The Jeffrey MacDonald Case, Domestic Violence, and Media Gullibility

Colette, Kristin, and Kimberly MacDonald

Colette, Kristin, and Kimberly MacDonald

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article at Alternet by Lynn Stuart Parramore called: How I Changed My Mind About the Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case. Parramore announced that she had read a new book on the MacDonald case by Errol Morris, A Wilderness of Error, and that

After traveling a months-long journey that has led me from certainty to doubt to horror at a grave injustice, I’m going to turn in this article and then go run some errands and make myself a bite to eat. Mundane things that Jeffrey MacDonald has not been able to do for over 30 years. The simple acts of coming and going as I please and caring for my own basic needs have been denied him. His wife Colette and his children have also been forever denied these things — but not, I have come to believe, by the man who is currently serving three consecutive life sentences.

A little background…

Jeffrey MacDonald

Jeffrey MacDonald

MacDonald was accused of murdering his wife Colette and their two little girls, Kimberly, age 5, and Kristin, age 2, in their home at Ft. Bragg military base in North Carolina on February 17, 1970. Colette was five months pregnant when she was murdered.

MacDonald claimed he had been sleeping on the couch in the living room, because his daughter Kristin had gotten into bed with his wife and had wet the bed. His story was that he had awakened suddenly to see these four people standing over him, and at the same time he had heard his wife and two daughters calling for him. He claimed that the woman was saying “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” and that the three men attacked him with a club and an ice pick, that somehow his pajama top was pulled over his head and he had used it to protect himself.

(It’s important to note here that these events took place only a few months after it was revealed that the Tate LaBianca murders in Los Angeles had been committed by so-called “hippies,” who were part of the “Manson family.” In addition, MacDonald had recently read a copy of the latest Esquire Magazine, which included a number of articles about the Manson murders and about hippies, drugs, and “witchcraft.”)

MacDonald said that he had eventually been knocked unconscious and when he came to he was lying in the hallway near the couch. He then went into the master bedroom and found his wife covered in blood–she had been bludgeoned repeatedly, and both her arms were broken. She had been stabbed 21 times with an ice pick and 16 times with a kitchen knife. The two girls were in their bedrooms. Kimberly had also– been bludgeoned–so badly that a bone protruded from her face.  She had also been stabbed repeatedly in the neck.  Kristin had been stabbed in the chest and back, 33 times with a knife and 15 times with an ice pick.

In contrast, MacDonald’s injuries were relatively minor. He had a bruise on his forehead, some small puncture wounds, and a wound in his right chest that partially punctured his lung. He did not even require any stitches. He was, however emotionally overwrought and his doctors were concerned about that.

MacDonald was initially released after an Army hearing, but after a thorough re-investigation, the Justice Department indicted him in 1975. In 1979 he was found guilty by a jury. He has had eight appeals, including two that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Back to the Parramore piece…

After reading Morris’ book and taking her investigative “journey,” Parramore is now willing to believe that a vast amount of physical and circumstantial evidence against MacDonald is fraudulent, that there was a conspiracy by the Justice Department to frame him, and that the real culprit is pathetic drug addict named Helena Stoeckley who died of cirrosis of the liver in 1983. (NOTE: This poor woman was interviewed again and again by multiple investigators until her death. She repeatedly told people she had been in MacDonald’s house on the night of the murders and just as repeatedly said she couldn’t recall what she did that night. She also named other people who had been there, but all of these people either had alibis or were otherwise eliminated as suspects.)

Parramore is now convinced that “hippie intruders” posed a serious risk in the 1960s and 1970s. She thinks that the famous book about the case by Joe McGinniss, Fatal Vision is highly questionable and suggests that McGinniss is a “conman.” And she thinks that “it didn’t make sense” that a nice guy like Jeffrey MacDonald would kill his beautiful family.

I was stunned after reading this. How could anyone be so gullible? That Errol Morris must be some amazing writer! Parramore never really explains specifically why she was convinced by the book–at least not by refuting the vast amount of physical and circumstantial evidence that convinced the jury and several judges. She left me with the impression that in the course of her reading she experienced a kind of transformation in which she magically saw all of the evidence differently.

