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Chatological Humor: Weingarten discusses his feature article on Brian Murtagh

Dec 11, 2012

Join Gene Weingarten Tuesday, Dec. 11 to discuss his feature article on Brian Murtagh and his fight to keep convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald in prison.

About this chat:
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On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

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Weingarten is also the author of "The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death," co-author of "I'm with Stupid," with feminist scholar Gina Barreca and "Old Dogs: Are the Best Dogs," with photographer Michael S. Williamson.

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Ed's Note: If composing your questions in Microsoft Word please turn off the Smart Quotes functionality or use WordPad. I haven't the time to edit them out.

Good afternoon.

Welcome to an unscheduled Flash Chat about my Sunday magazine story on the Jeffrey MacDonald murders and the prosecutor who is still on the case.

This is an odd thing to say about a 6,400-word story, but I found myself without the space to tell it as completely as I’d have liked.    The introduction to this chat is mostly for those of you who have read the story and are still not persuaded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that MacDonald killed his family and that “A Wilderness of Error” is a deeply flawed and manipulative book.    All the rest:  Feel free to plow ahead into the questions.

I remember the killings.  I was an 18-year-old hippie at the time, roughly the same age as Helena Stoeckley.   I didn’t do as many drugs as she did, but I did plenty, including mescaline, LSD, and heroin.   When I read in the newspaper that Jeffrey MacDonald – still presumed an innocent victim – told police that his attackers had been vicious hippie intruders who chanted “acid is groovy – kill the pigs,”  I knew he had done it.   As did every hippie in every city who read that statement with any degree of analytical thought.   No self-respecting killer hippie would ever have uttered, let alone chanted, that uncool, anachronistic thing as late as 1970.    That was exactly what some ramrod-straight 26-year-old Ivy League frat-boy doctor who was contemptuous of the counterculture would have thought a hippie would say.

Not to mention that hippies, um, didn’t kill people, at least not while stoned in drug-induced trances.  The Manson gang were not hippies.  They were weirdo murderers.  They went around murdering people, not just Sharon Tate and her friends.   They did not come out of the dark, descend on a house, do their savage thing, and then disappear back into the world never to be heard of again.  That’s not how it works with murderous gangs who would kill sleeping children.   Oh, and hippies also don’t arrive at a house intent on mass murder without remembering to bring along any weapons, relying on whatever knives and pieces of wood they might happen to find inside the house.   The Manson people brought a shotgun.

But, okay.   Forget all that.   That’s just me bloviating.    Maybe the MacDonald killers were different from all other killers.    Maybe they were really disorganized, absentminded murderous hippies who talked funny and only killed just this once.  Oh, and who came to hassle the doctor for drugs because they were drug addicts, and who killed his family, but never opened a closet to discover a big stash of syringes and drugs, including amphetamines.   Or maybe they saw that stuff but didn’t steal it because murder may be one thing, but stealing is just plain wrong.

So, fine.  I’m just bloviating.  Let’s just go to the evidence.

It is true that the cops focused on MacDonald almost from the beginning.  They did not do this because they were lazy and wanted to go home early and pop a brewski, or because they had a grudge against the handsome, arrogant, smug doctor.   They focused on MacDonald because just about every single thing they found suggested that his story was a desperate, audacious lie, from beginning to end.   Some of these things were in my story; some I didn’t have room for.   You’ll get a few of that second group here.

One of the first things Jeffrey MacDonald told police when they arrived was that he had pulled out of Colette’s chest a short, dull knife with a bent blade.   But that knife had not inflicted her chest wound, nor the knife cuts to her pajama top; the forensics were very clear on that.   She had been stabbed only by the ice pick and the Old Hickory knife, not by the Geneva Forge knife with the bent blade.    Why did MacDonald volunteer that odd lie, then, not once but twice, as medics were working on him?   Brian Murtagh’s guess: because the doctor suddenly remembered that the curved-blade knife had his fingerprints on it – it was the one he likely grabbed from Colette as she was trying to defend herself -- and he had to account for those prints.

Do you know where they found the knife and ice pick and club used in the murders?  The murderous hippies didn’t carry them away, to ditch the evidence where it couldn’t be found.  No, they left them right outside the back door of the house, in a bush, a place that someone could reach by opening the back door and leaning out and pitching them there, without having to step out into the rain and getting your feet and shoes and clothes wet, or leaving your own footprints in the dirt, all of which might have made police suspicious.    So, see, they were outside the house -- suggesting intruders who left -- but not so FAR outside the house you’d have to walk in the rain to get there, or maybe be seen by a neighbor disposing of them.  So.

