A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
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A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald

3.74 of 5 stars 3.74  ·  rating details  ·  639 ratings  ·  159 reviews
Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a Green Beret doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald called the police for help. When the officers arrived at his home they found the bloody and battered bodies of MacDonald's pregnant wife and two young daughters. The word "pig" was written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom. As MacDonald was b...more
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Published September 28th 2012 by Tantor Media (first published August 28th 2012)
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In a wonderfully insightful interview in the documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, convicted killer Damien Echols (of West Memphis Three fame) poignantly described his surprise, one day, when a prison doctor informed him he had arthritis. Arthritis, he thought. That’s something that old people get. The point, of course, is that Damien had gotten older. He just hadn’t recognized the progress of time, because his life had stopped the day he was sentenced to death for his part in the murder of th...more
Mary Frances
Poorly reasoned, lacking in substance, episodic and odd. Yes, that about sums it up. I've read a lot about this case, but more importantly, I am a lawyer who was once a criminal defense attorney. I've gotta say, this is one of the least convincing "exposes" I have ever read. Let's look at a few things- starting with the big reveal on DNA- there were 2 DNA samples that didn't match any known persons. Two out of many tested. One of those was a hair under Mrs. McDonald's fingernail. Ok, but Morris...more
Karen Stinneford
After a V-E-R-Y slow start, Errol Morris makes a quasi-persuasive case for why Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald didn't receive a fair trial -- how the prosecution withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense or how, if the defense knew about it, the defense was not allowed to present it as evidence.

But a fair trial is NOT the same thing as an acquittal.

As a long-time North Carolinian who followed the MacDonald trial in 1979 -- and who later wrote about the case when I was newspaper reporter...more
Since 1985, I have had a long, twisting journey with the Jeffrey MacDonald case. It started with Fatal Vision, the miniseries, and progressed to Fatal Vision, the book about the case penned by Joe McGinniss. I followed those over time with The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Fatal Justice by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost and Scales of Justice by Christina Masewicz. I visited various websites and read anything I could find about the case. Throughout the years my views on the case...more
I knew and worked with Jeffrey MacDonald. He came to my wedding. He was a compassionate and caring physician and a wonderful colleague. The man who I knew was not the man portrayed in Fatal Vision, and my husband and I never were persuaded that Jeff committed these murders. After reading this book, we are even more upset that invesigative ineptitude, insanity (his "folie a deux" suffering in-laws), prosecutorial misconduct and the mendacity of witnesses resulted in the destruction of this admira...more
This book infuriated me. Smoke and mirrors, that's all it was. The author doesn't seem to expect that he might have people familiar with the legal system reading this book or he wouldn't try to put forth some of his ideas regarding how the trials were conducted. Morris, the author, has turned this case into some kind of grand conspiracy against MacDonald which goes all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. When I first started reading this, I started to want to pick out misleadin...more

I was mildly obsessed with "Fatal Vision" as a teenager. I probably read it three or four times between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. I picked it up for the first time off the community bookshelf at the motel we were staying at in Florida for summer vacation. The first thing that attracted me was that it was a big, thick paperback. I was (and am) a voracious reader. Finding a book long enough, that I could really sink my teeth into, was a treasure! Secondly, I was drawn in by the descripti...more
K.A. Krisko
This book was a big disappointment. Having just read ‘Fatal Vision’, I turned to ‘A Wilderness of Error’ for the other side of the story, expecting a rigorous refutation of McGinniss’ book, a point-by-point takedown of the evidence. Instead, ‘Wilderness’ is lost in a wilderness of its own, a rambling, disjointed tract that disappears down philosophical holes and completely glosses over or ignores the most compelling findings from the MacDonald home. Oddly, the book, time after time, presents evi...more
I saw this referred to as "an epistomological crime story", which is a pretty accurate description. Film maker Errol Morris investigated the trial and conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald, a Greeen Beret accused of murdering his wife and children, and attempting to cover it up with a cockamamie story about crazed hippies. What Morris discovered was that the crime scene was ruined by incompetent investigators, evidence was ignored or destroyed, and a woman who repeatedly confessed to being part of the...more
A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffery Macdonald by Earl Morris
New York: The Penguin Press
$29.95 - 524 pages

“He offended people that he went to Malibu and was running around in sports cars, that he wasn’t grieving appropriately. And I have seen a lot of people wh were convicted because they are jerks, not because the evidence merited it.”

