Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald

April 9, 2013

                Errol Morris is essentially a documentary filmmaker, and he is the best of the lot.   His 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, demonstrated that a man long imprisoned for the murder of a police officer, Randall Dale Adams, was in fact innocent, and that another man had committed the crime.   His 2003 film about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, is as good a documentary as I have ever seen.   

                In 2012 Morris published a book, A Wilderness of Error, about the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, imprisoned since the 1970s for the murders of his wife and two small daughters.  The case was made famous by the 1983 book Fatal Vision (inartfully stated, since the MacDonald case was actually very famous long before Fatal Vision was published.)   Anyway, let us begin here with the definition of a psychopath, since this is part of Morris’s argument.    In 2011 a man named Jon Ronson wrote a very good book, The Psychopath Test. Mr. Ronson also spoke recently at a TED Weekend event; his talk can be viewed by googling "Jon Ronson: Strange answers to the psychopath test".  It’s an extremely interesting little lecture, well worth the time it has taken me to watch it three times.

                Ronson tells about a man named Tony who decided to fake insanity in order to dodge criminal prosecution for a relatively minor offense.  He had believed that, if he faked insanity, he would be sent to a cushy mental hospital, rather than a prison.   Unfortunately, he was sent to Broadmoor, an ancient and horrible psychiatric hospital near London.  It is a place well known to the readers of crime books.   Tony had faked insanity far too well.   Because he was cunning and manipulative, the psychiatrists decided—after he had already been sent to Broadmoor--that he was a psychopath.   Because psychiatrists had decided that he was a psychopath, he was trapped in Broadmoor for a long, long time, far longer than the punishment he could potentially have received for his crime.

                Ronson’s point—and the point that Errol Morris makes about Jeffrey MacDonald—is that the definition of a "psychopath" is a trap, that once a person has been labeled a psychopath his world is turned upside down.   The first two points on the "psychopath test" are glibness and superficial charm.     If a person dresses well, for example, this becomes evidence that he may be a psychopath.    If a person is charming, it becomes evidence that he is psychopath.    And once you are given that label, how do you prove that you are sane?    How does a sane person sit?   How does a sane person hold his arms?   What does a sane person talk about?    Once you are given the label of "psychopath", anything and everything you do can be used as more evidence that you are a psychopath.

                The conclusion that Ronson reaches is that a person should probably not be held in confinement indefinitely because psychiatrists have placed a certain label on him.   I’m not sure that I agree with that.   My home state, Kansas, pioneered a program in which child molesters are held in confinement for psychiatric treatment after their prison sentences have ended, if psychiatrists say that they are still a danger to society.    I am often at odds with my home boys as to social policy, but I don’t have a problem with that one, and the United States Supreme Court looked at the program and didn’t have any problem with it, either.

                Ronson says that 1% of the public, 1% of those people walking the street, are psychopaths as defined by the standard psychopathic diagnostic test, and this figure rises to 4% of business leaders and high-ranking political leaders.    There is a certain set of traits that cluster together:  Glibness, charm, a lack of empathy, a cunning ability to manipulate others, grandiosity, etc.  Psychopaths will lie about anything they can get by with lying about, and they tend to have a long series of short-term sexual relationships.  A fair number of people share these traits or many of these traits, including Jeffrey MacDonald.

                A fair number of people, also including Steve Garvey, Reggie Jackson, Julius Caesar, and one of our recent Presidents.   (Caesar, immensely charming, would have sex with anyone he found attractive, male or female.)    Let me hasten to add that I am not saying that Steve Garvey or Reggie Jackson is a psychopath; I’ll explain why in a moment, but I don’t want to be misquoted on that.    What I am saying is that if you apply the psychopathic checklist to them, you’re going to conclude that they’re psychopaths.    Ronson’s point—closely related to Errol Morris’s point about Jeffrey MacDonald—is that you should not be held in prison indefinitely because psychiatrists have placed a certain label on you.    I’m not sure that I agree with that point, but there is a much more direct conclusion that we can draw from his book:  that the definition of a "psychopath" used by psychologists, or used at least by some psychologists, is seriously flawed.

                Errol Morris gives a short history of the term "psychopath", which is not accurate.   The word "psychopath", invented in the 1860s, was in common usage a hundred years ago.   It was a word that everybody knew and used in 1913.   Belleview hospital had a psychopathic ward.   The definition of the word "psychopath", introduced in the 1860s, was not very much different than the definition given by Ronson and Morris.

                But the word "psychopath", as it was used a hundred years ago, clearly implied a person who was prone to the use of violence.   It creates obvious problems to take the violent element away from the word, and start applying it to people like Steve Garvey, Reggie Jackson, and 4% of our business and political leaders.   It is obviously bad judgment to do that.

                Psychology and other social sciences, by the deliberate choices of psychologists, tend generally to avoid using terms that are loaded with connotations; in fact, we have added hundreds of words to the dictionary which are derived from nothing other than the effort to avoid the negative connotations of the old words.   Psychologists normally avoid using words that have negative connotations, like "crazy", "lunatic", "stupid" or "slut".   This use of the word "psychopath" flies in the face of this convention.   It takes a word which was in common usage, loaded with the most negative connotations imaginable, and applies that word willy-nilly to 1% of the population, 4% of our business and political leaders.

                I think it is useful to get more people to understand that politicians often have these psychopathic tendencies.   What is stunningly obvious, in the study of history, is that a good percentage of political leaders have always been self-serving, manipulative, clever, charming people who were perfectly willing to condemn 50,000 people to death if it was necessary for them to do so to achieve some personal ambition.    That’s what kings were, for the most part, and that’s what politicians are, for the most part:   they’re self-serving people who say nice things and would as soon kill you as look at you, as long as they don’t have to kill you with their own hands.    I want people to understand that; it has been proven by much sad history to be true.

                But at the same time, to use the same word for political and business leaders that we use for Ted Bundy is obviously a poor choice.   What is needed is two words—the word "psychopath" for the Ted Bundys and Dennis Raders of the world, and some other word for the Steve Garveys and Reggie Jacksons and Bill Clintons who have this set of characteristics and character flaws, but who don’t kill people.

                Jeffrey MacDonald, immensely charming and intelligent, was labeled a psychopath after his family was killed.    Errol Morris’s view, which I agree with up to a point, is that this is a kind of a trap.   No one ever suggested that Jeffrey MacDonald was a psychopath before his family was killed.   He was brilliant, charming, hard-working, and success-oriented; heck, he was apple pie and ice cream come to life.   What, then, is the point of saying that he is a psychopath after his family has been murdered?  

                The point of it is to justify his conviction by saying that he is the kind of person who could have done this; that’s all.   Errol Morris is entirely right about that.  This could be done to any of us.   If your family was killed or mine or anyone else’s, some psychologist could look at us and say that we are the kind of person who could have done this.    It is not right or fair to use that kind of evidence to convict anyone of a crime.

                But Morris attempts to go further than that, and introduce a question as to whether this kind of personality actually exists.   In Popular Crime, I made a similar argument about John and Patsy Ramsey, the parents of JonBenet Ramsey.    My point was, in a lifetime of reading crime stories, I have never heard of parents like this committing any crime remotely like this one, and I frankly don’t believe that such a thing has ever happened.   What the Boulder police thought happened was something that, to the best of my knowledge, has never actually happened in the history of the world.   I would point out now that my book has been out for a couple of years, and, although I specifically challenged the readers to tell me when or where anything similar had ever happened, no one has stepped forward to answer the challenge.