Much of the so-called exculpatory evidence produced by the defense over the many years of this case has been focused on various fibers and hairs and fuzz and other detritus found in the house that cannot now be linked to any of the people living in the house on the night of the murders, any of the people who lived in the house or to the household items which had been collected and retained in evidence.  Each and every such item, it seems to the defense, is evidence of intruders that night.   The prosecution has always made the reasonable argument that these things are proof of nothing more than the fact that this is a rental apartment used by many, many families over the years.  Stuff accumulates.  Both the original jury and countless appellate courts have agreed with this repeatedly over the years.

The hero of the original investigation was a 30 year old Army investigator named Bill Ivory, who Jeffrey MacDonald really didn’t like at all.  Bill was not Ivy League educated.  He was plodding and methodical.  He was the guy who discovered that MacDonald’s pajama top, when shredded down a certain seam, had leaked highly distinctive v-shaped seam threads all over the crime scene, most notably in the master bedroom where prosecutors contend the violence began – where they think Colette, trying to ward off Jeffrey, had reached out and torn his top.    The most notable place there were NO seam threads?  Anywhere near the sofa on which MacDonald claims he was sleeping when attacked into unconsciousness  -- the place where he says his pajama was torn.

So what about “A Wilderness of Error”?     Didn’t the methodical Errol Morris deal with all these seemingly inculpatory things?   The answer, in a nutshell, is no.   Errol Morris doesn’t like the physical evidence.   He basically dismisses all of it as unreliable, or so compromised by bad police work as to be useless.   And it is true that if your attitude is that no physical evidence is of any value – why, the case against Jeffrey MacDonald suddenly seems pretty weak!

Except, you know what?  It DOESN’T!   It STILL doesn’t fall apart -- or at least the alternative explanations still make no sense!  

Morris spends a bizarre amount of his book on the completely discredited Helena Stoeckley – whose fingerprints and DNA were not found inside the house, who has told wildly impossible and conflicting stories about the night of the crime.     Morris seems mesmerized by the fact that one police investigator, on the night of the murders, responding to the call, saw a woman in a floppy hat standing out in the rain not far from the scene of the crime.    It is only very late in the book that Morris finds and interviews the man – his name is Ken Mica – who tells him, in the interview, that the woman he saw was definitely NOT Helena Stoeckley.   This gobsmacks Mr. Morris!   He’s outraged.   And he spends a few more pages speculating about why Ken Mica might be lying about this.

Yet Morris seems to believe unquestioningly anyone whose story supports his conspiratorial version of events.   Take this moment from the book:

Morris is interviewing Robert Sadoff, a psychiatrist from the case.  Sadoff, like many people interviewed in this book, has his doubts about whether MacDonald did the deed. 

Sadoff:  “I don’t think he’s a killer.  I don’t think he stabbed himself.   His chief of surgery at Columbia testified that it was so close to the heard that not even a cardiac surgeon would know exactly where to place the ice pick in the chest to collapse the lung without hitting the pericardium.  And if it hits the pericardium, he’s dead.” 

That’s it.  Then the book goes on to other things.

Whoa!   When I read “A Wilderness of Errors,” I hit two points where I stopped and circled a passage that I found actually persuasive that MacDonald might have been railroaded.   This was the first one.   I do not believe Jeffrey MacDonald, alleged psychopathic narcissist AND emergency room doctor, who knew quite well where organs are located, would have risked his own life in setting up this alibi.

So I did a few seconds research.  MacDonald’s chest wound was below the RIGHT nipple, some three inches to the right of the midline of his chest.   An eighth grader taking biology would know that is nowhere near the heart. 

Did a doctor really ever testify that it was?  Probably not, but I don’t know. Did Errol Morris have an obligation not to use this ridiculous statement, or at least to point out it was self-evidently wrong?  That, I do know.

I am going to end by telling you the second thing I circled in this book, the second moment where I thought to myself:  Whoa.  This might be seriously significant.