Parramore does point out that there were serious problems with the way the crime scene and evidence was handled, which is true. But there were also huge problems with MacDonald’s story of the crime. For example, he claims he was attacked in the living room, but there was no sign of a struggle there and no blood, although he claimed he had been stabbed with an ice pick. And why wasn’t MacDonald killed or seriously injured? In most cases in home invasions, an adult male would be the first to be disabled. Why had the attackers stabbed Colette and Kimberly in an apparent frenzy?

Most of all, Parramore appears to be troubled by the idea that someone like MacDonald–a doctor who went to Princeton and then became Green Beret–would commit these terrible crimes. In her view, there are only two possible interpretations of the evidence:

Picture #1. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton-educated Green Beret doctor with no history of violence and a sterling record, butchered his pregnant wife and two young daughters using a knife, ice pick and club. Then he injured himself and set up the scene to make the crimes appear to be the work of intruders. He claimed they chanted, “Kill the pigs!…Acid is groovy!” and scrawled the word “PIG” on the wall in his wife’s blood.

Picture #2. Jeffrey MacDonald, a bright young man with everything in life to look forward to, lost his wife and children to senseless, horrific violence. A military hearing found charges against him “untrue,” but he was convicted nine years later in a civilian trial. He has been imprisoned for three decades for a crime he did not commit.

Two possibilities: MacDonald is a monster, or he is a victim of terrible injustice.

Let’s try another possibility:

Picture #3. Jeffrey MacDonald (who actually did have some history of violence against Colette–a friend had seen him slap her across the face), a bright young man who married his pregnant girlfriend just as he was headed to Princeton and who had to leave Princeton and transfer to Northwestern for financial reasons, is at age 26 working long hours as a medical resident at Ft. Bragg.

According to friends and neighbors, the couple don’t seem very happy. Colette has accidentally gotten pregnant with a third child. She has recently asked her mother if she and the girls could come to stay with her for awhile. Jeffrey has regularly cheated on Colette throughout their relationship, including the night before their wedding and the day after Kimberly was born. He has told Colette that he has to travel to Russia for a month and will not be around when her baby arrives.  Friends report that Jeffrey tends to be obsessive and controlling and that he often orders Colette around like a servant.

How’s that for a third possibility?  I’ve never been able to understand why so many people have problems believing MacDonald could have murdered his family. There was a great deal of physical evidence–including very convincing blood evidence–to show that he committed the crimes. There were holes in his story you could drive a truck through. There was no evidence of intruders in the house. Frankly, I knew his story was ridiculous when I heard what he claimed the woman chanted: “acid is groovy…kill the pigs.” No self respecting “hippie” in 1970 would have used the hokey, outdated word “groovy.”

Seriously, MacDonald fits the profile of a typical abusive husband. Have any of the doubters heard of the Laci Peterson case in which cheating husband Scott Peterson murdered his pregnant wife? Or the Carol Stuart case–in which cheating husband Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife and then shot himself in the stomach to make it look like they had been attacked in their car? Do they realize that murder by a significant other is one of the primary causes of death for women and that the risk increases for women who are pregnant or have infants less than a year old? And what about MacDonald’s behavior after the murders–just a short time later when he was confined to quarters he arranged to have sex with a local woman in his quarters!

Anyway, I don’t want to beat up on Parramore too much. Her article sent me looking for more information on the MacDonald case. I’ve read a number of articles about MacDonald’s latest efforts to gain a new trial. I’ve read reactions to Morris’ book by reviewers and legal experts I’ve read more credulous articles by writers who obviously don’t know the facts of the case. I just finished rereading Fatal Vision and I plan to read the Morris book next. I’ll report back whether I go through a complete transformation like Parramore did.