                Morris, mixing that up with the argument about psychopaths, says something similar about Jeffrey MacDonald, arguing, in essence, that he is not convinced that things like this ever actually happen.    I am less convinced that he is right about this.   My point about the Ramseys was, of course parents sometimes kill their children; we all know of hundreds of cases in which this has happened.    But there is a vast gulf that separates any and all of those cases from this case.   Actually, there are two vast gulfs, which add up to make an ocean:

                1)  There is a huge difference between the Ramseys and the types of people who murder their children, and

                2)  There is a huge difference between the sorts of things those parents do (at the time of the murder) and the sorts of things the Ramseys are alleged to have done.

                I am less convinced of this in the case of Jeffrey MacDonald.    There are actually many cases of fathers who seem a lot like Jeffrey MacDonald who do things quite a lot like what MacDonald is alleged to have done.   Take, for example, the case of Chris Coleman of Columbia, Illinois.    He’s a guy who seems a lot like Jeffrey MacDonald—a nice, charming, middle-class young man—who got involved in an affair with his wife’s best friend from high school, and wound up murdering his wife and two children, apparently just to get them out of the way.   He seemed like a loving father.   He was seen one afternoon playing baseball on the front lawn with his two little boys, and that night he killed them.  Like MacDonald, he still denies that he committed the crime, but there is good evidence that he did.

                There are lots of family murders, honestly, that don’t seem all that different from Jeffrey MacDonald’s. ..Christian Longo and Nikolay Lazukin, to name a couple.    So I’m not convinced that Morris is right about that point, but then, I’m not entirely convinced that he is wrong, either.  The allegation against MacDonald is that he snapped in the middle of the night and committed this crime.   Chris Coleman, it seems clear, plotted the murders of his family for at least a couple of months, as did Christian Longo.    The evidence that they committed the murders is, for the most part, the evidence that they were planning to commit the murders.   There is no evidence at all that Jeffrey MacDonald was planning to murder his family, so then, he is entitled to ask:  Does this sort of thing really happen?   Nice young man, hard-working, Green Beret, a doctor, decides suddenly in the middle of the night to kill his family, and then the next day seems to be the same sort of person that he has always been.   Does that really happen?   If that’s your theory of the crime, shouldn’t we be skeptical of it?

                MacDonald was working or had just worked a long, long shift.   Doctors in training used to work 24-hour and even 36-hour shifts in the emergency room, as interns, until research established that they were so prone to making mistakes after long hours on the job that they were accidentally killing a lot of people.   But in 1970, emergency room doctors/interns used to work absurdly long shifts.

                Also, MacDonald was using amphetamines which were on the market then as diet pills.    They were marketed as diet pills and MacDonald was using them as diet pills, but Joe McGinniss argued in Fatal Vision that MacDonald was also using them to stay awake through his long, long shift at the hospital.    McGinniss’ argument goes like this:   Methamphetamines are dangerous drugs.   They were on the market then as "diet pills", but they have since been taken off the market because they’re dangerous.    We know for certain that MacDonald was using some of these drugs, as a part of a weight loss program (although he wasn’t notably overweight.)    As a doctor, he had access to a (virtually) unlimited supply of such drugs.    He worked a long, long shift at the hospital and then, by his own testimony, he could not get to sleep on the night of the murders.   Why?

                Because he had taken a bunch of methamphetamines to stay awake, that’s why.    McGinniss’ argument—which I found to be 100% convincing at the time that I read his book, even though I disliked the book and dislike McGinniss—his argument was that MacDonald took a bunch of these amphetamines to stay awake over his long shift, and then something happened in the middle of the night between him and his wife and, his psyche frazzled by the drugs, he just snapped.

                Errol Morris attacks this argument in this way:

                1)  There is no real evidence that MacDonald gulped down a bunch of these pills, as McGinniss claims. 

                2)  Those pills were not taken off the market because they were dangerous; they were taken off the market because there was no evidence they were effective in helping people lose weight.

                3)  Was Jeffrey MacDonald the only person to whom this happened?   These pills were on the market for a long time; they were used by millions of people.   Did anybody else kill his family because he was using too many of these pills, or just MacDonald?

                Well. . ..methamphetamines are dangerous drugs, regardless of what reason was given by the FDA for banning their use as weight-control agents.   And there have been lots and lots of cases of people using methamphetamines who lost track of reality, snapped, and killed people.    Diet pills. . .I don’t know; but amphetamines, certainly.

                Errol Morris does not succeed in convincing me that Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent, but he does move the needle a long distance in MacDonald’s direction.    What he is certainly right about is this:   If one assumes that MacDonald murdered his family, then McGinniss’ explanation is very useful for understanding how it happened.   But one still has to prove that MacDonald did, in fact, murder his family.  Like the label "psychopath", McGinniss’ explanation lowers the burden of proof against MacDonald, but offers no actual evidence as to what happened.    And that’s not really right, or just; in a criminal case, one should have first to prove that it happened, before we get to the business of explaining why and how it happened.

                In the pre-DNA blood typing system there were four major blood groups:  A, B, AB, and O; still are, I guess.  It happened that the four members of the MacDonald family represented the four different blood types, so that, in studying the blood in the house after the crime, one could tell whose blood was where, which was quite unusual at that time.

                This fact became critical to the prosecution of MacDonald.   Because they knew exactly whose blood was where, the prosecution argued, the blood would "tell the story" of the murders.    (Except, of course, that millions of people have Type O blood, for example, so if there were intruders who also shed blood at the crime scene, that blood could easily have been confused with the MacDonalds’.   But never mind.)  

                This "blood story" is the essential evidence against MacDonald; it was this whose-blood-is-where stuff that was the structure and substance of the case against him.    Joe McGinniss in Fatal Vision spends tens of thousands of words. .. it seemed to me hundreds of pages. . .going over this evidence again, and again.

                And again, and again.

                And again.

                That was what I hated about McGinniss’ book, actually; he "analyzes" the blood evidence in minute detail, repeatedly, and I couldn’t make head nor tail out of what he was talking about it.   It was total gibberish to me.

                On the cover of Morris’ book is a diagram of the apartment, presumably from the prosecution’s case, with the blood patterns included, the "A’s", "AB’s", etc., so it could be said that Morris puts this element of the case on the cover of his book (except, of course, that authors don’t normally have very much to do with what goes on the cover of their books.)   But having put it on the cover of his book, Morris then totally ignores that angle of the case.   He makes no effort to rebut it.    I don’t believe he spends one paragraph of the book discussing the blood evidence; maybe one.   The chart is repeated and explained inside the book, but nothing really is done with it.

                This works for me, because, as I said, I never understood that stuff anyway.   For me, personally, it didn’t need to be rebutted.   But it is the guts of the prosecution’s case, and, for whatever it might be worth to somebody else, it stands untouched.

                Morris’ questions Joe McGinniss’ integrity, suggesting repeatedly that McGinniss’ wrote Fatal Vision the way he did because he (McGinniss) saw that as a more marketable story than the story told from MacDonald’s perspective.    McGinniss’ integrity is inherently suspect.   He began his career with a book about the 1968 Presidential election, The Selling of the President 1968.     He did the same thing to the Nixon campaign that he did to the MacDonald defense team:  he approached them about writing a book about the Nixon campaign, from an internal perspective.   He gave Nixon’s team every reason to believe that he was going to write a positive book that they would like—and then he wrote a book that is, essentially, about these sneaky, deceptive advertising people who hoodwinked the nation into electing a defective President.

                Morris argues that McGinniss stabbed MacDonald in the back in order to sell books, but I don’t see it that way.   McGinniss is kind of a professional creep, but still. . .McGinniss concluded that MacDonald was guilty, and he said so.   I don’t see a problem with that.