It’s a little complicated.  It’s a moment in Errol Morris’s book where he quotes from a bench colloquy between defense lawyers and the judge, midway through the original trial.   Helena Stoeckley is on the stand, and she has just flat-out denied having participated in the murder or knowing anything about the murder scene.    Bernard Segal, the chief defense counsel, asks for a conference at the bench.

From “A Wilderness of Error: --

You can almost hear the walls crumble around him.

When the lawyers for the defense had met with Stoeckley the day before, presumably she had been their witness.  Now she remembered nothing.  Why?

(then Morris quotes from the transcript of the bench conference:)

Segal:  At this time, Your Honor, I ask for leave of Court to take this witness as on cross, because she is a surprise and hostile witness. I represent to the Court that during the interviews with me and with other persons present she stated that when she looked at the picture she had a recollection of standing over a body holding a candle, seeing a man’s body on the floor. "

Whoa!   Really?  She reversed herself entirely from what she told defense lawyers the day before?   This surprised me, and troubled me.  It seemed to give some credence to the notion that maybe the prosecution HAD threatened her, in some way.  It wasn’t evidence, to me, of MacDonald’s innocence – Stoeckley was completely unreliable – but it MIGHT have shown prosecutorial misconduct, meaning MacDonald might have not gotten a fair trial.

Except.   Except after dropping that little bombshell, Morris wanders off into his wilderness of other conspiracy theories.   He eventually gets back to this moment at trial, way later, in the middle of another chapter.   And in this new chapter you learn – assuming you remember the first reference – that Bernard Segal was almost certainly lying in what he told the judge.   Helena Stoeckley had never told defense lawyers about a man on the floor or having held a candle.   We know that because Segal’s own co-counsel, Wade Smith, reveals it in testimony.  Smith would repeat this unambiguously on the stand in Wilmington:   Helena Stoeckley had flatly denied to both Smith and Segal that she knew anything about the crime.   Segal  -- absolutely desperate, watching his case go down in flames – had outright lied to a federal judge so he’d be allowed to get nasty with Helena in court.   And it still hadn’t worked.

But Morris won’t accept that.   He spends a lot of time trying to persuade Smith to say that Segal wasn’t the sort of person who would lie.   And Smith finally agrees, yep, Segal was a nice, believable guy; maybe he was remembering some OTHER time she maybe said that to someone.    And Errol Morris goes on to make his next point, as though nothing of significance had just happened.

(Tiny sweet point:  This lie by Segal was not in “Fatal Vision,” even though Joe McGinniss had been present at the questioning of Helena Stoeckley by the defense.  Why wasn’t it in the book?  Because Joe didn’t know about it.   Why didn’t Joe know about it?  When Bernard Segal sent all trial documents to McGinniss, he neglected to send one:  The bench colloquy with the judge in which he, Segal, had lied.   (Not being a lawyer, McGinniss was not allowed to hear what happened in whispers up at the bench. Had he seen the transcript, he would have recognized the lie immediately, and put it in his book.)

And finally finally, The Post decided that one photograph that was key to the story – the one that persuaded Brian Murtagh to enter the case – was too gruesome to use in the magazine.  I understand that decision and am publishing it here at the other end of a click. I am overwhelmed by its bleakness. This is Kristy, the two year old.   Warning: It’s disturbing.


Photo link


A better one to go out on.   The victims, shortly before the crime.   May they rest in peace: Link

Hi Gene! As I read your article, it felt very incongruous with everything else I know about your writing and your personality. It's been easy to identify the message in all of your other writing, but this article felt bogged down in the details. It was arguing the minutiae of a 40-year-old investigation, and in the end standing up for your wife's colleague. I don't really think you wrote the article as a personal favor, but it's difficult to see the bigger picture here, or understand why you *did* write it. You did get me to think more about journalists' motives and agendas -- I now question Joe McGinniss and Errol Morris's books the same way I question your article. But for the record, why did you write this? Were you trying to get across a bigger message, or were you just trying to push your view of the case?

Fair enough.  I hope most people don't feel this way.   I wrote it because I was told that the great Errol Morris was coming out with a book that was going to argue for Jeffrey MacDonald's innocence.   I knew enough of the case to know that this was an assault on the truth.  I didn't want a new generation of people to feel this was a grave miscarriage of justice.   

I found it interesting that the jurors you interviewed had their opinion of MacDonald swayed by a statement that was stricken from the record (about MacDonald having sex with the nurse). This was something I always wondered watching lawyer shows when I was younger: how can you make the jury forget that thing that they just heard? Clearly that one statement was not the only factor in this conviction or the various appeals rejections, but I wonder if you had any thoughts about this issue also.

