A new doc reopens the Jeffrey MacDonald murders. We asked the prosecutor for his take
Fifty years after his wife and two young daughters were brutally murdered, and 41 after he was convicted of the crime, the case of former Army surgeon Jeffrey R. MacDonald continues to fascinate. Were the Fort Bragg, N.C., murders, as MacDonald has long contended, committed by a group of drug-crazed hippies chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs?” Or were they, as the prosecution successfully argued, actually the work of MacDonald, who murdered his family in a psychotic rage?
The case inspired Joe McGinniss’ nonfiction bestseller “Fatal Vision,” published in 1983, as well as a hugely successful 1984 TV miniseries based on the book — not to mention Janet Malcolm’s famed 1990 reconsideration “The Journalist and the Murderer.” Now it’s the subject of the FX series “A Wilderness of Error,” based on the book of the same name by Oscar-winning documentary director Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”), who has questioned MacDonald’s guilt and the prosecution’s handling of the case.
Morris, whose 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line” actually led to the overturning a death sentence, wondered whether the testimony of several key people — a woman who claimed she’d been in the house during the murders, a U.S. marshal who alleged the woman confessed to him and a man who allegedly admitted the killings — had deliberately been overlooked by the prosecution, and that the initial investigation by the Army had essentially been a shoddy coverup.
In advance of the series’ conclusion Friday, The Times contacted Jim Blackburn, former lead prosecutor in the case (who found the series “riveting” and “balanced, as opposed to the book”), and “Wilderness” director Marc Smerling (“Capturing the Friedmans”) to discuss how those questions and other key elements of the story were handled.
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Did the series spend too much time on the “girl in the floppy hat”?
Helena Stoeckley was a local drug addict and alcoholic who claimed she was in the MacDonald house the night of the murders. And then she said she wasn’t. Over and over again. Stoeckley, who died in 1983, supposedly confessed to several friends, yet their testimony was not allowed during the trial, a decision the show fails to explain and which Blackburn found surprising at the time.
“I thought the tremendous emphasis on Helena [in the series] does not reflect the trial,” says Blackburn. “She contradicted herself all the time, so [the judge] would not allow the out-of-court statements into evidence.”
Still, Smerling says he included so much about her — including her middle-class upbringing — because she was “the engineer that pulls the train; there’s a question if Jeffrey would have gotten such eyeball time if it hadn’t been for Helena. I felt I had to deal with her, and nobody had ever had a chance to see who she was, to understand who she was.”
The crime scene might have been compromised
The MacDonald family lived in a small house on the base. It appears that 27 people — military police and investigators — moved through the property after the murders, suggesting that the scene had not been secured. “A lot of people walked through it, and that’s a huge problem,” says Smerling, who looked at numerous photos taken at the scene and who included some in the series. “Did these people move fibers from the living room to the bedroom? Did they move blood around the house? The fact is, there was very little dirt and debris from outside in the house. The physical evidence was a tough thing for the defense to overcome.”
Blackburn agrees that “the crime scene was not the best, but it was also not the worst. It was not managed the way you want it to be managed. However, we put in more than 600 pieces of evidence in that trial. We didn’t ask the jury to convict him on what we did not find, but on what we did find.”
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The lead defense lawyer “lost the jury.” But there’s disagreement about why
Bernard Segal was, as Smerling describes him, “a petulant, combative Jewish lawyer from Philadelphia, and the jury found that off-putting. He was not the right lawyer for the case.” Blackburn doesn’t think that the problem was Segal’s religion or where he was from but that “he was so filled with righteous anger about the case. He’d been on it for eight or nine years, and when he made his closing arguments, he spoke for over three hours without a bathroom break, and lost the jury.”
Smerling says he approached Segal’s ex-wife (Segal died in 2011), and several women who were his aides during the trial, but “it was hard to find someone to tell his story,” and none of them appear in the series. He eventually had to rely on Segal’s co-counsel, Wade Smith, who was “the best I could do on Bernie and other people around the trial.”
The appeal relied on a U.S. marshal — and the prosecutor’s “problems”
Then-U.S. marshal Jimmy Britt alleged that Stoeckley had confessed to him while he was driving her from South Carolina to Raleigh, N.C. He also claimed that he was in the room when Blackburn threatened Stoeckley that if she testified she was in the house that night, he would indict her on murder charges. Yet Smerling’s research revealed that Britt had never driven Stoeckley from another state and that he had not been in the room when Blackburn interviewed her.
“It seems like I started my project sharpening my knife for Errol [Morris],” who featured Britt’s allegations in his book, says Smerling. “I said, ‘We’re going to have to re-investigate if this stuff is true or not, and when I saw him looking to Jimmy Britt, obviously, there’s a problem with his story. It doesn’t stand up. It seems like [the defense] felt there was a good chance of getting this before a judge, because Jim Blackburn had had problems.”
Those “problems” involved Blackburn pleading guilty in 1993 to charges of fraud, forgery, embezzlement and obstruction of justice, for which he was sent to prison and lost his law license. “That for them was an opening, and I think they took it,” Blackburn says of his “trouble.” “If I had done anything wrong in that case, it would have been found, but from 2005, that was the thrust of MacDonald’s argument, the Jimmy Britt claim.”
There was another alleged confession in the MacDonald case
Greg Mitchell was, says Smerling, “one of the other people that keeps this thing alive.” A Vietnam vet suffering from substance abuse problems, Mitchell allegedly painted “I killed MacDonald’s wife and children” on the walls of a rehab house. But the alleged painting was supposedly covered over, so there was no evidence it had ever existed. Besides, says Smerling, “I have no doubt he would get drunk and say things. The FBI interviewed him multiple times, and he denied being in the house. These were people, Helena and Greg, with serious mental health issues. There is evidence to suggest [they] are telling stories.”
Even though Mitchell, who died in 1982, never appeared at the trial, Blackburn claims he “could have handled him OK” if he had testified, and remembers some lines from his closing argument: “It doesn’t matter if you have 5,000 people outside 544 Castle Drive yelling, ‘Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,’ unless you can put one of them inside that night, and you can’t. There were four people inside that night — the MacDonald family.’”
‘A Wilderness of Error’
When: 9 and 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
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