                Morris argues that the judge in the case, Franklin Dupree (formerly of the law firm You, Me and Dupree) was biased against MacDonald, ruled repeatedly against him, and blocked all of his appeals.  In fact, Morris argues implicitly, the judge was really the only person in the case who was fully convinced of MacDonald’s guilt; the prosecutors were, in their minds, doing the best they could with the case they had, but they didn’t really know whether he was guilty or not.   The judge, on the other hand, was just trying to make sure that this scoundrel got what he deserved.   In the index to the book there are 30 pages referenced under Dupree, Franklin T—bias of.  

                I have no idea whether Judge Dupree was or was not biased, frankly, and I don’t take too seriously Morris’s repeated claims that he was.    But again, Morris does have a point here.   After MacDonald was convicted, many of his appeals, in one form or another, had to go back through Judge Dupree’s court.

                That’s not right, for this reason.   Of course the judicial system makes every possible effort to find judges who are able to rise above their assumptions, their biases—but, in the interests of fairness, the system should never assume that the trial judge was unbiased.    The system should assume, in the interests of fairness, that there is a possibility that the appellant has been unfairly treated, and should ask someone else to look at all appeals.

                I would go further than that:  I would ban anyone involved in a prosecution—judges and prosecutors—from playing any role in the case, after the conviction, insofar as it is practical to avoid this.  I would prohibit them from commenting on or being involved in appeals.  I would prohibit them from appearing before or even from writing to parole boards. 

                I have often observed, in reading crime books, that the worst injustices occur because police, prosecutors or judges are absolutely convinced that they know what happened when they really don’t.   Once a person has reached a conclusion about a set of facts—and this is one of Errol Morris’ central arguments—once a person has reached a conclusion, created a story in his mind, almost any fact that emerges can be worked into the pattern created by that story.   A fine young man named Ryan Ferguson is in prison in Missouri for a crime that he quite obviously did not commit.   If a hundred of you readers were to look into the facts of that case, probably all one hundred of you would reach the conclusion that Ferguson was obviously innocent.   There is no case against him.   But the prosecutors and the judges won’t admit that they made a mistake, and, because the case keeps going back to the same prosecutors and the same judges, Ferguson can’t get out of prison.

                I embrace Morris’ argument that, once people become convinced that they know what happened, it is nearly impossible to un-convince them.   Morris’ infers from that in this way:  that Dupree was a bad judge because he formed an early opinion about the merits of the case.   I would infer about it this way:  that the system is flawed, in that it sends the new issues in the case back to the old judge, when there is the possibility that that judge may have formed a firm opinion about the merits of the case.

                The key witness in favor of Jeffrey MacDonald was a woman named Helena Stoeckley.    Within an hour of the attack, Jeffrey MacDonald said that his family had been murdered by a group of hippies, including a woman in a floppy hat, wearing a blond wig and holding a candle.    One of the police officers, hearing that, said immediately that he had seen a woman in a floppy hat standing on a street corner a couple of blocks away, as he was responding to the call.     It was odd, seeing a woman standing on a street corner in the rain in a residential area at 3:30 in the morning.   If he hadn’t been responding to a call for help, he would have stopped to check her out.   Nothing was done immediately to look for the woman, and she vanished into the mist.

                The next day, an officer involved in the case said, "You know, that sounds like it could be Helena Stoeckley."  (paraphrasing.)   Helena Stoeckley was heavily involved in the local drug scene, and had often been used by police as an informant, so she was well known to the fuzz.

                When police talked to her about the case, she didn’t exactly deny that she was at the scene of the murders.    What she said was more like "I don’t know; I was doing a lot of drugs that night.   Maybe I was there, I don’t remember."    For the rest of her life, which ended in 1983, Ms. Stoeckley would talk incoherently and at times semi-coherently about her involvement in the MacDonald murders.   When Jeffrey MacDonald was actually on trial, however, she insisted that she had not been in the house at the time of the murders, and that she had no first-hand or direct knowledge of the murders.

                McGinniss’ treatment of Helena Stoeckley—which I accepted when I read McGinniss’ book—is "there was this extremely flakey and unreliable person who said lots of things to various people at various times about possibly being involved in the murders, but who, asked about it under oath, denied any knowledge of the crime."   Break that down, and it remains incontrovertible: 

                Helena Stoeckley was as flakey and unreliable as anyone could possibly be.   At the time of the murders she was doing heroin and LSD on a daily basis.   She was into witchcraft.   She did testify that, about midnight on the night of the murders, she had taken mescaline, and she had no clear memories of anything that had happened after that time.

                Over the years, she did talk to dozens, hundreds or perhaps thousands of people about being present in the MacDonald house at the time of the murders, offering a vast variety of vague half-formed memories about the crime.

                At the trial, she said she had not been there. 

                Stoeckley, however, is central to Morris’s book; she is the second-most important person in his book, behind MacDonald himself, but ahead of Joe McGinniss, Freddy Kassab, or the victims of the crime.   I can’t summarize in ten words all of Morris’s arguments about Helena Stoeckley, so I’m going to have to back off and run at this several times.

                False confessions, Morris argues, may be relatively common and relatively insignificant in many cases.   But what are the odds, Morris asks, that Jeffrey MacDonald would describe a person who had committed the crime, a police officer would immediately say, "Oh, I saw that person just a few blocks away a few minutes ago," and the police would later go and interview that person and she would say, "Oh, yeah, I was there."   Isn’t that a pretty incredible string of events, if in fact he was just making it up?

                Well, no, actually, it isn’t.    Murder cases are full of incredible coincidences, most of which—like this one—are not really all that incredible if you look at them more skeptically.

                Morris presents these facts in a linear relationship, but they don’t exist naturally in a linear alignment.   First, the police officer who said that he saw the woman in the floppy hat near MacDonald’s apartment on the night of the murders absolutely insisted that it was not Helena Stoeckley, and didn’t look anything like her.    Second, murder investigations of high-profile crimes create a powerful vortex that sucks hundreds or thousands of people into their orbit—witness Morris’s book, which references probably a thousand or more persons in some way involved in the case.   Many, many of those people tend to be flakey, half-crazy lowlifes who are likely to say damned near anything.   It is actually extremely common for police investigating a case such as this one to find their time being wasted by some jackass who suggests that he has some knowledge of the case, but who never quite comes through with the goods.    People pretending to be involved and offering half-confessions is just the routine flotsam of a murder investigation.  

                And she matches the description, but what is the description?    A floppy hat, a blond wig, a candle and white boots.   Shit, that could be anybody.   Every hippie chick I knew had floppy hats, white boots and candles.   That Stoeckley "matches the description" given by MacDonald may not be untrue, but it is not a profound truth, either.  

                There are certain characteristics of bullshit, and there are certain characteristics of the truth.   The truth tends to be specific; bullshit tends to be vague and imprecise.   The truth tends to involve facts that can be checked out; bullshit is always built around things that you have no way of checking out.   The truth tends to be told consistently, the same from one day to the next; bullshit changes every time it is told.   Stable, responsible honest people tend to tell the truth; unstable, dishonest, unreliable people tend to bullshit.  The truth is coherent and logical; bullshit is incoherent and illogical.  

                The stories told by Stoeckley have every conceivable characteristic that would be associated with bullshit, and no characteristic at all that we would normally associate with the truth.   Her "confessions" were vague to the point of total obscurity.  She talked in the most general terms imaginable about possibly remembering that she might have been in the apartment.   She remembered a child’s toy, or a hairbrush, or a lamp or a table.   She had taken a lot of drugs that night, and didn’t really remember anything clearly.    It’s obvious bullshit.  

