Saturday, November 10, 2012

One Man Book Club

I recently finished A Wilderness of Error, which is Errol Morris's book about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case.  For people of a certain age, the case was big news for many years, but it never was for me.  I basically knew nothing about it, which is important because those who do know about it often do not know what really happened.

Morris, as he always does, focuses simply on truth.  For anyone who has watched The Thin Blue Line or Fog of War, they will understand Morris's ability to present reality in a way that makes fiction seem unnecessary.

Wilderness of Error is a good read for everyone, whether a lawyer or otherwise.  It demonstrates -- to me, quite convincingly -- that even if MacDonald may have murdered his family, there was no way a jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that he had done it.  These statements might seem contradictory, but thy are not.  A criminal case -- involving a person's life and liberty -- is not a civil case where one side with 51 percent must win.  The deck should be stacked against the government, but the MacDonald case appears to be a situation where the inverse occurred.

The other very interesting fact about the MacDonald case is how the worlds of journalism and law collided to ruin MacDonald's chances of ever succeeding on appeal.  Once Fatal Vision (the book and then the TV movie) became popular, the actual facts of the case became obscured by the "facts" of the book and TV movie.  The main "fact" that became gospel was that MacDonald went loopy on diet pills and slaughtered his family, even though this was hardly even a theory of the government at the trial.  It basically became a "print the legend" scenario from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but the legend being printed seemed to harm MacDonald's chances on appeal. 

If MacDonald had ever won on appeal to get a second trial, seemingly every juror in the country would have been prejudiced.  But MacDonald has never even gotten that far.  Simply being innocent -- if there is no new DNA evidence or some other factor that shows the trial was somehow erroneous -- is not necessarily grounds to reverse a conviction.  And so today, after 30 years of appeals, MacDonald is still in prison.  Ironically, the parole board has told him for years now that he will be released if he just admits he committed the crime.  But if he is innocent, how can he?  I will never understand the penchant of the government to demand remorse and an admission of guilt by a defendant who has not been convicted and maintains his innocence.  If MacDonald has served enough time to get released if he just said some words, he has served enough time to be released anyway.

MacDonald has always maintained his innocence, and today it is the only thing keeping him in prison.  But if you read Morris's book, you will understand why Morris would rather remain in prison than admit to a crime that no prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you would like to read another outstanding book that investigates the difference between the story people think they know and the truth, you should also read Standard Operating Procedure, a book by Morris and Philip Gourevitch.  It is about Abu Ghraib and will probably haunt your dreams, but sometimes the truth does that.

I hope to have some good beach reads for you in future installments of One Man Book Club, but for this one I definitely recommend A Wilderness of Error.  It is the most fun you will have reading about a miscarriage of justice this year.  I guarantee it.