The civil jury deadlocked — McGinniss’s publisher wound up settling out of court — but after reviewing the trial transcripts and exhibits, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm in 1990 wrote an article that eviscerated both McGinniss and the entire profession of journalism. Its famous first line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Malcolm contended that McGinniss’s tactics were symptomatic of what all journalists do, to some degree: fool people into trusting them, then betray them by spinning facts, or distorting them, to create whatever compelling narrative they wish. Every story, she implied, is on some level a con job.
The accusation rattled the prickly, inward-peering world of journalism. Reporters took sides — most in a defensive crouch, but some acknowledging an unnerving whiff of truth in what Malcolm wrote. Journalists do have agendas; their articles do marshal facts selectively. They don’t always reveal their biases. Stories are seldom completely arm’s-length. This greater journalistic debate seemed inextricably linked to the MacDonald case; it became almost impossible to write about one without summoning the ghosts of the other.
So, just to be clear:
I intend to spin you toward a certain conclusion. The process is stealthy and has already begun; it was no accident that I called Dr. MacDonald’s stab wound an “incision.”
I have come to believe that Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his family and injured himself as part of a coverup; I’ve concluded this both because I have researched the case extensively, and because, as a writer, I see exactly how Errol Morris prejudiced his account while shrewdly appearing not to do so. I admire his skill but not his book. I think the media have been careless and gullible in reviewing it, perhaps partially because the story of a grievous, enduring miscarriage of justice presents a more compelling narrative than the alternative.
I think “Fatal Vision” is among the best true-crime books ever written, but I think Joe McGinniss unattractively betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald to keep the doctor talking. Still, I do not think McGinniss deserved the national scorn he endured. The partnership between the journalist and the murderer was an exercise in ferocious, mutual exploitation, for enormous stakes, and MacDonald’s lie — that he was innocent — was a far greater deception. And, anyway, in such a freighted transaction no meaningful measure of morality attaches.
I’d never met Brian Murtagh before starting on this article, but he and my lawyer-wife worked together for years at the Justice Department. She would tell me about her friend who, 30 years after the case that would consume his life for better or worse, could not stop talking about ice picks, bloodstains, holes in pajamas, and beautiful, dead children.
Okay, I think we’re at arm’s length now. We’re good to go.
Helena Stoeckley was a mess. In 1970, the Fayetteville, N.C., townie was 19, a bloated, blowsy drug addict who ran with a shabby crowd and whose daily consumption of narcotics, booze and hallucinogens — by her own accounting — bordered on the suicidal. Well over half of Errol Morris’s book argues from one angle or another that Stoeckley was probably in the MacDonald apartment that night — that she was the intruder described by MacDonald as a woman in a floppy hat who was chanting and holding a candle. To believe MacDonald innocent by the central thesis of the book, you must believe Stoeckley guilty. It’s certainly tempting. She confessed early and often.
In the days after the murders, Stoeckley told friends that she might have been present at the crime. She’d been out with others that night, she said, and though she was so smashed on LSD and mescaline and had no clear memory of where she had been, the details of the crime, and MacDonald’s story of hippie intruders, sounded familiar to her. She remembered maybe holding a candle dripping blood. She had vivid dreams of the crime scene. A polygraph examiner reported that “in her mind” she’d been there.
But when Helena Stoeckley was located, detained and seated on the witness stand at the 1979 trial, she flatly denied any knowledge of the crime. It was a disaster for the defense.
In the years afterward, as interest in the case continued and she’d attained a degree of perverse local fame, Stoeckley decided she’d definitely been in the house. To private detectives hired by the defense, she even named accomplices. She supplied motives.