I am not a lawyer, but I am pretty sure that SOME things that are uttered in front of a jury are deemed so prejudicial they might result in a mistrial, or at least a detailed questioning by the judge of the jury to make sure the effect was not profound.   This was apparently not so deemed. 

One other point about the jury:  One of the mantras of the defense over the years is that MacDonald lost largely because the N.C.  jury was creeped out by Segal, his lawyer: a pushy, long-haired Jewish guy from California.   The conventional wisdom is that if Wade Smith had delivered the closing argument, instead of Segal, MacDonald would have walked.  But that Segal's rambling, hours-long summation turned everyone off.  

Fred Thornhill, the juror with whom I spoke, disputes this.  He says Segal's summation was brilliant: emotionally on target, and persuasive.  Thornhill says that MacDonald was convicted despite the closing argument, not because of it.   

Your piece on Brian Murtagh and Jeffrey MacDonald was horrifying yet stunning. I'm a huge fan of your writing, but I also have a lot of respect for Errol Morris (especially The Thin Blue Line). After reading your column, I'm convinced that MacDonald is guilty, but I'm still very uneasy about the prospect that he got a fair trial. What evidence does Morris present in making the case that he was railroaded, and do you find any of it persuasive?

I don't find it persuasive, and Errol Morris was furious at me for not finding it persuasive:  He called my refusal to declare on this issue one way or another "cowardly."

I think that MacDonald had a hangin' judge.   The judge ruled a lot against the defense.   I think with a different judge he might have walked -- that doesn't mean he didn't get a fair trial.   I do NOT think that prosecutors withheld important evidence and whatnot.  Neither did the appeals courts. 

I also am just not all that moved by a book about a guilty savage murderer not getting a fair trial.  Morris, to me, has not established that last part, but even if he had, I'd say, okay.  Too bad.  The government should try to be better than that.  But so what?  To me, that's not a 500-page book. 

Was your first exposure to this case the book "Fatal Vision"? What's the motive of MacDonald's living wife? Why do you think she married him?

I read Fatal Vision when it came out in 1983, and then had my first of two dinners -- 25 years apart -- with Joe McGinniss in 1998.    Fatal Vision is an amazingly good book; it persuades you utterly of MacDonald's guilt.  It seems almost flawless to me.   One small error in it, I just learned, is that it says the original prosecutor, Victor Worheide, died in 1975.  It really was 1978.  I mention this because (using FV as a source) I also got the date wrong in my piece.   So I hate Joe now.   

Disclosure:  One more imprecision --  Janet Malcolm's New Yorker piece came out in 1989, not 1990 as my article said.  The BOOK that resulted from the piece came out in 1990.  I confused the two. 

I am sure I erred somewhere else.  I just haven't discovered it yet.  

As far as Kathryn MacDonald:  I do not understand.  And I don't want to judge her.   To say I feel sorry for her is an understatement.   

You sure do love 'em.

I do; it is essentially an addiction of mine.   It has replaced heroin. 

Gene, I really liked the piece, so this question comes from curiosity (I like to pick up tips from writers), not criticism - why did you write yourself into the story instead of just having a feature article about the hearing, the case, and the ongoing Murtagh/MacDonald saga? I think it worked well - just curious about your technique. Thanks!

I think I had to, for reasons best stated here

Your most convincing points involved the details Morris omitted in making his argument. So while you made me doubt McDonald is innocent, the same reasoning means I have no idea whether to buy your argument either, because I have no idea what details you left out. I didn't know anything about this case before I ready your piece. I guess that's not really a question! My point basically is that what you convinced me of isn't McDonald's guilt, it's that I can't trust any journalist. Maybe not what you were aiming for.

You can trust me.  I am the only honest one.  Trust me on that. 

Gene, Thanks for this article. I remember this crime from the get-go, read the books, followed all the controversies, seen numerous documentaries alleging the same thing as Morris and I remain convinced he is guilty. My 3 biggest reasons? #1: the blood evidence, despite the sloppy investigation. #2: if it were really intruders, they would have killed him first. If you look at other crimes, almost every time the man is left alive while the wife &/or kids are killed, the man was the killer. Real criminals take the man out first, then the rest of the family. #3: "Acid is groovy....kill the pigs." This sounds like something that someone who knows nothing about hippies would think that hippies would say.