Brian Murtagh (with glasses) in 1979

Brian Murtagh (with glasses) in 1979

Meanwhile, there’s a <a href="dog_reading Good Morning!! Now that Rick Snyder has succeeding in turning Michigan into a right-to-work-for-less state, he and his Republican House have passed a new, and supposedly “new and improved” emergency manager law. The Detroit Free Press reports:

The House passed the Local Financial Stability and Choice act in a 63-46 vote late Wednesday, with Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, as the only Republican to join Democrats in voting against it. Immediate effect for the new bill was rejected 63-45, meaning it would take effect around the end of March if passed by the Senate, likely to happen Thursday, and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, as expected. The legislation introduced by Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, is similar to a draft Treasurer Andy Dillon and Gov. Rick Snyder had released. The administration said it’s designed to address shortcomings in Public Act 4 by giving local officials in financially troubled cities and school district more input in decisions. Incoming House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said it is a “mirror image” of what voters just rejected and “another slap in the face to democracy perpetrated by this House.”

It appears that both Wisconsin and Michigan are now totally owned by the Koch Brothers. Think Progress reports on How Michigan Voters Can Repeal The GOP’s Anti-Union Powergrab, but this is starting to feel like whack a mole. Republicans seem determined to kill democracy one state at a time. The New York Times Fed Ties Rates to Joblessness, With Target of 6.5%

The Federal Reserve made it plain on Wednesday that job creation had become its primary focus, announcing that it planned to continue suppressing interest rates so long as the unemployment rate remained above 6.5 percent. It was the first time the nation’s central bank had publicized such a specific economic objective, underscoring the depth of its concern about the persistence of what the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, called “a waste of human and economic potential.” To help reduce unemployment, the Fed said it would also continue monthly purchases of $85 billion in Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities until job market conditions improved, extending a policy announced in September. But the Fed released new economic projections showing that most of its senior officials did not expect to reach the goal of 6.5 percent unemployment until the end of 2015, raising questions of why it was not moving to expand its economic stimulus campaign.

Ben Bernanke indicated there isn’t much more the Fed can do at this point. Perhaps its time for GOP lawmakers to quit trying to destroy the economy? I couldn’t believe this story about cops gone wild in New Hampshire. Raise your hand if you knew it was illegal to buy “too many” iPhones.

Police in Nashua, New Hampshire say they were forced to use a Taser on a 44-year-old Chinese woman who does not speak English after she was told to leave an Apple Store because she was trying to buy too many iPhones. Through a translator, Xiaojie Li told WMUR that she had bought two iPhones from the Pheasant Lane Mall Apple Store on Friday and returned on Tuesday to buy more to send to her family in China. “The manager of the Apple Store came and told her something, but she didn’t understand,” Li’s daughter explained. Soon after that, shoppers captured cell phone video of police — who were providing security at the store’s request — using a stun gun on Li as she laid on the mall floor screaming.

The Apple store employees had to call the police because a customer was spending too much money in their store? That’s just one more reason I’ll never buy an Apple product. Senator Bob Corker has introduced a bill that would cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid by nearly $1 Trillion in reture for raising the debt ceiling.

Corker said the Dollar For Dollar Act would include $937 billion in savings from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, with an equivalent, dollar-for-dollar hike to the debt ceiling. Corker offered some details about his bill during a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday. Corker said his bill would raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 67 and would include the Medicare Total Health package that would increase private-sector competition for covering the elderly. Corker also said there would be a form of means-testing, making wealthy Medicare recipients pay more of their healthcare needs. Corker said he’d also “slowly” raise the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits, but did not specify an age. “We should address [Social Security] now because it’s causing the government to spend more than it takes in,” Corker said. “It will be bankrupt by 2017 if we do nothing.”

Izzat so. Social Security will be “bankrupt” five years from now? Prove it, Corker. What an asshole. And this is the guy the corporate media has been presenting as a GOP moderate who is willing to work with Obama. According to the Washington Post, Russia is admitting that: Assad is losing control and rebels might win in Syria

MOSCOW — Syria’s most powerful ally, Russia, said for the first time Thursday that President Bashar Assad is losing control of his country and the rebels might win the civil war, dramatically shifting the diplomatic landscape at a time of enormous momentum for the opposition. While Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov gave no immediate signal that Russia would change its stance and agree to impose international sanctions on Assad’s regime, his remarks will likely be seen as a betrayal in Damascus and could persuade many Syrians to shift their loyalties and abandon support for the government. Russia’s assessment could also further strengthen the hand of the rebels, who have made some significant gains in their offensive, capturing two major military bases and mounting a serious challenge to Assad’s seat of power, Damascus. “We must look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory,” Bogdanov, the Foreign Ministry’s pointman on Syria, said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body, the Public Chamber. “An opposition victory can’t be excluded.”

