True Crime Tuesdays: A Wilderness of Error
Helen Archer | On 04, May 2021
The case of Jeffrey MacDonald, an army doctor convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters in their Fort Bragg apartment in 1970, must be one of the most culturally examined true crime cases in modern history. Beyond the contemporaneous investigative journalism surrounding it, it went on to inspire Fatal Vision by journalist and author Joe McGinniss, which itself spawned a TV miniseries of the same name. McGinniss’s research methods – he befriended MacDonald and embedded himself within his defence team – are examined in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which looked at the ethics surrounding the relationship between a writer and his subject. Errol Morris, the godfather of true crime documentaries, wrote a book on the flawed initial investigation, published in 2012, which shares the title of this five-part series. And while Morris is interviewed extensively for this documentary, it is not, in fact, a Morris production. Marc Smerling, previously known for his involvement in such true crime classics as The Jinx and Capturing the Friedmans, takes the reins. With such a plethora of experience and talent, one can’t help but have high expectations.
When a crime has been so well-covered, it would seem imperative that any further undertaking should be based on new evidence or new theories. Not so here. The murders are now over 50 years old, and MacDonald has lost numerous appeals to overturn his conviction – there can’t be many serious people who believe, at this stage, in his innocence. While Morris’s book forensically catalogued the errors in the initial investigation – MacDonald was originally acquitted of the murders in an Army tribunal, but was later found guilty by a civilian court – the series spends much of its time in the same muddy waters the defence attempted to dredge up at MacDonald’s trial. Morris himself, during his interviews, is used as something of a defence attorney, attempting to cast doubt on the certainty of the conviction.
Viewers who know little or nothing about the case will undoubtedly be the programme’s most appreciative audience. Using a now-classic format of archive footage, hazy reenactments, and talking head interviews, it relies on the familiar bait-and-switch tactic that many true crime series utilise. Just as the viewer is making up their mind about one piece of evidence, a spanner is thrown in the works and we are encouraged to rethink our conclusions. Much is made of MacDonald’s story that a group of drug-crazed hippies invaded his home and killed his family, in a scene almost identical to the Charles Manson murders, which had occurred just one year previously. MacDonald’s description of the “woman in the floppy hat”, whom he claimed was present that night, leads detectives – and viewers – to Helen Stoeckley, a vulnerable young addict who claimed numerous times over the years to have been involved in the killings. Yet with no evidence of anyone else in the apartment that night – and with all the blood work pointing to a cover up by MacDonald – it feels as though we are being deliberately and cynically led down the dingy, dead-end alleyways of doubt.
Morris is probably best known for his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, which was instrumental in overturning a wrongful conviction. We trust him to dig into injustices, and his involvement in this programme lends it a certain credibility. So it’s baffling to watch him being easily outwitted in a subject he’s researched extensively, as Smerling imparts details from behind the camera, and Morris acts as though it’s brand new information. For his part, Morris offers up rumours and flimsy circumstantial evidence with a faux ignorance which makes fools of the viewers. It’s as though he is trolling us.
The only conclusion the viewer can come to is that – even now, when more is known about family annihilators, sociopaths and psychopaths – there is, among a certain demographic, a bafflement that a Princeton-educated Green Beret doctor could kill his family in cold blood, in a grotesque act of violence. When asked about the art of the true crime documentary itself, Morris states that “we are compelled by narratives rather than by evidence”. Perhaps. But narratives are riddled with the kind of personal biases it would behoove us to examine, and evidence is what makes the difference between fact and fiction. This series pits opposing narratives against each other, but there’s only one that is backed up by the very evidence Morris would have us ignore.
A Wilderness of Error: Season 1 is available on Sky One. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.