This was sent in before my introduction, and on that last point:  Yes.  

It wouldn't hold up in a court of law, but yes.  You had to be around at the time, and of a certain society, to know how stupid that was. 

Gene, Thanks for taking time to talk about your awesome story. I would love to hear more about your process in developing this story, in particular the scene where you're in Murtagh's living room and he's going through the crime scene. Any advice on how to achieve that kind of pacing? Were you recording or taking hand-written notes? Both? Also, have you heard from Morris after your story ran, or is his head still in the sand? -MMD

Haven't heard from Morris, yet.  

I had Brian go through that night three times, and used elements from all three in the final bit.  It is why I was giving it as disembodied quote, without a strong sense of place and presence: I didn't want to be misleading; he said it all, exactly that way, but not all in the same interview.   

I just want to clarify: Is this our regular December chat, in which we can discuss the usual lofty subjects, or is this restricted to the Murtagh story? If this is not the regular chat, then when will it take place? I'm guessing the 18th to avoid holidays.

I haven't yet decided.  This may be the chat for this month. 

Hey Gene, Your article on Jeffrey MacDonald had me transfixed. Because of a past legal job, I am quite familiar with this case. This article may be the best synopsis I have read of the crime and the evidence against MacDonald -- the murderer. Did you, by chance, watch a clip of him on the Dick Cavett Show shortly after the murders? Chilling. Thanks and please keep up the great work on your feature stories.

Yes, the Dick Cavett clip is chilling.  He is acting like the great crime here was against HIM.   In a way, this was his giant error in strategy: This appearance, more than anything else, convinced Freddie Kassab, his father in law, that MacDonald was guilty.   And Kassab's pursuit is what ultimately led to his trial and conviction, in a case everyone else wanted to just go away.  

Here is MacDonald on Cavett.   Chills up spine. 


A simple googling will find them but they're not for the faint of heart. After seeing them, I too can't wrap my brain around the inconsistencies in the wounds that MacDonald had & the ones the girls & the wife had. The women in the house, who would appear to be zero threat to any intruder, were just brutally bludgeoned & stabbed to death while the male, who presumably is the real threat to any intruder, had minimal injuries. I hope he stays right where he is behind bars.

I do not advise people to Google these crime scene photos, unless they have strong stomachs.  What was done to the females is beyond disturbing. 

But if you do look, note the amazing fact that these murderous hippies seemed to know human anatomy pretty well.  Particularly regarding Kristy, the two year old.  It's almost as if the killer hippies were trying to make these deaths happen as quickly as possible, for perversely humane reasons. 

What is it about these harrowing, blood-chilling stories that so appeal to you? Not that I'm complaining. This article was up to your usual standards for in-depth investigative stories, and I mean that as praise. But, damn.

Well, as many of you have pointed out, I am usually a vuglar clown.  So it's good as a change of pace. 

But you're not really talking about serious, you are talking about bloody.    I think I like to explore people acting at the extremes of human behavior. 

If you buy the idea that journalists skew the facts to create the story they want to tell, then why believe anything you read, right? Morris is an advocate for MacDonald, not a journalist. You, Gene, are a journalist. You definitely have your opinion, but you tell all sides of the story. You're not selective with the facts. I hope readers appreciate the difference.

That's an interesting point, but not strictly true.  I am selective with the facts, in some ways the same way Morris was.   Defenders of MacDonald throw out HUGE numbers of other theories and other arguments.  I haven't included many of them, because I HAVE concluded they have no merit.   But there is selectivity in all journalism.  Morris was right about that. 

Did you get to talk with Jeffrey MacDonald's new wife? One of things that was hardest for me to grasp was how someone is able to not see all the horror that he committed. It's one thing if it's someone in your family that you know prior to discovering the crimes (I'm remembering the Post interviews with family of the east coast rapist), but how on earth does one come through all this evidence and the continued lies and denial, and still arrive at a place where you can love this person? I don't know why, but that detail left me incredibly depressed.

I can't answer for Kathryn, with whom I have talked at length.  We had an amazing hours-long phone call recently but she asked me not to use it without Jeffrey's lawyer's approval, which I didn't get.  She asked me this too late -- you must couch the whole conversation on this, not ask it after a conversation is over -- but I honored her request anyway.   She is not the monster here. 