I always thought he was guilty. Any doubts that I might have felt vanished after I read Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision. Jeffery had murdered his wife
and two...more
I finished this book in less than a week, even though it's about 500 pages long. I bought it on the first day it came out since I read the other two books about the Jeffrey MacDonald Case (Fatal Vision and The Journalist and the Murderer) earlier in the summer and the case is still fresh in my mind.

This is a super quick read and a MUST if you've read in any detail about the MacDonald case. Everything you think you know about the case will be overturned. If you've read Fatal Vision, prepare to be...more
Errol Morris rules. The end.

I didn't reach exactly the same conclusion about this clusterfuck of a case as he did, but his approach to perception/conviction/truth was exactly what the story needed.

Now completely hooked, I will have to follow MacDonald's never-ending appeals, including his Sept. 17 hearing at the Fourth Circuit.

This review nails it: "Like criminal investigation more generally, the book serves as a high-stakes testing ground for the ability to keep absorbing facts and holding off...more
Lindsay Beyerstein
Wildly overrated. I'm working on a full review. Morris doesn't come close to refuting the basic account of the killings set out by Joe McGuinness in "Fatal Vision." McGuinness showed questionable journalistic ethics and sloppy scholarship on the side effects of diet pills, but he had incredible access to McDonald and his defense team and a lot of insight into his subject's character.
Really strangely done book - full of typos, supplemented with random drawing pages. I didn't feel like there was anything new in this and certainly my opinion on the crime/killer was not swayed.
Maureen Stanton
This book offers an important correction to the somewhat sloppy work of journalist, Joe McGuinness, and the oblique angle by Janet Malcolm in "The Journalist and the Murderer," which I sometimes teach in my Literary Journalism class, about ethics of literary journalism. Morris offers much original documentation, and followed up with interviews of several key figures (those still alive, since the crime took place in 1970). It's not a quick read because there are long excerpts of trial testimony,...more
In February of 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald, Green Beret and physician, phoned for police. He was beaten, stabbed, disoriented and his family in danger. When MPs arrived, they found a bloody crime scene: MacDonald barely breathing, his wife and two girls killed.

MacDonald described to the police, to the best of his ability, his assailants. What follows, became a nightmare.

MacDonald has been in jail for some thirty-odd years for a crime he claims he didn't commit. What Morris has done here is compile...more
Khris Sellin
The Innocence Project and the West Memphis Three case have taught me that there are an alarming number of people who have been convicted of heinous crimes which they did not commit, and I champion their cause of righting the wrongs that have been done to these innocent people. But… if there’s one thing I’ve been sure of for decades, since reading Fatal Vision (by Joe McGinniss) and watching the miniseries based on that book, it’s that Jeffrey MacDonald is a cold-hearted, psychopathic killer who...more
Errol Morris’s A WILDERNESS OF ERROR is an exhaustive look at the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, which remains steeped in controversy after over 40 years. In August of 1979, doctor and Green Beret Captain Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters (the murders happened in 1970). I’ve been interested in MacDonald since I first heard about the murders. The case is fascinating . . . and infuriating. MacDonald claims a group of drugged-out hippies murdered...more
From the time I heard this book was about to be published, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it and see what this supposed, shocking new evidence was that would clear the good Dr. MacDonald. Dr. MacDonald is in prison for the shocking crimes of murdering his pregnant wife and their two young daughters. Though it took most of a decade for Dr. MacDonald to be brought to justice, he still continues to assert that he is an innocent man from behind prison walls. Mr. Morris' book is a thorough, t...more
John Anderson
Errol Morris second major literary endeavor does more than build a case for the reversal of Dr. McDonald's conviction for his family's murder: It is a rumination on the misuse of evidence and the obsessive nature of finding the truth within a virtually limitless mountain of data. More impressively, it offers close to an entire history of the case, including its long life as a media obsession, to which, of course, this volume contributes. While McDonald's lack of culpability isn't completely esta...more
Gloria Wolk
This is a powerful book. Morris interviewed people and perused legal files, letters, etc., and exposed the truth behind another wrongful conviction. Having read many such true stories (at InnocenceProject.org and similar websites), I knew after a couple dozen pages that this was another instance of corrupt prosecutors and a corrupt judge. And it just came adding up. Joe McGuiness, author of "Fatal Vision," believed in Jeffrey MacDonald's innocence until the jury's verdict. Then he knew he could...more
Chad Post
I love this book. It's really intriguing, although I suspect it's different--more shocking, or something--for people who were aware of the MacDonald murders back when they happened, or who at least have watched the "Fatal Vision" mini-series or read the book.

