Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders, by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost. Norton
SOMETIME during the early morning of Feb. 17, 1970, Colette, Kimberly and
Kristen MacDonald were murdered in their apartment at 544 Castle Dr. at Ft.
Bragg, N.C. Capt. Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a Green Beret physician, Colette's
husband and father of the two children, was barely conscious when the military
police arrived. He immediately told the MPs of his attempts to defend his family
from an attack by a group of drug-crazed hippies, whom he described in some
detail. Severely injured, MacDonald had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and
and required surgery for a collapsed lung.
Despite his harrowing story, Army investigators soon focused on certain
incongruities at the crime scene and concluded that MacDonald had staged the
scene and murdered his own family. Although possessing no motive and only
circumstantial evidence against him, the Army prosecuted its case before a
military tribunal, only to see him exonerated. Many, including Colette's
parents, were not satisfied with the verdict and pressed for a further
investigation against him. On Jan. 24, 1975, MacDonald, by this time a civilian
physician, was indicted on murder charges. In 1979 he was tried, found guilty
and sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison.
A virtual MacDonald industry sprang up in the wake of the three grisly
murders on that rainy February morning, the latest product being "Fatal
Justice," an exhaustive reinvestigation by journalists Jerry Allen Potter and
Fred Bost. Following on the heels of Joe McGinniss' best-selling "Fatal
Vision," which agreed with the verdict, and Janet Malcolm's incendiary "The
Journalist and the Murderer," which pilloried McGinniss for betraying
MacDonald's trust, "Fatal Justice" uses thousands of pages of previously
unavailable documents to chronicle the bizarre course of the 25-year-old
The authors' findings are truly shocking: Potentially exculpatory evidence
was destroyed, overlooked and suppressed by unscrupulous prosecutors;
confessions by two other suspects were ignored; some witnesses were coerced into
lying; others changed their testimony between the two trials; biased judges
ruled consistently against the defense. The investigators, we are told, were
looking only for evidence that connected MacDonald to the crime and
any findings that were not directly related to him, exactly the kinds of
findings that would be crucial in order to prove his innocence. "If only half
the stuff in his files was true," the authors write of information provided to
them by one investigator, "then something incredible has happened."
Even if one quibbles with the authors' partisanship, it is clear that the
various investigations were, at best, bungled and unfailingly incompetent. "It
looked like a paraplegic marching band went through the place before the
evidence was even collected," observed one independent crime-scene analyst. The
apartment was never roped off, fingerprints were destroyed, trash was carted
away, the backyard trampled, furniture rearranged and crucial evidence lost -
includingMacDonald's wallet, which was stolen by an MP. Miranda-phobic judicial
conservatives should be mollified by the fact that even in the face of such
obvious procedural impropriety, MacDonald is still in jail 16 years later.
In addition to one's outrage at the injustice done to MacDonald, the reader
will likely experience a more subtle grievance much closer to home. Less a
finished book than a mass of detailed notes toward one, much of "Fatal Justice"
reads like a trial brief. At its opening Potter declares soberly: "No matter
what we found, whether for or against MacDonald, Fred and I agreed we wouldn't
dramatize anything beyond the documentable facts." Too bad. Only hard-core
MacDonald junkies (of which there may, of course, be many) will want to wade
through this plodding, repetitive, fact-loaded tome. With wooden section titles
like "A Pajama Fiber and Bloody Head Hair" and "Debris From the Bedspread," the
authors seem to have gone out of their way to avoid anything that might resemble
a compelling narrative.
This is not merely a minor esthetic complaint. In the struggle between
competing versions of events, each party's rhetorical skill in presenting its
story is crucial to the outcome. McGinniss' "Fatal Vision" - the obvious
target of Potter and Bost's book - is, if nothing else, a terrific read.
Paradoxically, even though "Fatal Justice" makes a compelling case that
McGinniss' book is intellectually and morally bankrupt (when sued by MacDonald,
McGinniss admitted under oath that even he doesn't really believe his book's
thesis), he nevertheless produced a riveting book, and in so doing effectively
turned popular opinion against MacDonald. By eschewing the responsibilities of
narrative journalism, Potter and Bost may have inadvertently done MacDonald a
fatal injustice. In journalism, as in law, simply being right isn't always
enough; one has to wonder whether "Fatal Justice" will go as far toward
demonstrating MacDonald's innocence as "Fatal Vision" went toward "proving" his
How cruelly the world has changed for Jeffrey MacDonald. A 1991 Supreme Court
decision effectively undercut any further possible appeals, and at this point
his vindication would require nothing less than a legislative act by the new
"tough-on-crime" Congress. Exactly 25 years after the MacDonald murders, the
nation is held in thrall by another grisly homicide in which the suppression of
evidence and various investigative conspiracies have been charged. I wonder what
MacDonald thinks when he sees his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, defending O. J.
Simpson, or his erstwhile friend Joe McGinniss in the spectator's gallery
eagerly scribbling notes for his next best-selling book.
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