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Review of Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost’s “Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders”

Newsday, February 12, 1995

Fatal Justice book coverFatal 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 MacDonald case.

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 guilt.

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.