She said some revealing, interesting things.  I don't imagine she'll okay my talking about them, now.  

"I read Fatal Vision when it came out in 1983, and then had my first of two dinners -- 25 years apart -- with Joe McGinniss in 1998." So you had dinner with him in 2023?

Haha.  1988.  Sorry.  I was spending a year at Harvard on a fellowship, and he was living there at the time, as I recall.  We had dinner with the late, great Howard Simons who knew us both and felt we should meet. 

Did you consider not doing this piece given your wife's personal relationship with Murtagh? I happen to think you're probably right and MacDonald is almost certainly guilty -- but I also think you came into writing it with a personal prejudice toward Murtagh that makes it harder for me to find the article persuasive.

I did not come into in biased in favor of Murtagh.   I hadn't met him, and he was just a professional colleague of my wife.  I did, however, come into this with a pretty strong supposition that MacDonald was guilty.  My first task was reading Morris's book and daring him to persuade me.  I tried to read that with a completely open mind -- which got me to the point where I circled those two sections.  And felt used. 

And we appreciate it. I'm afraid I haven't read any reviews of Morris's book; have they been generally favorable or un?

Very favorable.  The great Morris does it again!   This is Thin Blue Line II  !! 

You went into the Bell and Zucchini articles without knowing what would happen; here, you seemed to have a clear endpoint - this man is guilty, the book that says otherwise is faulty, and I'm going to prove it. How does that change your writing style? Or listening to people you're interviewing, knowing that they're not going to sway your opinion?

Well, they could have swayed my opinion!   Example: I would have found it really persuasive if that stab wound had been a millimeter from his heart.   

But mostly, I dealt with it by confronting it in my story.  Tell the reader everything.  If she then feels I am not to be trusted, fine. 

That was exactly what some ramrod-straight Post columnist would have thought a cool person would say.


And that will be my takeaway today.  Thank you. 

Hi Gene, I love your writing and follow your chats um, religiously. (gettit?) But this is the second story of your (first being about babies left in cars) that I cannot read to the end. I'm sorry, but I don't want those images in my head. My question is, how do you reconcile writing about humor on the one hand, and on the other, such gruesome topics. Ever hear of branding?

As I have said before, tragedy and comedy are like matter and energy: They're made of the same stuff.   Life sucks.  You can either laugh about it, or cry. 

It was fascinating to read my favorite journalist write what was essentially a response to a book by my favorite documentarian. I had two questions -- first, did the story change the way you think of the films of Erroll Morris? And, do you think his book on MacDonald is worth reading?

I really don't like the book.  I recommend it only as a study in how to manipulate. 

Here's the thing:  I understand how a casual reader would be utterly convinced by it.  It is a cherrypicked story he tells. 

I never saw Thin Blue Line; I don't have any opinions of Errol the Documentarian, though people whose opinions I respect tell me that he's really good.   And getting a guy off death row is a considerable feat. 

I think Errol Morris is a good man who made a bad mistake here.  I think he got intrigued by his own storyline --wow, what if he is innocent!  -- and set about to argue his case.   He argues it smartly, but what he chooses to ignore or minimize is deeply worrisome. 


I was three in 1970, so only learned of the case when I was a teenager and read Fatal Vision ... I've never doubted MacDonald's guilt; like others have said, if the killers were random outsiders, why would the husband/father be left alive, with such minor wounds compared to his wife/children? I assume that stats on family killings show that, if the husband/father is left alive, then he most likely was the culprit.

My answer here is related to the previous question:

This is the problem with Wilderness of Error,( which I just typed by mistake as Wilderness of Errol.)   The problem is that these huge flapping red flags are given very short shrift in the book:  Yeah, he had very few injuries, okay, on to the next fact.    Whereas several of these things are mammothly important.   No serious injuries / insanely stupid quote attributed to the attackers.   Not important to Morris. 


Morris does not deal with this as the sign of a seriously callous and sick guy who didn't really care if the killers were caught because he knew there were none.   This is mentioned, but in the backdrop of, whoops, we see why he'd want to get on with his life and get Freddie off his back, but this was a mistake to go this far.   Shouldna done that, Jeffrey.  Tsk.   

the book doesn't get into. 

