New documentary series re-examines the murder case against a former Green Beret
By BROOKE CAIN | The News & Observer | Published: September 14, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — The Jeffrey MacDonald case is one of the most written about, most talked about and most pondered murder cases of modern times — and it’s about to get fresh attention from a new FX documentary series debuting later this month.
For those who can’t immediately fill in the backstory from their own mental hard drive, here’s a little background: MacDonald is the former Green Beret doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Colette, and two small daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, in their home on the Fort Bragg Army base on Feb. 18, 1970, just months after the Manson murders in Los Angeles.
MacDonald said his family was attacked by a group of hippies chanting “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” While his family was brutally beaten to death and stabbed, MacDonald was injured in the attack, but not seriously. He was cleared in an Army trial, but later convicted in a federal trial in Raleigh. Joe McGinniss wrote a very famous book about the case — “Fatal Vision” — which was made (and remade) into an extremely popular TV movie. In the years since, MacDonald has continued to insist that he is innocent.
The FX documentary series “A Wilderness of Error,” premiering on FX on Sept. 25, is based on a book by acclaimed true crime filmmaker Errol Morris, whose 1988 documentary “Thin Blue Line” actually helped free an innocent man from death row in Texas.
But Morris — who, yes, believes MacDonald may be innocent — isn’t behind the camera on this one. The film is directed by Marc Smerling, who co-created the Emmy-winning HBO documentary series “The Jinx,” and was nominated for an Oscar as a producer of the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans.”
Smerling interviews Morris (along with seemingly every living person associated with the case, except for MacDonald) and uses Morris’ doubts as jumping off points to examine each element of the case.
But don’t assume that “A Wilderness of Error” always comes down on the side of MacDonald’s innocence.
Smerling explores each point made by Morris or other MacDonald supporters, perhaps swaying the viewer a little to the “maybe he is innocent!” side, before attempting to disprove — or at least do great damage to — each theory.
And yet, Morris, who calls the case a “miscarriage of justice,” is so compelling in his interviews that you want to buy in.
“It’s a case that resists definitive explanations, wandering in that wilderness of conflicting evidence and interpretations, of mistakes and errors,” Morris says at the beginning of the first episode.
And at times, Morris seems more put out by the work of Joe McGinniss in “Fatal Vision” than he is actually convinced that MacDonald is innocent, taking issue with the fact that McGinniss’ theory of the events of that night in February 1970 have essentially been accepted as truth.
“What happens when a narrative takes the place of reality?” Morris asks in the title sequence, referencing “Fatal Vision.” “It’s almost as if nothing really happened in history unless it has been recorded in a movie or in a television series.”
(As a sidebar to the whole McGinniss debate, Smerling and FX have released a very good companion podcast called “Morally Indefensible,” which takes a deep dive into the relationship between McGinnis and MacDonald, and the tactics McGinniss used to get information from his subject/collaborator.)
In an homage to the innovative (and sometimes controversial) documentary filmmaking style Morris made popular in “The Thin Blue Line,” Smerling uses lots of reenactments to illustrate the events being described in various audio recordings, transcripts and interviews, but he often lets the interviews speak for themselves.
Smerling talks to everyone from the MPs and Army investigators who first responded to MacDonald’s house on Castle Drive, to ER doctors, attorneys (from both sides) and friends and family members of those close to the case.
We hear from both brothers of the late Helena Stoeckley, the infamous “woman in the floppy hat,” who at times confessed to being present when the crimes were committed, but ultimately denied it all while under oath.
We hear from Stoeckley’s best friend at the time (the owner of a blonde wig Stoeckley liked to borrow), and from friends of MacDonald.
We hear from the brother of MacDonald’s murdered wife, Colette.
But among the most interesting segments are those essentially pitting the competing narratives of two well-known Raleigh lawyers against each other: Wade Smith, a respected criminal defense attorney who was on MacDonald’s team for the 1979 trial, and Jim Blackburn, the prosecutor who got the conviction.
Both men are excellent on camera and give important insight into the trial. Particularly in the case of Smith, who provides great background and spells out what he believes ultimately sank their case: pro-prosecution bias from Judge Franklin Dupree Jr.
No matter what side you come down on in regard to MacDonald’s guilt or innocence, or to the fairness of his trial, “A Wilderness of Error” is a fascinating and well-executed deep-dive into a case that is likely to be debated for decades to come.
The first three episodes of the five-part documentary series debut on the cable network FX at 8 p.m. Sept. 25. Those episodes will be available for streaming the next day on Hulu.
The last two parts of the series will air on Oct. 2, and stream the next day on Hulu.
“A Wilderness of Error” is produced by Truth Media, Blumhouse Television and UCP.
To listen to the “Morally Indefensible” podcast, visit fxnetworks.com/shows/a-wilderness-of-error/morally-indefensible-podcast or download through Apple, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app.