                But there is a point here on which I agree with Morris.   After Stoeckley took the stand and insisted she had never been to the scene of the murder, MacDonald’s defense attorneys wanted to call other witnesses to impeach her testimony, establishing that she had said the opposite to dozens of other people on other occasions.   Judge Dupree denied the defense the right to call witnesses to impeach her testimony.  

                Bias?

                Well. . ..legally, I think he’s right, isn’t he?  As best I understand the law, which is very dimly indeed, the defense (MacDonald) would have to somehow establish a reasonable belief that Stoeckley was at the scene of the crime before they could impeach her testimony that she was not.   That she said some other things at other times, just chattering. . .you can’t get into that without a foundation.   The defense had no independent avenue to establish that Stoeckley was at the scene of the crime, so it’s hearsay, and it doesn’t prove anything material.

                But there is an argument, not about the law but about fairness.   Fairness requires that you give the accused every possible opportunity to establish his case.    Since Stoeckley’s out-of-court confessions to being at the scene of the crime were central to the defense’s case, fairness would require that they should have been heard, somehow, that some avenue should have been created to get that issue before the jury.   It might not have made any difference, but. ..the defendant’s case should have been heard.

                Twenty-four hours before she appeared on the stand, Stoeckley had told the defense attorneys a different story.   After that she talked to the prosecutors, and after she talked to the prosecutors she changed her mind about her testimony. 

                Morris alleges that Stoeckley was intimidated into changing her testimony by threats that she would be prosecuted for murder if she said on the stand that she was in the house at the time of the murders.    A person who was present at the time the prosecution interviewed Stoeckley would say, years later but repeatedly and vehemently and under oath, that this was true, that Stoeckley was pressured to change her testimony.   The lawyers who were involved all swore that this never happened.

                Well. . .if you testify under oath that you were unlawfully present in the house at the time of a murder, you should be prosecuted for murder, shouldn’t you?   Is it "intimidation" for a lawyer to say to a potential witness that "If you say that under oath, you can be prosecuted for murder," if that is an obviously true statement?   Further, aren’t you doing a favor to the witness, in telling them that?   And is it intimidating the witness, to do them a favor?  I think it’s just a matter of perspective, or interpretation.  Years later, people would remember it differently.  

                Judge Dupree spoke about Stoeckley being an unreliable witness, and ruled (on appeals) that it didn’t make any difference if her testimony was impeached, because the jury wasn’t going to believe whatever she said, anyway.    Paraphrasing.    Well. . ..but "unreliable" does not mean "false"; it means "unreliable".   If there is a possibility that the jury could have been made to believe that Stoeckley was present at the time of the crime, then, in fairness, the defense should have been given whatever opening was available.  

                Errol Morris writes about Helena Stoeckley on almost every page of his book.    As to the alleged motive for the murders, that MacDonald was involved in sexual affairs with other women, this is mentioned only twice, in passing.   One of those references is this (page 483):

You know, my great sin in life is I had a couple of one-night stands.   Who didn’t in the sixties?   That doesn’t make me innocent of adultery.  Okay.   But it certainly doesn’t make me guilty of murder.

MacDonald "confesses" to his "great sin"—but immediately minimizes it, first by reducing it to "a couple of one-night stands", second by saying that everybody was doing it, and third by contrasting adultery with murder.   It is a masterpiece of rationalization—but it wasn’t just a couple of one-night stands, and everybody wasn’t doing it, and nobody ever suggested that it was equivalent to murder.

By writing about Helena Stoeckley on almost every page of the book and minimizing MacDonald’s philandering to a pinpoint, Morris creates the impression that Stoeckley is central to the case, and MacDonald’s infidelity is irrelevant to the case.    If he wrote about MacDonald’s infidelity on 350 pages and reduced Helena Stoeckley to a couple of passing references, that would create the impression that the opposite was true.   It is not clear, to me, that one choice would be more justified than the other.   It’s really not clear that Helena Stoeckley had any actual knowledge of the crime, or that MacDonald’s infidelity did not create a motive for murder.   

But having said that, Morris does seem to establish that there is much more to the Helena Stoeckley story than I had believed there was, based on my previous knowledge of the case.   Stoeckley was supposed to be carrying a candle.   Morris says that un-identified candle wax, not matching any candle in the apartment, was found in the apartment after the crime.   Helena Stoeckley was supposed to be wearing a blond wig.   Morris says that a plastic hair which could have come from a blond wig (and could not have come from a doll) was found in the apartment.   Morris says that another man, connected with Stoeckley, running with her at the time of the murders, also confessed (many years later) to being involved in the murders (sort of.   The male’s confessions are even more qualified, tentative, and elusive than are Stoeckley’s.)   Morris says that witnesses did see Stoeckley and other people arriving back at her apartment in the middle of the night on the night of the murders, riding in the car that she said (sometimes) that they were riding in.    

More significantly than that, what I understand from reading Morris’s book, and did not understand before, is that the MacDonald murders became the central event of Helena Stoeckley’s life.    Before, I endorsed this characterization of Joe McGinniss’ view:

McGinniss’ treatment of Helena Stoeckley is "there was this extremely flakey and unreliable person who said lots of things to various people at various times about possibly being involved in the murders, but who, asked about it under oath, denied any knowledge of the crime."   Break that down, and it remains incontrovertible.

                That is true—but it creates the impression that this was just idle gossip in which Stoeckley may have engaged at some time.   What becomes clear from Morris’ book is that Helena Stoeckley genuinely feared that she may have been present at the scene of the murders, obsessed over that fear, and brooded over it until her dying day.    She didn’t really know whether she had or had not been a part of a murderous rampage, but the fear that she might have been haunted and terrified her, and she talked about it, over the years, to hundreds of people.  

                Stoeckley’s testimony under oath, it seems, was an aberration in the stream of her memory.   That was the only time she spoke about the night in question with any clarity, and that was the only time she clearly denied being there.   Otherwise, she said everything about the night of the murders that you can imagine, except that she wasn’t there.

                Morris talks about the investigation being bungled.   It’s exaggerated; the investigation wasn’t nearly that bad.   Still, Morris does leave me half-convinced that MacDonald is innocent.    These things I understand now that I didn’t understand before:

                1)  That applying the "psychopath" label to Jeffrey MacDonald is unfair, because it has no meaning at all unless you assume that he is guilty.

                2)  That the McGinniss explanation—the diet pills story—has the same flaw; it means nothing unless you first assume that MacDonald is guilty.

                3)  That MacDonald’s defense attorney may have been ineffective,

                4)  That the Judge may have been biased against MacDonald and against his attorney,

                5)  That MacDonald’s key witness deserted him without warning,

                6)  That she was probably lying when she said under oath that she was not there (when in truth she probably didn’t know whether she was there or not,)

                7)  That many of MacDonald’s appeals went back to the same judge who may have been biased against him at the time of the trial, and  

                9)  That the immense success of a rather bad book by an execrable author, Fatal Vision,  has so poisoned the well against MacDonald that it may have made it impossible for him to get a fair hearing.  

                The case against Jeffrey MacDonald, as best I understand it, is not compelling.   I am not convinced that he is guilty.   If it were in my power to set him free, I would set him free.

 
 

COMMENTS (32 Comments, most recent shown first)

KaiserD2
Responding to Bill. . .I have reviewed your statistical analysis and I feel it not only confirms my last post, but in a sense goes beyond it.

Let's reprint your conclusion:

"Let us say that there is a population of one million husbands, of whom 20 will murder their wives.

Of the one million husbands, 200,000 are unfaithful, and 800,000 have been faithful husbands for the last year.