The jury noticed this.  Murtagh noticed this.   McGinniss noticed this.    Morris doesn't mention it:

When Helena Stoeckley took the stand, MacDonald  barely looked at her.   He just chatted with lawyers, etc.   Here he was finally confronting, after 9 years, the lady in the floppy hat who watched as the monsters murdered his family.  And he's not really interested.  

What can be done to identify sociopaths like MacDonald in advance, short of violating the Constitution, in order to prevent such crimes? I'm thinking of murderers like Charles Stuart (?) up in the Boston area, who shot his pregnant wife and even shot himself in the stomach, and Scott Peterson in Modesto who killed his pregnant wife Lacey (there are others).

I have no idea.  It's an important question.   One of the two columbine killers -- Eric Harris -- was a sociopath.  No one knew.  Sociopaths mimic normal behavior. 

An oxymoron? You have confessed that you once allowed a hospitalized man to believe that you were a physician, even holding his wrist as if taking his pulse, so there might be something to the notion that journalists occasionally get chalk on their toes as they edge around the now-blurry lines of ethical conduct.

Haha.  Awww. 

One, I was 22 or 23 at the time.   Two, I told that story about myself, at a journalistic conference, to explain something that was ethically wrong and that was inexcusable.  

But, sure.  You want to tar me for that, go for it.   

To live with himself, doesn't the prosecutor have to convince himself, and never revisit, that the doctor is guilty? Same with the jurors. How could you live with yourself if you put someone away for 30+ years? Sure, sometimes DNA technology will force this result. But, otherwise, you just close your mind to the possibility that you prosecuted or convicted an innocent man.

I think this is a fair point.  I think Brian Murtagh would be horrified beyond words if somehow he became convinced that MacDonald was innocent.   But the enormous weight of all evidence continues to say that ain't so. 

You know, over the years, after the convictions, at the best of the defense, crime scene evidence was checked for the DNA of Helena and a man named Greg Mitchell, her boyfriend at the time whom she always placed at the scene.     What if one of those proved positive?   I think Brian would have had to peer into his soul.  But of course they didnt.  Because there were no intruders.   

Adding to the previous answer: 

Another thing that never happened:  If Helena was in that house, as she says, if she answered the phone (as she once said) if she tried to ride the rocking horse (as she once said) she appears to have been wearing gloves.   None of her prints were found anywhere.   So she was the drugged out woman holding a candle, chanting "acid is groovy, kill the pigs" while wearing gloves. 

I am someone who typically finds our justice system profoundly lacking in actual justice--I've spent a lot of time around advocates for sentencing reform and those working against the drug war and the racialization of prison, probation, and parole. I can say with considerable feeling that this story, while terribly sad, was also uplifting for me in the way I was able to appreciate The System in ways I usually can't, don't, or won't. I hope that doesn't sound as perverse as I read it, but I can't figure out how else I would say that.

A friend of mine, a journalist of national reputation, wrote to me this weekend to observe that this story paid attention to a type of person journalists almost never focus on but should: The competent prosecutor.   Brian Murtagh has been vilified beyond belief for 33 years, and it's not over yet, for doing his job well.   

for purely hypothetical purposes. if killer hipsters were going to kill my wife, what would they be chanting? and would they write pigs or do they generally hate all types of meat? and i think its terrible u think a hippie couldnt also be a surgeon. weed and LSD give me, i mean a person, very steady hands.

I think if it were hipster killers, they would be chanting "Whateverrrrr"  and rolling their eyes. 

This is not a question, but a thank you for a great article. I worked at DOJ in the 1970s and 80s and was aware of the MacDonald case. The statement of facts in the government's brief to the Supreme Court (before trial, to reverse dismissal on speedy trial grounds) wove together the physical evidence in a persuasive way so that any objective reader would have to conclude that the guy was guilty. Physical evidence does not lie. The McGinnis book was excellent, but your article added more details and really addressed the key points of dispute in a convincing way. Brian Murtaugh is an example of a dedicated government lawyer (I met him briefly at the time the case was on appeal).

Joe McGinniss is coming out with a 22,000 word piece on the case  tomorrow. available from Byliner.   It's a pay-for online book, and I have no doubt it will be riveting.  

Gene - this was another terrific piece of writing. I clicked on the photo link of little Kristy and cried for this little girl and her sistter and mother. I am only a few years younger than you, and I remember this case. I remember thinking exactly what you said about the "acid is groovy; kill the pigs" chant. It was the same feeling I had years later when I watched Susan Smith pleading for the return of her little boys - somethin' ain't right.

