MacDonald to believe he was in his corner while working on the book that would work so hard to persuade readers of his guilt. Shortly after the jury rendered its verdict, he wrote to MacDonald, “What the fuck were those people thinking of? How could 12 people not only agree to believe such a horrendous proposition, but agree, with a man’s life at stake, that they believed it beyond a reasonable doubt?”
But in his modestly titled new e-book, Final Vision: The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald, which is dedicated to debunking “Morris b.s.,” McGinniss is just as certain as he was in Fatal Vision that, in fact, “the full truth about the murders did come out at his trial.” McGinniss has to massage the timeline to account for the blatant contradictions in his letters. He says now that he knew MacDonald was guilty during the trial, but that after the conviction,
my doubts revived. He was such a good guy, how could he have done such a terrible thing? I must have missed something. The prosecution must have fooled me, and the jury, with sleight of hand.
For more than a year, I expressed sympathy to MacDonald. Finally, I came to believe he was a psychopath …
But we should trust him this time.
Weingarten does. He has been a champion of McGinniss’ book and his view of the case for years. “It is impossible to read Fatal Vision and not KNOW that [MacDonald] killed his wife and children,” Weingarten wrote in 2011. “Impossible.” Back in 1989 he wrote a letter of support to McGinniss after Janet Malcolm seriously damaged his reputation. In the Washington Post piece, Weingarten calls Fatal Vision “among the best true-crime books ever written.” As a person with great respect for Weingarten, I find these statements baffling.
But leave McGinniss aside for a moment and consider Weingarten’s own case for MacDonald’s guilt. Weingarten focuses on Brian Murtagh, the prosecutor in the case—and a co-worker of Weingarten’s wife for years. (Elsewhere he has described them as “good friends.”) Weingarten discloses this; indeed, with Janet Malcolm’s shadow looming, he acknowledges, “I intend to spin you toward a certain conclusion. The process is stealthy and has already begun.” These are honest admissions on Weingarten’s part, but they also play a strategic role. Weingarten grants that stories “are seldom completely arm’s-length,” and that journalists are liable to spin you. But then he poses his own piece as an exception, owing to his full disclosure. “OK, I think we’re at arm’s length now,” he writes. “We’re good to go.” Weingarten seems to want it both ways—he’s hoping you’ll trust him because he admitted that you shouldn’t.
I object, Your Honor. My point is not that MacDonald is definitely innocent—it’s that you ought to keep checking your wallet to be sure that Weingarten and McGinniss haven’t picked it.
Weingarten portrays Murtagh, his wife’s friend, as the unassuming, unsung hero of the MacDonald saga. Unlike MacDonald, an Ivy League womanizer with a yacht, Murtagh is a “resolutely boring” government employee who wears suspenders not as a fashion statement, but because “I need ’em to hold my pants up.” (Think about why Weingarten is telling us this.) “Through it all,” he writes, “Murtagh alone persisted.” (I would say that MacDonald has persisted too, but never mind.) Weingarten says that Murtagh wrote out a long rebuttal to Errol Morris but “didn’t release it to the media,” because he’s above that or something—but apparently he showed it to a columnist for the Washington Post, because Weingarten quotes from it.
Murtagh’s determination to keep MacDonald behind bars is, to Weingarten, a self-evident virtue: “He has stayed on because of an abstract sense of justice, but also because of a concrete duty he feels to three people who died very badly.” Weingarten then notes that to Murtagh, “it is personal.” And of course it is. But hang on, does Murtagh’s personal investment make him a good person to listen to or a bad one? Weingarten has hung his account of a huge controversy on a man with an enormous stake in the matter. After MacDonald called Murtagh a “viper,” the “resolutely boring” public servant drove around with a vanity license plate: “VIPR.”
Evan Hughes is the author of Literary Brooklyn.