However, of the 20 men who will kill their wives, 18 are also unfaithful husbands. Only two are faithful.

The chances that a husband WILL kill his wife are .00009 if he is unfaithful, and .0000025 if he is able to remember his marriage vows from day to day.

The probability that he is a murderer is 36 times higher if he has been unfaithful in recent months. The question we would then ask is, “Is infidelity relevant to the charge of murder?”

a) No, it is not relevant, and we should ignore it, because 99.991% of unfaithful husbands do not kill their wives.

b) Of course it is relevant, because the likelihood that he WILL kill his wife is 36 times higher if he is unfaithful. "

It certainly makes it sound relevant that the guy cheated to say that it makes the probability he would kill his wife 36 times higher than if he had not cheated. But that is, in my judgment, a rather misleading statement, because as you yourself say, that fact ALONE still only gave him a probability of killing his wife of .000009.

As you probably know, there is branch of statistics, Bayesian statistics, which shows how you can take various probabilities that are related to a possible outcome, and in effect "total them up." In other words, if the outcome you are looking at is D, you can ask, what are the probabilities that the independent facts A, B and C are true, and in each case, if they are true, what is the probability that D is true?

Now let's say, looking at the McDonald case, that A is the fact that there's no clear evidence of some one else being in the house; B is that he told a story that could not be substantiated; and C is that he was cheating on his wife. My point is that if indeed his cheating only means a .000009 probability that he killed his wife, establishing that he cheated will do almost nothing to increase the overall probability of his guilt. And, of course, to convict, we're supposed to an overall probability of somewhere around 90%, or "beyond a reasonable doubt."

In the same way, yes, faster runners are more likely to play major league baseball, but the overwhelming majority of fast runners never will.

I think this has been a very interesting discussion. I might add that, as in the case of the Ramseys, these situations in which there is only one obvious suspect whether there is any real evidence that he or she did it or not are probably among the most prone to miscarraiges of justice.


11:38 AM Apr 16th
 
karlin
Appreciate your analysis of the facts as opposed to the assumptions that public and/or investigators make. I do find it interesting that most high flying salesmen have most of the traits of a psychopath. Maybe I should be buying more things to protect myself from mayhem.
4:15 PM Apr 15th
 
bjames
Responding to Kaiser. . ..the guy I knew slightly, Marty Miller, to the best of my understanding there actually was NO evidence against him, other than

1) the cyber cheating, and
2) the fact that he was the only person in the house at the time of the crime, other than the victim and their two young children.

I think that's all there was. It's interesting. ..in his case I somehow am NOT bothered by his conviction. I accept the jury's finding that he did it.

We were talking about what we could call psychopaths, probably shouldn't be called psychopaths. Marty is one of those. He is extremely glib, very charming. When we were working as extras on that movie, all the extras clustered around him; he was the leader of the gang. He was super-active in his church. There is a private school here in town, very, very religious. . .the sort of place where the cheerleaders in their organized cheers will thank Jesus by name for helping the kid hit the free throw. Slightly creepy. Anyway, Marty was the head of the school board, or the former head of the school board or something. He was one of the drivers behind the formation of the school. But when he killed his wife, most of us sort of shrugged our shoulders and said. ..well, somehow we're not ALL that surprised.

The cyber cheating was introduced into his case; the high-voltage religion was also introduced. Somehow it didn't make a good combination.
10:40 PM Apr 14th
 
KaiserD2
OK, having thought a few more minutes, I can see where I made a mistake.

The problem is, I was thinking in terms of the whole population of men who have cheated on their wives. Bill is thinking about the whole population of men whose wives have been murdered under circumstances in which they were logically suspects.

Regarding the much larger population of adulterers, I stick to my original position. More that 99% of them will never kill their wives.

Regarding the smaller population of people whose wives have been murdered, it's possible that cheating raises the probability that the man did it. But that theory has led to some very questionable convictions as we have mentioned. (In Marty's case I sure as hell hope there was other strong evidence besides cyberscheating.) So...I'm still not convinced it should be decisive evidence.
1:39 PM Apr 14th
 
KaiserD2
First of all, I have no trouble with the proposition that a husband who has physically abused his wife is significantly more likely to kill her than one who has not. That is a very different matter, however, from simple infidelity.

But it seems to me, Bill, that you are reversing the cause and effect in your argument, by focusing on the behavior of men who DO kill their wives. Yes, I can certainly believe that most of them cheated on them, and within the last six months. But again, we're assuming that they killed their wives as a fact, not asking whether they were likely to have done so. It is a fact, I think you will agree, that the vast majority of men who cheat on their wives do not kill them.

I think what I am saying, then, is that there is no way that adultery pure and simple could be a key piece of evidence against some one accused of murdering their spouse. And Bill's most recent comment agrees with this, when he points out the cases where the man was suspected mainly because there was no one else there. If you will agree with me that that was much more important evidence than the adultery, Bill, we will have reduced our disagreement considerably. The same situation occurred in the case of a North Carolina man, Michael Peterson, whose murder conviction was the subject of a long documentary, Death on the Staircase. The evidence that he had had sex with a male prostitute was used to convict him, but there was no evidence that he wanted to kill his wife at all, and a new theory of hte case has recently emerged.

Getting back to the MacDonald case--if he is guilty, he was a much sicker puppy than the average adulterer. My impression is that most men who kill their children and their spouse have been left by their spouse.
1:21 PM Apr 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I am very sorry that Errol Morris doesn't have (or doesn't use) a first name that begins with "J": everyone else in the case, as presented in Janet Malcolm's book seems to be initialed "J.M.", including Malcolm herself, of course, and the book which is entitled THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER-- when I teach it in my journalistic ethics course, I abbreviate it "JM." The journalist is Joe McGinness and the murderer is Jeffrey Macdonald. Malcolm's book concerns the inevitability of journalists betraying their sources, and she cites prominently the example of being sued herself by one Jeffrey Masson, the shrink she exposed as a fraud in her previous book INSIDE THE FREUD ARCHIVES. (She also brings in the journalists Jessica Mitford and Joseph Mitchell, but that's stretching it.)
5:12 PM Apr 11th
 
bjames
pmc. . .thanks, but in my analogy Paul Konerko is not the unfaithful husband who is innocent; he is the rare FAITHFUL husband who DOES kill his wife. Every fast guy who can't play baseball is analogous to the unfaithful husband who can't play baseball.

I've never actually heard of a case of an unfaithful husband whose indiscretions were NOT used against him at trial, except in cases where the indiscretion was well in the past. A local man who I knew slightly (Marty Miller, by name) was accused (and convicted) of murdering his wife. He actually HADN'T been unfaithful--but he was carrying on a very steamy e-mail correspondence, which strongly suggested that he WANTED to be unfaithful. This was used against him at the trial. It's like the MacDonald/Sheppard cases, in that the case against him consisted largely of

1) The allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct, and
2) The fact that there was no one else in the house at the time that the crime occurred.

Otherwise. . ..really nothing. He was convicted.

(I can prove to all of you that I knew Marty Miller, by the way. In the 1990s there was a made-for-TV movie filmed here in Lawrence about the later life of Helen Keller. I was an extra in the movie, and so was Marty. There are scenes in the movie in which you can see the two of us.)
4:27 PM Apr 11th
 
pmc765
Homicide detectives instinctively consider the presence or absence of infidelity when a wife lies murdered and the husband is (as usual) a suspect.

Bill's points are logical. Homicide detectives are like baseball scouts. They look for suspects who can be charged and convicted of wife-o-cide. The unfaithful spouse is more likely guilty than the faithful spouse. Just as some slow guys grow up to be Paul Konerko, the unfaithful husband may well be innocent.

