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Errol Morris explores 'A Wilderness of Error'

Jeffrey MacDonald at the Federal Correctional Institution in

Jeffrey MacDonald at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, OR. A former Green Beret doctor from Patchogue, he was convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters in 1970. (June 12, 1997) Credit: AP

A WILDERNESS OF ERROR: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, by Errol Morris. Penguin, 524 pp., $29.95.

Errol Morris, whose 1988 documentary, "The Thin Blue Line," helped exonerate a man convicted of killing a police officer in Texas, has found another crime to investigate.

This time it's the 1970 triple murder of Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald's wife, Colette, and their daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, in Fort Bragg, N.C. MacDonald, a U.S. Army doctor and Green Beret from Patchogue, was convicted of the crime in 1979. Now 68, he is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Maryland, where he continues to protest his innocence and fight to overturn his conviction.

In "A Wilderness of Error," Morris revisits the case and critiques the accepted version of events as portrayed in court and in Joe McGinniss' 1983 book, "Fatal Vision." He finds a catalog of leads unpursued, evidence obscured, logic inverted and confidences betrayed.

"We know that Jeffrey MacDonald was railroaded," Morris concludes. Which isn't the same as saying he's not guilty.

There's plenty of reason to hang the crime on MacDonald. Colette, Kimberley and Kristen were stabbed dozens of times, and two of them were clubbed with bone-shattering force. MacDonald escaped with cuts and bruises and a single serious stab wound that punctured his lung -- the kind of incision a surgeon would be able to inflict on himself.

While MacDonald blamed a quartet of drug-crazed hippies, investigators concluded that he concocted a Charles Manson-style massacre to cover up a quarrel with Colette that had triggered a spasm of homicidal rage.

But what Morris learns disturbs him. "What happens when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence?" Morris asks. "When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted -- or is left uncollected at the crime scene -- simply because it does not support the chosen narrative?"

The crime scene was compromised: an ambulance driver stole MacDonald's wallet; fingerprints were lost; objects were moved. A woman who matched MacDonald's vague description of one of his alleged attackers was spotted by police on the way to the crime scene. No one went back to look for her that night.

Because of the shoddy investigation, an Army officer deemed the accusations against MacDonald "not true" and let him go.

That might have been the end of it had MacDonald kept his mouth shut. Instead, he appeared on "The Dick Cavett Show" to ridicule the Army for going after him. Some, including Colette's grieving stepfather, Fred Kassab, found the spectacle unsettling. MacDonald was reinvestigated, indicted, tried and, nine years after the murders, convicted.

Morris lambastes prosecutors for overlooking evidence and finessing lab results. He questions why the judge let the government read a copy of Esquire magazine to the jury. A drug-addled woman who allegedly told people she was present during the killings was, Morris suggests, frightened by prosecutors into changing her story.

"A trial is not a science fair, but rather a magic show," he says. "A show based on appearances and logical fallacies and sleight of hand. It isn't about proof. It is about convincing the jury."

While Morris may not sow reasonable doubt about MacDonald's guilt, he shows how zeal can trump truth when authorities focus on, as one Army lawyer puts it, "the most convenient person to charge."

Nor does Morris hide his contempt for McGinniss, who began as a MacDonald partisan but switched sides before "Fatal Vision" came out. Morris calls him "a craven and sloppy journalist."

Morris isn't the first person to go after McGinniss. Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" examined how he gained MacDonald's trust and suggests he hoodwinked his subject. MacDonald himself sued McGinniss over his portrayal in "Fatal Vision." That case settled after the jury deadlocked on the first of dozens of claims.

The last thing any look at this case should be is an examination of character, and Morris' personal jabs at his subjects diminish an otherwise estimable book. Just as we shouldn't decide MacDonald is a killer simply because he's a manifest jerk, so too should we not discount "Fatal Vision" because McGinniss may have blindsided its protagonist.

Morris is at his best when he looks at the physical proof, and technologies that were unavailable in 1979 can now make more specific determinations of who bled where and whose hair was whose. MacDonald is seeking a re-examination of the evidence, and a hearing began Monday in Wilmington, N.C. It's expected to last up to two weeks.

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