Here’s an interesting follow-up to Gene Weingarten’s excellent story about the Jeffrey MacDonald case, which I wrote about recently.” target=”_blank”>terrific piece by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine about Brian Murtagh, the man who is largely responsible for keeping Jeffrey MacDonald behind bars for all these years. Wiengarten wasn’t as easily swayed by Morris’ book as Parramore was and his article about Murtagh is very good antidote to Parramore’s credulity. If you’re interested in the MacDonald case, it’s a must read.

Murtagh was an attorney in the Justice Department who has been involved in the MacDonald case since the 1979 trial.

As the years have passed and the appeals continued, several times reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, as witnesses have died, as evidence has literally desiccated in file drawers, as lawyers came and went — his two co-counsel at the trial were later disbarred for ethics violations unrelated to this case — through it all, Murtagh alone persisted. At 66, he is now technically retired, but the government brought him back especially for this appeal. Jeffrey MacDonald hates him.

“The little viper” is how MacDonald described Murtagh to the grand jury hearing his murder case. Later, to reporters, MacDonald called Murtagh “a berserk person, a middle-level bureaucrat run amok … paid with taxpayer money to do this to me.”

Brian Murtagh today

Brian Murtagh today

Weingarten describes Murtagh’s response to Morris’ book as follows:

When Morris’s “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald” came out in September, Brian Murtagh sat in the study of the Oakton home he shares with Margaret, his wife of 43 years, and read it cover to cover, all 500-plus pages. He found it credulous, manipulative, a Swiss cheese of strategic omissions. To assert this, he typed out a rebuttal — a legal brief, double-spaced, 14 pages long, with Roman numerals and alphanumerically labeled paragraphs. It is not light reading. Morris, Murtagh writes, “doesn’t explain how 60 pieces of the pajama top, including the ripped-off pocket bearing a contact stain in Colette’s blood, could be found in the master bedroom, as well as 30 seam threads. … ” Murtagh didn’t file this odd document anywhere. He didn’t release it to the media. It was mostly for himself.

Murtagh sounds exactly like a lawyer but carries himself exactly like a butler. You want to call him Jeeves. He’s punctilious, a bit formal, often greeting people with a courtly little bow. He views this whole case with an air of bemused exasperation, puzzled by its refusal to die. He knows his “brief” would mostly confuse people. Only two people on Earth, he says, are really in a position to understand it — to understand what a flimsy, paltry, bankrupt case for innocence Errol Morris makes.

Brian Murtagh and … ?

Murtagh smiles grimly.

“Jeffrey MacDonald.”

Now that I have the antidote, I’m ready to read the book myself. As I said, I’ll report back what effect it has on my views about Jeffrey MacDonald.

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17 Comments on “The Jeffrey MacDonald Case, Domestic Violence, and Media Gullibility”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    You can read transcripts of the Army hearing, the Grand Jury, and the 1979 trial at “The Jeffrey MacDonald Information Site.” There is lots more information about the case there, and if you can stand it, you can even see the crime scene photos.

  2. Pat Johnson says:

    Like you, I believe the evidence in the McDonald trial is a compelling summation of his guilt. But there are people who prefer to take the contrarian view based on very little other than the “celebrity factor” involved in a case. Even aside from the facts presented.

    The same “blind reasoning” was on display in the JonBenet Ramsay case when a retired investigator named Lou Schmidt insisted that neither parent could have been responsible since they were both “good Christians” as if that alone was enough to absolve them of any guilt. As a result the DA in that instance, followed by another, took that reasoning to heart and failed to bring an indictment which suggested that Patsy Ramsay had the means and opportunity to have commited the crime possibly in a fit of rage when the child wet the bed in the middle of the night.

    There are those who insist that OJ was innocent. Others who accept the lie that George Anthony was responsible for the death of Caylee rather than Casey even when all the evidence points in one direction.