But that's the thing--although this book is primarily a refutation of the circumstances surrounding Jeffrey MacDonald's conviction for murdering his wife and two daughters, it's also about the way we build narratives and then interpret all...more
Having read McGinnis' Fatal Vision, reading this book was a logical choice for me. I was familiar with Mr. Morris reputation, but this book is the first of his that I have read. After reading Wilderness, I am no longer so sure of Dr. MacDonald's guilt. Yes, he still comes off as arrogant, but is that not a logical reaction to being falsely convicted of the murder of your family when you know damn well that you did not do it?

Too many other leads were not properly investigated, and even after rea...more
Frank Probst
The counterpoint to Joe McGinniss' "Fatal Vision", which concluded that Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald killed his wife and two children and then faked the crime scene to make it look like they were killed by intruders. I haven't read "Fatal Vision", so I can't really comment on this, but Morris does a good job here making you question whether or not MacDonald killed his wife and kids. Morris' work leaves you with the impression that MacDonald is definitely a douchebag but probably not a murderer. The key...more
Christopher Faria
Anyone familiar with the Jeffrey MacDonald case will recognize how poor this book really is. Basically this book makes the case for MacDonald on little to no real legal evidence:
1. The erstwhile testimony/denials/affirmations of drug addict Helena Stokely

2. The handling of the crime scene initially by the MP's at Fort Bragg.

3. The alleged "new" DNA evidence of non-Macdonald family members.

1. Helena Stokely evidence is so highly in doubt that any judge would throw it out were she still aliv...more
Todd Sullivan
The Jeffrey MacDonald case is probably one of the first true crime stories I ever experienced. I remember watching, and being fascinated with the, the miniseries 'Fatal Vision' that aired in the 1980s, and then later reading the book that the miniseries was based on.

One of the things that both the book and the miniseries made quite clear was that Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty. He killed his wife and his two daughters, and though he had tried to blame it on a group of hippies who had broken into h...more
Greg Brown
Outstanding work from Errol Morris, digging through mountains of evidence to try and figure out what the hell really happened in this case. Morris' task is complicated throughout by missteps by the military police, prosecution, and even the defense—contaminating the crime scene, influencing witnesses, and even hiding evidence outright.

The psychological story presented by the prosecution (and McGinniss's Fatal Vision) should have been recognized as absurd from the start, and Morris does an especi...more
I need to separate my love of Errol Morris and general fascination with the MacDonald case from my perception of this particular text. When it works, it's an engaging indictment of the case against MacDonald, especially the prosecution's refusal to fully examine the claims of Helena Stoeckley. But over time the book devolves into a pastiche of extended primary source excerpts (from interviews and trial transcripts). In that way, it reminded me a little of some self-published books.
Steffie Corcoran
I admire Morris and went into this read with high hopes. Fatal Vision was one of my seminal true crime tomes, one I swallowed hook, ice pick, and diet pill-fueled sinker. Now that I'm older and more jaded, I think it's very likely that Jeff Macdonald did not receive a fair trial, though I remain uncertain of his guilt or innocence. Unfortunately, Morris' book--which is too loosely organized and ineffectively researched and argued--did little to move me off the fence.
Errol Morris interviewing Rex Beaber. They're getting along well. Morris says, what about the holes in Stoeckley's memory?
RB: Let me give an example. Have you seen The Sound of Music?
EM: Yes, of course.
RB: Just tell me, in a few sentences, what the story is?
EM: Do I even remember the story? I remember Julie Andrews. I remember the Trapp Family Singers. I have a very bad memory for plot. I remember the Nazis--the Nazis figured into it. Okay, have I failed this one?
RB: No. Go on, say what you can...more
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“A trial is not a science fair, but rather a magic show. A show based on appearances and logical fallacies and sleight of hand. It isn’t about proof. It is about convincing the jury.” 0 likes
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