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Duly Noted

Sunday, Apr 7, 2013, 8:32 pm

The Ice-Pick-Wielding-Hippie Defense

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Filmmaker Errol Morris has been called the thinking man’s detective. He is revered for his meticulous attention to detail and his willingness to go where the evidence takes him. Morris is famous for getting an innocent man off death row by exposing his wrongful conviction in the documentary Thin Blue Line. In Standard Operating Procedure, Morris chronicled torture at Abu Ghraib in the words of the torturers.

Morris’s latest cause is Jeffrey MacDonald, the onetime Green Beret doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and his two young daughters in 1970. MacDonald claims that a marauding band of hippies burst into his apartment and killed his family. In his new book, Wilderness of Error, Morris argues that MacDonald might be innocent.

In a recent interview with the Atlantic, Morris went much further, asserting that MacDonald is definitely innocent. 

Morris thinks MacDonald might be innocent because a drug addict named Helena Stoeckley might have been at the house that night.

MacDonald told police that one of the intruders was a figure with long hair, a floppy hat, and boots. Initially, he said he wasn’t sure whether it was a man or a woman. A police officer responding to MacDonald’s distress call caught a glimpse of a woman with a floppy hat and boots standing at an intersection near MacDonald’s house. The police officer initially said he couldn’t tell whether the woman on the street was Stoeckley, he has since become convinced that it wasn’t Helena.

The police rushed to question Stoeckley, a part-time police informant and full-time addict, because she’d been known to sport a blond wig and a floppy hat. Thus began a cycle of cryptic quasi-confession and recantation that would continue for the rest of Stoeckley’s life. She was investigated, but the police never found any hard evidence to corroborate her vague and shifting stories. There was no physical evidence linking Stoeckley to the scene. That’s presumably why Morris stopped short of asserting MacDonald’s innocence in the book.

MacDonald was convicted on the strength of the physical evidence against him, which conflicted with his account of the murders. As I wrote in my review of Wilderness of Error:

MacDonald claimed he was attacked in the living room, where he held up his pajama top to ward off the blows of an ice pick-wielding hippie. According to MacDonald, after being clubbed unconscious, he awoke to find the attackers gone and his wife dead on the floor of the master bedroom. MacDonald said he covered his wife with his ripped pajama top before going to check on the girls. Yet investigators found no pajama fibers in the living room—meaning it couldn’t have been ripped there, as MacDonald claimed—and lots of pajama fibers and threads in the master bedroom, including several under Colette’s body.

Even more damning, a lightly soiled pajama pocket flap found near Colette’s body shows that she bled directly on it before it was ripped off. The area covered by the flap was soaked in blood, so we know the flap came off first. One sleeve was bloodied before it was ripped down the seam. The defense didn’t even try to dispute this evidence at trial.

Morris dismisses the physical evidence because the crime scene was contaminated. Indeed it was. Inexperienced military police officers failed to properly secure the scene and a horde of curious onlookers milled around in the apartment before the men in charge thought to kick them out. MacDonald’s supporters have seized on every untraceable particle of debris in the apartment as evidence of intruders. The apartment was transient housing on a military base, so it was full of untraceable stray fibers from previous occupants and their belongings.

Poor crime scene control and shoddy evidence-gathering might explain how a band of hippies could commit very bloody murders on a rainy night and apparently leave no trace of their presence. (The simpler explanation is that they were never there.) A contaminated crime scene cuts both ways. For all we know, the evidence that was lost or destroyed would make MacDonald look even more guilty.

No amount of crime scene contamination can explain away the fact that Colette bled on MacDonald’s top before it was ripped, or the fact that MacDonald’s pajama fibers were found in his daughters’ beds--despite the fact that he swore he took his top off before he checked on them.

It is sad that Morris had decided to stake his reputation on Jeffrey MacDonald’s innocence in such an intellectually dishonest way. If Morris wants to hold up the possibility that MacDonald is innocent, that’s defensible. This case has been an object of popular fascination precisely because it’s possible that Stoeckley was telling the truth. It’s incredibly unlikely, given the independent reasons we have for believing MacDonald is guilty, but you never know. Morris acknowledged in his book that the case against Stoeckley wasn’t a slam dunk. Yet, now Morris is asserting for a fact that MacDonald is innocent when his own book says that it’s impossible to know. Morris has let his advocacy eclipse his journalism.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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