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Book Review: A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris

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A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald by Errol Morris is a true-crime non-fiction book about the MacDonald Trial. Jeffrey MacDonald, former Captain in the Green Berets, a medical doctor, Princeton graduate, father and husband was convicted for murdering his family in 1970.

February 17, 1970 – a brutal murder takes place in the early hours of the morning in Fort Bragg, NC. When the police arrive they find a pregnant wife and two young daughters brutally murdered. The man of the house, Jeffery MacDonald is harmed but not dead and accuses drug crazed hippies in the crime.

After trials and tribulations where no evidence were found to specifically point to Mr. MacDonald, he was convicted in 1979. Since then the case has been a topic of books, movies and many blogs.

Errol Morris has a career full of interesting and thought provoking movies including The Thin Blue Line which freed Randall Dale Adams from after being wrongfully convicted for murder and sentenced for life, as well as the academy award winning documentary The Fog of War.

I had a chance to revisit The Fog of War in the past few weeks, knowing I would be reading Mr. Morris’ book, the documentary has very little narration and relies on interviews, but somehow is curiously interesting. In his book, A Wilderness of Error, Mr. Morris employs much of the same style, a lot of interesting documentation and interviews with little narration in between.

The premise is an interesting one, unlike many of the most famous dramatizations of the tragedy (including 60 Minutes segments and the book and 1983 TV movie Fatal Vision), Mr. Morris does not set out to prove or deny Mr. MacDonald’s innocence of guilt, but rather that he has not gotten a fair trial. At the time of this post, Jeffery MacDonald is still in jail and for over 40 years has been filing appeals.

The book will leave the reader leaning towards the belief that MacDonald is innocent, but absolutely sure that, even if he isn’t, he did not get a fair trial. At some point I had to put the book down (only to pick it up a few moments later) because it made me physically ill and disgusted. The amount of fabrications, suppression of evidence and flawed analysis are astounding and very saddening.

Much like others of its kind I read, A Wilderness of Error is scary. The government decided that someone was guilty; together with an overzealous prosecutor and willing judge they did everything they can, including refrain justice and hide evidence, in order to stick someone in jail and damned be the Constitution.

What I absolutely loved about this book is that Mr. Morris does not take prisoners, play favorites or gives leeway to his fellow reporters and authors. He refutes Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer which examines this case, tears apart Stone Philips’ interviews about the case (they were edited to put words in people’s mouths), asserts that Joe McGinniss’s book Fatal Vision is more fiction than fact, and devastates 60 Minutes’ journalistic integrity (for example, a confession that could have cleared MacDonald was left on the cutting room floor).

While the writing is not very elegant and a bit bumpy at times, I found A Wilderness of Error overall to be inspiring and headstrong. While I don’t think this book will sway anyone who believes Mr. MacDonald is guilty, it does bring forth the realization that he did not get a fair trial which everyone deserves.

  • 544 pages
  • Publisher: The Penguin Press HC
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203431

Buy this book in paper or electronic (Kindle) format.

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