Courts do not routinely permit the infidelity to be received as evidence. If infidelity is the claimed motive, if the husband wants the wife out of the way to have Woman B, the jury needs to know about the infidelity to decide the case. But if the husband is just a hound in general, then it's unfair to the defendant to make him defend unrelated badness. He's charged with murder, not weakness of the flesh.

Just as teams ultimately make nuanced judgments about who can and cannot play baseball at the highest level, so courts use more nuanced judgment, informed by established rules of evidence, in deciding what can and cannot be used in court to seek a conviction. That's the way it should be, both in baseball and in the courthouse.


3:39 PM Apr 11th
 
dtandy
Bullshit is complex, yes, but much more ubiquitous: see On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt (Princeton 2005).​
2:57 PM Apr 11th
 
bjames
Let us say that there is a population of 1,000,000 young men (one million), of whom 20 have the ability to play major league baseball.

Of the one million young men, 200,000 are fast runners, and 800,000 are slower runners.

However, of the 20 men who do have the ability to play major league baseball, 18 are fast runners. Only two are slower.

In this case, the chances that a young man DOES have the ability to play in the major leagues are .00009 if he is a fast runner, and .0000025 if he is a slower runner.

The probability that he is a major league player is 36 times higher if he is a fast runner than if he is a slower runner. The question we would then ask is, “Is running speed relevant to the ability to play major league baseball?”

a) No, it is not relevant, and scouts should pay no attention to it, because 99.991% of fast runners cannot play major league baseball.

b) Of course it is relevant, because the likelihood that he can play major league baseball is 36 times greater if he is a fast runner than if he is a slower runner.

Faithful husbands and murderers, same question:

Let us say that there is a population of one million husbands, of whom 20 will murder their wives.

Of the one million husbands, 200,000 are unfaithful, and 800,000 have been faithful husbands for the last year.

However, of the 20 men who will kill their wives, 18 are also unfaithful husbands. Only two are faithful.

The chances that a husband WILL kill his wife are .00009 if he is unfaithful, and .0000025 if he is able to remember his marriage vows from day to day.

The probability that he is a murderer is 36 times higher if he has been unfaithful in recent months. The question we would then ask is, “Is infidelity relevant to the charge of murder?”

a) No, it is not relevant, and we should ignore it, because 99.991% of unfaithful husbands do not kill their wives.

b) Of course it is relevant, because the likelihood that he WILL kill his wife is 36 times higher if he is unfaithful.


2:34 PM Apr 11th
 
hankgillette
Bill said:

Nonetheless, the vast majority of men who kill their wives ARE unfaithful husbands, and have been unfaithful within the previous six months.

I remember a similar argument during the OJ trial. When it was brought out that OJ had a history of domestic violence with Nicole, some people claimed that it was irrelevant because the vast majority of men who abuse their wives don't end up killing them. But, reversing the logic, I'll bet that the vast majority of men who kill their wives have a history of physically abusing them.
1:45 PM Apr 11th
 
bjames
The role of infidelity in the case of a man accused of murdering his wife is very much like the role of speed in the evaluation of a baseball prospect. . ..in fact, I believe it is a perfect analogy; I don't see ANY weakness in the analogy, which is very odd.

It might be that 20 or 30% of young men could be considered good runners, and it might be that a comparable percentage of husbands are unfaithful to their wives, or have been unfaithful to their wives in the last two years, or something of that nature.

99.99% of unfaithful husbands do not kill their wives, and 99.99% of young men who can run fast cannot play major league baseball. Nonetheless, the vast majority of men who kill their wives ARE unfaithful husbands, and have been unfaithful within the previous six months. And the vast majority of men who CAN play major league baseball are from within that minority which can run fast.

To argue that infidelity is irrelevant to wife-a-cide, then, is logically indistinguishable from arguing that speed is irrelevant to the ability to play baseball. To argue that evidence of infidelity is not relevant to the charge of murder because 99.99% of cheating husbands do not kill their wives is identical to arguing that scouts should not allowed to mention whether the prospect runs well, because 99.99% of young men who can run well cannot play major league baseball.
1:27 PM Apr 11th
 
KaiserD2
I have been thinking about this off and on all day.
The MacDonald, Ramsay and Sheppard cases have something in common: MacDonald, the Ramsays and Sheppard were suspected in large part because of the lack of any clear evidence (at least at the time) that anyone else was in the house. But it turned out that in the Ramsay and Sheppard cases that was highly misleading, and indeed, not true.
I wonder if anyone can point me to the best compendium of the actual evidence against MacDonald? Or is the actual evidence that not only was he the only one there, but that he told a story that apparently did not hold up?

5:14 PM Apr 10th
 
CharlesSaeger
I should note that, while I am convinced beyond reasonable doubt that MacDonald is guilty, I wouldn't be too upset if he were freed. He is very unlikely to kill again, being as he is a 70-year-old man and was a model prisoner, as best I know, and 35 years behind bars and infamy is more than enough to serve as a deterrent for others. It would be far better for him to die out of prison than to have another Susan Atkins situation, where a dying old person, no threat to anyone anymore, costs the taxpayers money for his medical care and guard at a hospital.
1:26 PM Apr 10th
 
pmc765
To clarify, the evidence rule, FRE 804(b)(3), excludes as hearsay statements tending to (1) inculpate the speaker in a criminal case while (2) exculpating the accused UNLESS there is corroborating evidence making it trustworthy.

Here the McDonald defense, faced with Helena Stoeckley's unhelpful testimony, wanted to call other witnesses who had heard her make statements incriminating herself (and two zonked out, soon-to-die hippies she supposedly was with) in the murders. The court correctly excluded this evidence because it wasn't reliable.

To non lawyers this is hard to understand. Why not let the jury hear the evidence? Many commentators have criticized McDonald's conviction as a result. McDonald will die, hopefully in prison, still whining about his conviction and the rejection of this evidence.

As Bill pointed out in True Crime, the highest profile criminal case in the US prior to the adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence was the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in 1935. H.L. Mencken, the George F. Will of his day, called it the biggest story since the Resurrection. The press overran the courtroom. Flash bulbs popped right and left. The jury was photographed in the jury box. Video exists of the prosecutor cross examining the defendant Hauptmann. Bill explained that although Hauptmann was clearly guilty, the trial caused some system-wide soul searching, and now we try to control trial publicity better.

The Lindbergh case perfectly illustrates the policy behind this evidence rule. At least six nut jobs confessed to killing the Lindbergh baby. Hauptmann's defense was mistaken identity: he claimed he didn't do it but didn't know who did.

Should he have been allowed to call witnesses who heard the nutty confessors confess? Of course not. Why not? Because such evidence is hearsay and not reliable.

The nuts themselves could testify: that isn't hearsay. But others should not be allowed to repeat the statements of the nuts unless there is some corroboration making their confessions reliable.

So in the McDonald case, if Helena Stoeckley, who had major psychiatric issues, had taken the stand and testified that she and two drug crazed hippies had murdered McDonald's family and non-fatally injured him, her testimony would have been received. It wouldn't have counted for much after the prosecutor tore her apart on cross.

