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A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  1,432 ratings  ·  268 reviews
Academy Award-winning filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris examines the nature of evidence and proof in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case

Early on the morning of February 17, 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, called the police for help.  When the officers arrived at his home they found the bloody and batte
Hardcover, 544 pages
Published August 28th 2012 by Penguin Press HC
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 ·  1,432 ratings  ·  268 reviews

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Oct 03, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: true-crime, legal
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
Oct 04, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Oct 30, 2014 rated it did not like it
I have asked myself: What does this case mean? What is it about?...Is it about how we trick ourselves into believing that we know something? That we have proved something when we have proved nothing? It is about how we muddy the waters rather than seek the truth? About how we fail to examine the evidence (or even look for evidence) that could lead us to the truth? About how we pick one narrative rather than another--for whatever reason--and the rest becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Karen Stinneford
Nov 01, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 11, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 07, 2012 rated it really liked it

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 descript
K.A. Krisko
Sep 01, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: true-crime
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
Sep 15, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
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
Feb 19, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2015
Errol Morris gets a lifetime pass for freeing a wrongfully convicted man from Death Row in his film The Thin Blue Line, but this book feels like a bunch of potent arguments in search of their proper subject. Morris raises important issues about how, when it comes to investigations, latching onto a particular narrative early can blind us to truth, and indeed, we should be careful of swallowing the "official" version of events when it comes to capital crimes. When you finish this book, you'll be d ...more
Nov 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
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.
Sep 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Rheama Heather
Aug 21, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
Joe McGinniss tried writing "the Jeffrey Macdonald is innocent" novel first, but the evidence convinced him otherwise. Unlike McGinniss, Errol Morris seems blissfully unconcerned about reality. I have no doubt about Jeff’s guilt, but I was interested in the opposing point of view. I stopped on page 101.

There is no bombshell here to change my mind. WOE is an unorganized mashup of philosophical metaphors, unsurprising quotes from Jeff’s supporters / defense attorneys, and, oddly enough, black and
Sep 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
John Anderson
Mar 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 16, 2014 rated it liked it
Jeffery McDonald was convicting of killing his wife and family back in 1970. Whether he is guilty or innocent, one thing is clear after reading this book. The government covered up critical evidence that might have affected the outcome of the trial. The author points out, step-by-step, how the government were so convinced McDonald was guilty, they did not want any evidence presented that would have made it more difficult for the jurors to convict him. What a bad way to influence our justice syst ...more
Lindsay Beyerstein
Dec 06, 2012 rated it it was ok
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.
Kathy Cunningham
Jan 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Khris Sellin
Sep 07, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Sep 02, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: true-crime
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
Sep 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Susan Robin
Oct 04, 2012 rated it did not like it
Is it possible to give less than one star??? This is rambly, gossipy, insultingly simplistic, and a really horrible book. The author is arrogant and self-absorbed. Anyway...
Oct 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hoopla
Interesting but confusing and hard to follow, where fascination and genuine interest to see what new evidence let me listening.
Mike Wigal
Oct 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
I still have no idea if MacDonald did it.
W. N. Weaver
Feb 04, 2020 rated it did not like it
Mr. Morris has indicated elsewhere that he may next work on a book about the Kennedy assassination, which would seem to align nicely with his trajectory here. A Wilderness of Error proceeds at a steady pace towards inevitable disintegration along conspiratorial lines - there is even a "grassy knoll" somewhere in Fayetteville upon which some potentially "murderous hippies" were once seen by an eyewitness never interviewed by the authorities. This case has plenty of loose ends, and fibers, for Mr. ...more
Dee Eisel
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, true-crime
Unlike Fatal Vision, this book was not gloriously well-written. It reads as staccato, almost indignant. Maybe that's the goal, since the author obviously does feel angered by the MacDonald case and its outcome in particular. What it lacks in literary quality it makes up for in quality of research. Where Fatal Vision was a blockbuster movie "based on a true story," A Wilderness of Error is a PBS documentary. It's never going to have as much emphasis on cinematography, but you can learn a lot more ...more
Gloria Wolk
Oct 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: criminal-law
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 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
Oct 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 13, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: recent-reads
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
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