Former Green Beret surgeon and convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald is a unique figure as well as an enduring one in the annals of criminal justice — it’s the longest-running criminal case in U.S. history. Is he an innocent man? Or is he guilty of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and their two children? There are reams of evidence to support both sides.
In dramatic fashion, there have been decades of storytelling: talk shows, magazines like Playboy and Vanity Fair, even Hollywood have taken several stabs at prying the truth out of what actually happened Feb. 17, 1970. From 1984 to a show currently in the works, there have been made-for-TV movies, miniseries, true crime investigations.
Janet Malcolm got into the fray in 1990 when she wrote The Journalist and the Murderer. Her book tackles the ethical quagmire that best-selling journalist Joe McGinniss got into after publishing Fatal Vision in 1983. The book came about after McGinniss and MacDonald struck a deal. MacDonald allowed McGinniss extraordinary access to the defense team during his murder trial as well as making available his friends, family, personal correspondence and even his condominium.
How many journalists, Malcolm asks:
“…live with a subject for six weeks, accompany him daily to a murder trial, form a business partnership with him, and write him in prison for three years?”
The book was supposed to portray MacDonald as an honest, decent man and characterize him as innocent. The men would even share in the book’s proceeds. There was only one problem: McGinniss, after studying the evidence, decided MacDonald was guilty.
“—he [McGinniss] successfully hid the fact that in the book under preparation he was portraying MacDonald as a psychopathic killer.”
When Fatal Vision came out MacDonald felt betrayed and sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. In August 1987, the jury deadlocked. The case was settled with MacDonald receiving $325,000.
All these years later, the ethics in reporting that Malcolm raises are every bit as relevant, if not more so, given the current distrust the American public has of journalists. What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Malcolm is well-known for identifying this balance:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Malcolm, who toiled cross-country, interviewing both sides of the case as well as visiting MacDonald in prison, examines how it could be that five of the six jurors sided with a convicted murderer over a respected journalist.
The most damaging evidence against McGinniss came when the jury was exposed to the letter he’d written to MacDonald after he was found guilty:
“What the f____ were those people thinking of? How could 12 people not only agree to believe such a horrendous proposition, but agree, with a man’s life at stake, that they believed it beyond a reasonable doubt?”
The jurors believed that the unique journalist-subject relationship entitled MacDonald to honesty, at the very least.
McGinniss’ obvious deceptive nature raises the central question in Malcolm’s book. Does a man who killed his family deserve honesty?
McGinnis’ assessment of MacDonald as a psychopath was supported by the testimony of psychiatrist Michael Stone:
“…a person who has a propensity to murder is beyond the pale of psychotherapy. It is folly to think that a person like that could be corrected through the process of one-on-one therapy. He is a lost soul.”
However, honesty was more important, even if the jury believed Stone. All the same, decades of research refute Stone’s finding that people who murder are beyond the pale.
In San Quentin it’s been demonstrated repeatedly that a criminal’s “insight” into past behavior and the trauma that it caused can forever change that person’s thinking and future behavior. Stone’s assessment fails to consider the impact of victim/offender dialogue or restorative justice principles and how offenders who participate in these types of programs are capable of transforming themselves.
Unfortunately, we don’t know if any of these rehabilitation practices apply to MacDonald. As long as he continues to claim innocence, rehabilitation doesn’t apply, if he actually is innocent.