But others could not testify to Stoeckley's out of court statements. There is nothing unwise about that evidence rule, and McDonald's apologists are off base complaining about it.
9:26 AM Apr 10th
 
jbdominicano
Well, as much as I agree with Bill in a lot of cases (JonBenet Ramsey, for example), in this case, his conclusions are not compelling to me and I strongly believe that McDonald is where he belongs. Talk about McDonald being a "psychopath" or a "sociopath" (my apologies, my English, which is not my native language, is not enough to get the difference, but then I don't get the difference in Spanish either); talk about the diet pills. Both of them (McDonald being a psychopath and his diet pills consumption) are ways of explaining McDonald's motives. But like Bill has written in Popular Crime, motives, means and opportunity have nothing to do with real evidence. MMO are helpful for investigators when they are trying to figure out what happened. But beyond that, they are irrelevant. So what were McDonald's motives? We don't know and I'm afraid we won't. What we know for sure is that McDonald was at the crime scene; we know that the murder weapons were at the crime scene and were from McDonald's home. And so on. We're McDonald's lawyers ineffective? Maybe, but to me, that would have made no difference in the outcome. Was the judge biased? But all of his ruling s were upheld in superior courts. McDonald's key witness deserted without warning? Well, if she probably didn't know where she was the night of the murders, my guess is her testimony would be irrelevant anyway. McDonald's appeals went back to the same judge? Certainly a flaw of the system, but again, Judge Dupree ruling s were upheld even by Supreme Court. That a rather bad book poisoned the well against McDonald is shameful and regrettable, but has nothing to do with evidence. Sorry for my English
9:06 AM Apr 10th
 
KaiserD2
I will try to keep this from getting too long. I have written two books on true crimes myself, two of the most famous crimes of the twentieth century: one on Sacco and Vanzetti, Postmortem (which I took over from a friend who had died,) and more recently, The Road to Dallas, on the JFK assassination. Bill, I'd like to think it might have opened your mind somewhat on that one: Oswald did do it, but he did it as part of a conspiracy of mobsters that I was able to document very thoroughly. But that's another story. In any case, writing those books introduced me to the emotional and intellectual dilemmas of writing about this kind of thing.
Now I also read Bill's true crime book, and while I learned a lot from it, I thought that in some cases it over-relied on psychological speculation, which is a very slippery slope in analyzing a crime. I thought for instance that his decision to maintain Sam Sheppard's guilt, even though we know he didn't actually commit the crime from DNA evidence, was quite a stretch. In that one, as in re McDonald, Bill seemed to accept the idea that adultery is good evidence against a husband accused of murdering his wife. I think, frankly, that that is silly. While it MAY be true that most men who kill their wives are adulterers, it is SURELY true that an enormous majority of adulterers, I should say somewhere between 95 and 99.9999%, do not kill their wives. And in McDonald's case we also have to ask whether an adulterer thereby becomes more likely to kill his kids, which seems even more dubious to me.
I have no detailed knowledge of the MacDonald case and I haven't read either of the books under discussion. I do think it's quite possible that McGinniss sincerely believed MacDonald was innocent when he started out. The same thing happened to a historian named Allen Weinstein who in the 1970s began a book on the Hiss case thinking Hiss was innocent, and changed his mind. But I don't know. But what I do think is that Bill's whole discussion spends much, much too much time on psychological questions that are ultimately unanswerable and simply could never, and should never, be used to decide some one's guilt or innocence. I don't see how anyone could prove that MacDonald either was or was not sick enough to have done this. To me the key questions are physical evidence, and whether there is truly good evidence that might stand up that some one else did it. The blood evidence may have been confusingly presented by McGinniss but it is the kind of evidence that could be decisive. Could be. I certainly agree with Bill that no one should be convicted because people are convinced that they are a psychopath. (By the way, the traits listed in the article sounded more to me like a sociopath--some one who has few if any genuine feelings and certainly no empathy, but who instinctively knows what kinds of feelings are called for in a given situation. But I could be wrong.)
As for Helena Stoeckley, I don't think anyone in an American court should be convicted or exonerated based on the testimony of some one like her. I do think I understand why the defense wasn't allowed to call the other witnesses. She was a defense witness, whose testimony disappointed the defense. I think it's a pretty well-established principle of trial law that you aren't allowed to impeach your own witness. Had she been a prosecution witness who said MacDonald did it, then the defense would be fully entitled to call anyone who had heard her say that she, or some one else, did it.
I wonder whether any of the blood evidence was saved? If so my impression is that DNA testing wold still be possible. And that, as in the Sheppard case, might establish that some one else was there, which would change everything.
On one point I agree with Bill 1000%. By the time prosecutors go to trial they have convinced themselves totally that the accused is guilty and nothing will ever change their mind, especially if they get a conviction. If you've seen Ken Burns' documentary about the Central Park jogger case, you will know that those prosecutors still insist the young men they convicted participated in the rape even though DNA evidence has proved that it was some one else. I don't see how prosecutors can be kept out of the appeals process, but judges should take this into account in evaluating new evidence, and I'm sure the best ones do.

8:22 AM Apr 10th
 
TheComplication
Vince Bugliosi, in one of his books, claimed that MacDonald asked (through a third party) him if he would be willing to represent him (MacDonald) when the Federal authorities were about to indict him for murder.

Bugliosi was interested in talking about it, but he wanted MacDonald to take a lie detector test. While MacDonald was pondering this, Bugliosi called the federal prosecutor in North Carolina and asked him what he had against MacDonald. The prosecutor didn't say much, but did mention that they had found fibers from MacDonald's shirt (or pajama top) under the fingernails of one of the daughters. Bugliosi wrote that that did it for him, he didn't want any part of the case. Shortly thereafter MacDonald got word to Bugliosi that he would not take a lie detector test. He obviously ended up with another lawyer.

I may be totally wrong about this and if so I apologize in advance, but is Bill not too fond of Bugliosi's writings? I thought I read somewhere that he was not. Anyway, did this fiber thing come up in the trial?
2:32 AM Apr 10th
 
james3067
As BJ seems to allude to, macdonald's "one night stands" were a more likely scenario for his psychological motive in committing the crime and completely buttress the fact that a navy seal failed not only to kill, but he was not. he was not killed. doesn't wash. Fails the sniff test.
8:40 PM Apr 9th
 
sdbunting
I believe John Douglas (helped found the FBI's profiling program) classifies this personality type as a "character disorder." Once you cross the line from mere horse's-assery to felonies, then I think you can break out "psycho-" or "sociopath."
6:14 PM Apr 9th
 
hotstatrat
Yeah, agreed. Do you feel "psychopathic" is about on a par with "sociopath" or another tick nicer? As a noun, you could say a "psychopathic person". People often toss out "psychopathic liar" when they are referring to habitual liars. Even softer, I suppose, would be to say a person has a "sociopathic personality". However, even that sounds as though the speaker is an expert, when all we want to do is make a general observation as a layperson. (It also doesn't pass your spell checker.)
5:52 PM Apr 9th
 
bjames
Responding again to Hot st . . .I wouldn't be any more comfortable describing Steve Garvey, Reggie Smith, Julius Caesar, or Bill Clinton as a sociopath than I would as a psychopath. I'd have the same problems there.

Another baseball case is Hal Chase, another person of the type. Chase, again, was manipulative, immensely charming, lacked any sense of the harm he was doing to others, had a long series of insignificant sexual relationships, etc. But I wouldn't be troubled describing Chase as a sociopath.
5:19 PM Apr 9th
 
bjames
For H'stat rat . . .I don't know that I understand this from the standpoint of a lawyer, but from a logical standpoint. ...the issue of the guilt or innocence of Helena Stoeckley was never before the court.

This was not a trial of Helena Stoeckley; it was a trial of Jeffrey MacDonald. The issue before the court was JEFFREY MacDONALD's guilt, not Helena's. When Helena testified that she had no information about the matter before the court, she was then irrelevant to the proceedings.

