A major problem for Jeffrey MacDonald, Thornhill said, was Jeffrey MacDonald:
“He was a very egotistical person, and it absolutely came through. When he took the stand and started that phony crying, we were astonished. It was like bad acting. When we got to the jury room, we weren’t allowed to discuss it, and we didn’t, but we’re looking at each other, and it was like, ‘What just happened out there?’
“You know, there was testimony that a month after [the murders], MacDonald had sex with a nurse. The defense objected, and it was stricken from the testimony, but how do you strike that from your mind?”
That was the thing, Thornhill said. The jurors felt it: There was something fundamentally wrong with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
Here’s a riddle: At the funeral of her sister, a woman meets a man and falls in love with him. But she never asks his name and loses track of him, and when the funeral is over, he is gone. No one can identify him.
Two weeks later, the woman murders her brother. Why?
All essential facts are known to you. Any guess?
The answer: Because she thinks the man might come back for the brother’s funeral.
This is said to be a primitive psychological test to detect sociopathy. A sociopath, who is amoral and makes decisions solely based on his own needs, supposedly would see the answer immediately.
Would Jeffrey MacDonald get it right? Joe McGinniss thinks so. “Fatal Vision” finds ample evidence in MacDonald’s behavior alone.
Not long after the murders, MacDonald called his father-in-law to say he’d tracked down and killed one of the murderers. It was a lie, as he later admitted, to get his father-in-law off his back. He’d wanted to move on, he said, but Colette’s father wanted him to pursue justice.
Examples of MacDonald’s creepiness drench the pages of “Fatal Vision,” but they are almost completely absent from “A Wilderness of Error.”
After initially being cleared by the Army, “Fatal Vision” says, MacDonald lived for years as a civilian doctor in California, where he led an uninhibited life: a yacht, fast cars, many sexual partners. If this was the life he craved, it was one he never would have had as an Army doctor with two children and one on the way, and a wife on whom he was serially cheating and whom he had married because she was pregnant.
The night of violence probably began in a rage, but at some point, by the prosecution’s theory, the killing became methodical. I asked McGinniss why he thought Jeffrey MacDonald was able to do that to his family:
“Because,” he said, “they’d become impediments.”
The doctor, perhaps, wanted a do-over.
Unlike Murtagh, McGinniss has found a way to break free from this case. He has written other books, most notably “The Rogue,” a 2011 tell-all account of the life of Sarah Palin. Palin hated it, and when Morris’s book came out, Palin wrote a glowing online review of it, taking no position on MacDonald’s guilt, but opining that McGinniss is exactly the sort of conscienceless scoundrel to hound an innocent man into prison for life.
So, maybe Joe hasn’t entirely broken free from this case, either.
It’s definitely not out of his mind. He told me something I had not known: Not long after the murders, Jeffrey MacDonald asked police for permission to go back into his house, unaccompanied. It had been sealed as a crime scene. The request was denied.
Why do you think he wanted to do that, I asked.
“They never found the scalpel blade he used on himself,” McGinniss said. “I think he knew where he’d hidden it. Maybe between floorboards. I think he wanted to get rid of it.”
“He hadn’t slept for 24 hours, and he was taking amphetamines to lose weight. It’s a bad combination.”
We are in Murtagh’s living room, surrounded by case files. I’ve asked him to go through the night of the murders, based on the prosecution’s case — blood, fibers, testimony, informed conjecture.
When the doctor went to bed, Murtagh said, Kimberly was there, and she had wet his side of the bed. MacDonald, amped on speed and exhaustion, exploded.
I interrupted. Wasn’t the bed-wetter Kristen, the 2-year-old?
“That’s what MacDonald claimed, but the urine turned out to be consistent with Kimmy’s blood type.”
Why would he lie about that?
Two reasons, Murtagh said. First, it would better fit his story of who was where “when the hippies fanned out across the house. Also, because it would seem less plausible that a fight would break out with his wife over a 2-year-old wetting the bed than a 5-year-old.”
He was thinking that analytically?
“By the end, he was. When he was moving bodies around.
“So, Colette and Jeffrey have a confrontation over the bed-wetting. We know it was an issue between them because Colette had mentioned it in a child psychology class she was taking. He’s whacking Kimberly, and Colette tries to defend her.