Acid Is Groovy Kill the Pigs -- is the 1970 version of "some black guy did it."

I did a stint in law school as an intern for the Connecticut State's Attorney's Capital Defender Unit. Connecticut had, at the time, reauthorized the death penalty, but the pleas of all the death row inmates were still winding their way through the appeals process. I worked mainly on one specific case, that of a young man accused of killing his girlfriend and hiding her body in the attic of the place they both worked. (I saw the crime scene photos of that, which convinced me not to look at these.) The accused maintained to all concerned that he was entirely innocent, but the attorney defending him (who I was working for) felt the evidence showed he was guilty. Do you think McDonald thinks he's innocent? Or does he fully know what he did and is still manipulating people and lying in a lifelong attempt to get free?

I sent him a series of questions, and he never answers.  One of them was that: Some people think that if you are guilty, you have persuaded yourself you are not.  What do you think of that idea?

My feeling is that he knows he did it but has basically compartmentalized it out of his mind.  

Gene, I was curious as to why you were sent to NC to cover a trial; so, I was gobsmacked to see it was the MacDonald hearing. I knew you would do this story justice. What surprised me was how well Joe McGuinness' (sp?) book has held up over the years. MacDonald hung himself with his own words--not that he confessed, but that he came across as exactly the kind of monster who could kill him family with impunity. That book has haunted me since it first came out. Thanks for sweeping away any doubts I've had about his conviction.

I urge you all to read Fatal Vision.   To me, it is in the pantheon, up there with In Cold Blood.   And a lot more readable than An American Tragedy.   

I recently read Fatal Vision, and was convinced of MacDonald's guilt. In MacDonald's letters to McGinniss (in the book), MacDonald repeatedly talks about whether or not Colette had sex with a former boyfriend. Repeatedly. Here he is, talking about his tragically murdered pregnant wife, and that's what he keeps harping on? That stuck with me and still creeps me out to think about it.

Watch the Dick Cavett interview.   

First, I don't recall ever reading that there was candle wax drippings on the floor, supposedly from Helen Shockley...and second, McDonald is alive! Why would "hippies" kill the sleeping kids and the wife and leave the husband alive after a murderous rampage? And, don't forget, he was awakened by all this and would have been groggy and really not able to fend off these "hippies."The husband (and father) did it

The candle wax is another smokescreen.   Morris and the defense argued that since there were candlewax drippings that could not be matched to existing candles in the house, that meant they'd come from Helena's candles. 

Well.   The MacDonald family loved candles.   They had millions of em.   There were old candles half burned lying around.    The fact that there was unmatched candlewax meant precisely nothing. 

Thanks for the story, Gene. I had to stop several times to gather myself before I could finish reading it - it's a chilling account. My question - you quote that he was on amphetamines at the time. This seems glossed over. Was it explored at all during the trial? Odd that the defendant who alleged the "real killers" were on drugs was on drugs at the time of the murders.

It didn't come out at trial.   It first came out in Fatal Vision, after McGinniss stumbled on an old note from MacDonald to his lawyers.    There is an amazing scene in a 60 Minutes episode, where Mike Wallace (he'd read the galleys of the book, but MacDonald hadn't) confronts him about the amphetamines.   He first denies it, until Wallace reads him his own words, to his own lawyers, discussing it. 

Without that detail, the initial case about motive was much weaker, at trial.  You had to believe he flipped, without provocation, over bedwetting.   And the jury STILL convicted. 

Thank you for the article. I was impressed how determined and passionate the prosecutor remained and hope he can find some peace.

Oh, Brian has peace.  He has the peace of mind of a guy who knows he did right.   I believe that.   He has maintained a sense of humor about this case; I wish I had better conveyed that in the piece, actually. 

He describes Jimmy Britt as having been convinced "he was the greatest U.S. marshal since Wyatt Earp." 

Thank you.  We're done. Really good questions.  I loved this chat.  

Next week: Either a full chat or an update.   Gonna depend on the quality of my life.      See you all, either way, next Tuesday. 

In This Chat
Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2008 and 2010.

Click here for links to Gene's past chats and updates.
Lynn Medford
Medford is the editor of Sunday Style and The Washington Post Magazine.
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