In order to draw the issue of Helena's participation in the crime before the court, you have to produce some information that she was there. If you can produce information that she was there, then the issue is before the court, and THEN you can impeach her testimony. But until then, there is really nothing to impeach, because she hasn't said anything that is relevant to the matter before the court.
5:14 PM Apr 9th
 
hotstatrat
My recollection from some radio or TV "expert" a couple decades ago is that there is a different word for someone who has all the characteristics of a psychopath (the word being "sociopath") and someone who takes that psychopathy to a criminally violent level: "psychopath". However, by all the definitions I can find on the internet, the two terms appear to be interchangeable.
5:10 PM Apr 9th
 
hotstatrat
Thanks for the clarification, pmc765, I am still not sure why impeaching evidence against Stoeckley was inadmissible. Doesn't (A) or (B) apply because Stoeckley was allegedly protecting herself from criminal liability? . . . or would she have to be more directly liable than just being at the scene of the crime?
4:57 PM Apr 9th
 
jdw
Bill has discussed in the past the loss of common sense in deliberations. The biggest problem with the MacDonald case has always been:

* the number of times Colette was clubbed and stabbed
* the number of times Kimberley was clubbed and stabbed
* the number of times Kristen was stabbed
* the number of times MacDonald was clubbed and stabbed

There really is no common sense, rational explanation for why MacDonald was knocked out, left with a minor (relative to the victims) stabbing, and someone decided to stab a 2 year old 40+ times in the chest, neck, back and other parts of the body.

It's nice to have the image of zonked out hippies going Manson-family style on a five and two year old in addition to a pregnant lady. But not making sure with the big guy?
4:05 PM Apr 9th
 
bjames
The candle wax seems pretty tenuous. The candle wax doesn't match any candles in the house, but when you finish a candle, you throw it out; you don't keep it around the house. You probably could find candle wax in MY house that doesn't match any of the candles we have now; in fact, I'm sure you could. That doesn't prove that Helena Stoeckley was here.
2:35 PM Apr 9th
 
CharlesSaeger
pmc765 makes a very good point. The evidence putting Stoeckley at the scene isn't very good at all. Candle wax? Households can go through candles fast. The blonde wig hair, that may be something, it also might be like the glasses at the Polanski murder scene that supposedly inspired MacDonald: nothing.

We have access to DNA now, and there isn't any to put Stoeckley at the scene, nor one of her associates. Granted, so long after the event it isn't that meaningful, but there isn't much of anything else to put her there. If someone went there, he wasn't armed: all three items came from the MacDonald household. Moreover, once they knocked out MacDonald, they didn't bother to stab him with the ice pick when he couldn't put up a fight. The same intruders who stabbed a little girl again and again in her sleep didn't stab again and again a big doctor in his. Riiiiiight.

You all know why Stoeckley was described as being at the scene, right? Her appearance was so known throughout the area that a cop immediately knew who she was when described. MacDonald had to have seen her before and remembered her, and hit the jackpot when it became clear that she was as crackpot as she looked. He remembered her and not the men who actually attacked him. And MacDonald, who was a smart man who, like Sam Sheppard, knew nothing about staging a crime scene, knew at least the had to be someone else on whom to pin the crime.

The trial may or may not have been fair; honestly, the complaints seem minor. They're minor next to the very similar and very guilty Sam Sheppard, who was taught in my ethic class in journalism school, as well as Malcolm's essay, and they're minor next to Leonard Peltier, who is probably guilty but at least a key piece of evidence, the ballistics, has been thrown out. There are little inconsistencies, sure, but there is no reason to think MacDonald did not commit these murders.
1:31 PM Apr 9th
 
pmc765
Judge Dupree, in refusing to admit evidence from others impeaching Helena Stoeckley's statement that she was not there or did not remember being there, was a correct application of Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3).

Editing it down to its essentials:

(b) The following are not excluded by the rule against hearsay if the declarant is unavailable as a witness (a witness who testifies to not remembering the subject matter is deemed unavailable):
(3) Statement Against Interest. A statement that:
(A) a reasonable person in the declarant's position would have made only if the person believed it to be true because, when made, it was so contrary to the declarant's proprietary or pecuniary interest.....to expose the declarant to.....criminal liability; and
(B) is supported by corroborating circumstances that clearly indicate its trustworthiness, if it is offered in a criminal case as one that tends to expose the declarant to criminal liability.

Morris's contention that there was candle wax in the apartment is very important. That could be the needed corroboration under (B). So is the claimed blond wig hair that could not have come from a child's doll. Did McDonald's attorney know about and present this evidence of corroboration?

This is the part of the McDonald case non-lawyers don't get. This is the reason McDonald remains in prison. Judge Dupree may have been cranky and hostile, but his decisions have been upheld by multiple federal appeals courts, because he correctly applied the rules of evidence in excluding evidence subjecting Helena Stoeckley to criminal liability in the absence of corroboration.

Non-lawyers (at least the ones in my family) have never understood the requirement of corroboration in MRE 804(b)(3)(B). But you, the author of Popular Crime, have helped your readers understand it perfectly well. You have explained the ubiquity of false confessions in notorious cases. Defendants who want to offer witnesses who heard false confessors confess are required, as a threshold matter, to offer evidence corroborating the confessor's story.

So Morris's focus on the wax and the blond wig strand are what an appeals court would think important. Hasn't that been argued before?

McGinniss may be odious. Fatal Vision is largely discredited. McGinniss actually paid damages to McDonald to avoid a retrial of a civil case in the 80's.

But I think McDonald is in jail because he belongs there. Multiple federal courts, including the US Supreme Court, have reviewed Judge Dupree's work.

Maybe McDonald's lawyer wasn't the best.

It can make a big difference.
11:24 AM Apr 9th
 
sdbunting
deberly,

You're right: I should have said that, if empanelled, I would have no *reasonable* doubt that MacDonald committed the murders. Not no doubt at all, but no other explanation is reasonable to me.

To my mind, though, the question isn't really whether MacDonald did it (I believe that, in more recent interviews, Morris has walked back his views somewhat to "he's probably guilty but he definitely didn't get due process"). It's whether he was *justly* locked up for it given other factors. I'm sure he did it, and just as sure he was the victim of, if not outright bias, inappropriate treatment.
11:09 AM Apr 9th
 
deberly
sdbunting,

Yes, set him free -- to do what? Well, if he should not have been convicted of his crime, to live as a free person. That is certainly enough. If you were to conclude that it is more likely than not he did it, well, that is not enough to convict someone -- you have to have no "reasonable doubt" he did it. Having "no other explanation" is a dangerous and insufficient justification for conviction.
10:45 AM Apr 9th
 
sdbunting
First: outstanding analysis. I found the Morris book far more specious than you did, I think, and ironically the same kind of cynical leveraging of a chosen angle that McGinniss is usually (and not incorrectly) accused of, but I also felt, as you did, that it moves the needle significantly towards, at the least, giving MacDonald a new hearing.

But you'd set him free...to do what? Just set him free, because he got railroaded? Or to give him a new trial? On the one hand, he's, what, 70 years old now? Not likely to do this again, certainly. But on the other hand, no other explanation makes sense to me other than that MacDonald killed his family. And he (or whoever, allegedly, whatever) KILLED THEM. Beat little kids to pieces.

I completely agree that his appeals shouldn't have gone through Dupree and there were significant due-process issues...but I DID understand the blood evidence, and based on that and just common sense, I find it almost impossible to believe that MacDonald didn't kill them. I wouldn't be comfortable just letting him out with an apology for various and sundry legal eff-ups, but ROR-ing him to prepare for a fresh appeal, I could live with...is that your stance?

Thanks again for writing this.
7:55 AM Apr 9th
 
 
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