I caught up with Morris during a break in the hearing, and told him that I thought he was wrong: I described an experiment I had done, in which I used two sheets of paper and a dart. I folded the upper sheet on itself, irregularly, like the pajama top, and then stabbed through it, counting carefully so as to make exactly 21 holes in the lower sheet but 48 in the upper.
Then I tried to fold the upper piece of paper in a different way, so that all the holes still lined up. It becomes obvious almost immediately that you just can’t do it. Each change you make radically alters the relationship of one puncture hole to all the others.
Morris listened, nodded.
“That remains on my mind,” he said.
Morris said he’d suspected that might be true and worried about it a little, but then decided it didn’t matter, because even if it seems “nonsensical” that the holes in Jeffrey’s pajama top align with the holes in Colette’s body through mere coincidence, the alternative is equally nonsensical: That Jeffrey MacDonald, while trying to get away with a murder, would be stupid enough to stab his wife through his own garment. Think about that, he urged me.
I promised him I would.
Here’s what I think: I think it is not all that nonsensical to imagine that in the immediate, terrifying aftermath of having made the most unwise decision in his life, MacDonald might have made another.
There are many significant, incriminating facts glossed over in, or completely omitted from, “A Wilderness of Error.” Conversely, much is made of nonsense. An entire chapter is devoted to the supposedly startling fact that Helena Stoeckley reported seeing a broken rocking horse in Kristy’s room. Yes, the horse had been clearly visible in newspaper photos, but no one, Morris argues, had ever publicly disclosed it was broken.
There may be a good reason for that: It doesn’t appear to have been broken. Murtagh and his colleagues demonstrated that effectively in Wilmington, producing a rocking horse of identical design and comparing it with crime-scene photos of the original. There’s only one way to disable that horse, and it’s by disconnecting a spring, and if you do, it lists dramatically to one side; the toy at the crime scene was upright. In Morris’s book, the only confirmation of the claim that the toy was broken was from a close friend of Jeffrey MacDonald’s mother.
Without context or comment, the book quotes a man recalling that a doctor once said the stab to MacDonald’s chest came so infinitesimally close to his heart that even a cardiac surgeon wouldn’t have risked self-inflicting it. Unlikely: McDonald’s stab wound was to the right side of his chest, as photos clearly show, a fist’s breadth away from his heart.
Morris mentions that DNA tests on a hair found under Kristy’s fingernail showed no known source, meaning it could have been from an intruder. This was the second evidentiary claim made in the Wilmington hearing. Murtagh presented affidavits from lab technicians showing it was a naturally shed hair, not the result of violence; also, that it had not been found on Kristy at all, but had resulted from accidental contamination of the lab sample. The defense didn’t effectively refute this.
But there’s another, more important, hair sample that Morris’s book doesn’t spend much time on at all. He draws no inferences from it. It is a broken hair from a male Caucasian, with blood on it, found at the crime scene in Colette MacDonald’s hand. At trial in 1979, experts could not positively identify its source, and defense lawyers made much of this failure, suggesting this was proof of an outside murderer. The imprint of the Real Killer!
This was one of the hairs analyzed many years later at the behest of the defense, under more sophisticated tests, with clearer results.
The hair was Jeffrey MacDonald’s.
Many of the supposed disclosures in “A Wilderness of Error” are not new — the original jury heard them, weighed them against the prosecution’s competing evidence, and sent MacDonald away for life. Several of the trial jurors are still around, but Errol Morris didn’t talk to any of them.
“He got a fair trial,” Fred Thornhill says, “and he got what he deserved.”
Thornhill is 60 now, still a general contractor in Raleigh. At the time of the trial he was 27, and he very much wanted to acquit Jeffrey MacDonald.
“We all did,” he said. The alternative, he said, was to imagine a father capable of such a crime. No one wanted to go there.
“We heard the prosecution’s case, which was pretty credible,” Thornhill remembers, “and then we waited for the defense to blow it out of the water. They never came close. They couldn’t refute the physical evidence.”
Thornhill found Helena Stoeckley not remotely credible — “a lost person, really pitiful” — and says he likely would not have believed her even if she’d said she’d watched the murders.