    I too reread the McGinniss book and have not changed my mind as to who committed those hideous crimes. Hard to believe that 40 years later McDonald has found someone willing to overlook the facts of this crimes by distorting the evidence for his benefit.

    If granted a new trial, and factoring in that many of the witnesses are long gone, it would not surprise me to see him “walk” where he will be able to spend his last days as a free man. That in itself would be a huge miscarriage of justice for 3 people and an unborn baby who never stood a chance against his moment of insane frenzy.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I don’t think he’ll be granted a new trial. There wasn’t any new evidence presented at the recent hearing.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Like OJ, MacDonald pretended to look for the real killers. He even told his father-in-law he had hunted down one of the attackers and killed him. MacDonald lied again and again to McGinniss, even to the point of making up fantasy stories about his sexual relationship with his wife. He appears to be a pathological liar.

      • HT says:

        It appears to be so easy to kill one’s wife and children and get away with using a home invasion strategy which sometimes fail as in this case – and then years after one can practically hypnotize a writer into believing the story of the accused despite the huge holes. OJ murdered his wife and friend, Manson family murder too many people to list. This guy is so innocent that geebus, those crooked cops framed him. I have to wonder why so many defense lawyers are so corrupt that they lose cases so often and so many officers are willing to lie and contaminate evidence (that is snark). Mind you there are defense lawyers that hide evidence that will incriminate their clients – witness the Paul Bernardo murders. I honestly don’t know whether the man is guilty or not, but had I been on the jury, I would have voted to convict.

    • Fannie says:

      I’m with you Pat, too many wanted to then, and now, to glamorize the psychopathic mass murderer. I don’t buy any of this coming from Lynn, who has her clipboard with notes taken from McDonald while he’s serving his time. She needs to title that paper on her clipboard “this isn’t a stick up, but a mass murder.”

      I tried to find my copy of the book, but I must have loaned it out. I don’t think McDonald has been silent, bet he’s spoken to some fellow inmates over the years. And I really think that he having access to medications, probably had been robbing the pharmacy or the patients of their drugs, and he probably was involved with drugs himself. His workplace probably had reason to believe he did commit the murders, and pinpointed their reasons in court. They had reason to believe he was guilty. And it seems the only one McDonald is afraid of is Brian Murtagh. And he feels real lucky with Lucky Lynn. He should spend his natural life to the end in prison, forever seperated from society.

      • bostonboomer says:

        He actually had a entire closet full of drugs, and the supposed “drug addled hippies” didn’t take a thing!

  3. Eric Pleim says:

    As hard as it may be for most of us to conceive of it, there ARE people in this world who think they are so great that literally anything done in the interests of their future happiness is entirely justified. Jeffrey MacDonald is one of those people.

  4. janicen says:

    Really interesting post, bb. Thank you for your work on this. I’ve never before known the details of the crime. Now that I do, I can’t imagine how anyone would have believed his explanation of the crime. I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight. *shutters*

  5. janey says:

    I hear this on the news a day or two after the killings. They said he was well enough to show them around the apartment and give them details of the murders. I knew that no real Green Beret would have allowed his wife and two kids to be killed and only have a minor injury himself, so I knew he had done it. Years later I read the book and years after that Mcginnis added some new information that MacDonald had been using uppers to keep himself awake at work and that might have been a contributing factor in why he would kill his wife. The man is guilty as sin but sure can con some people into believing him.

  6. Eric Pleim says:

    You are correct BB. No self respecting hippie would waste her time exclaiming that “Acid is groovy” when she is supposed to be on a murderous rampage. That one stuck out to me too, This guy was guilty as sin from day one, and the only reason there was any delay in prosecuting him was a misguided indulgence of all things military in this country.

    I don’t know what to say about Errol Morris. He is a great documentary filmmaker, (see the Thin Blue Line), who I guess started to see unjust conspiracies even where none exist. A sad story to be sure.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I just noticed that Morris was sued by the subject of The Thin Blue Line. He was recently sued by another subject also. I liked The Fog of War, but now I’d probably skip any of his films. I started to read his book, and it’s very one-sided. He begins by saying that no one has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that MacDonald did it. Really? The jury said so, and multiple judges have affirmed the decision.