Recently I watched A Wilderness of Error, the Marc Smerling documentary inspired by Errol Morris’ book of the same name. It’s about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial, but to get a more complete picture of the case and the convict, you should really read Morris’ book, Joe McGinnis’ book, Janet Malcolm’s book, and of course, the tomes of case material itself—and then decide which one you believe, since collectively they reach no consensus about who committed the murders and why. Sound exhausting? It is. (My favorite analysis, and Morris’, was actually written by Evan Hughes for The Awl, if you want a good summation.)
The MacDonald case is infamous not only for the brutality of the murders of Dr. MacDonald’s wife and two young daughters, but for the abundance of mishaps in the many investigations that followed their deaths. Evidence and witnesses have been contaminated by error and corroded by the passage of time. Yet even among what remains, it seems inevitable that the only person responsible for the horrific murders of Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife and children is Jeffrey MacDonald himself. It’s the simplest and most probable explanation, and the bulk of the circumstantial and forensic evidence—such as it is—appears to support it. The docuseries explores some of the more tenable theories and alibis, but ultimately adheres to Occam’s Razor.
It’s an interesting time to be revisiting the MacDonald case. Watching the docuseries, I kept wondering, why now? MacDonald’s long since exhausted his appeals and refuses to apply for parole, and no new evidence has materialized in the last decade. Morris’ own re-examination of the case is also nearly ten years into the past. Many of the pivotal participants in the trials and investigations are dead, retired, or infirm. With all of the unsolved mysteries in the world, why are some that are so past the point of resolution still drawing us back? Why do we need the truth about Jeffrey MacDonald so badly with all of these terrible things happening around us in the present?
The MacDonald murders happened in 1970, at a confluence point of an interminable war, a deteriorating countercultural movement, and an impending constitutional crisis. With a bit of cursory Googling, you’ll find a similar description of the present day from various prophets, academics, and politicians, pointing to an ongoing epistemological crisis in America that stems back at least fifty years. There’s an overwhelming sense that truth may have collapsed entirely in this era of Fake News and Alternative Facts, but we can’t lay all the blame at just one bloated narcissist’s doorstep. The roots of this thing are deep and tangled; the MacDonald case with its own morass of victims and volunteers is the perfect avatar for the cultural crisis we can’t seem to dig our way out of.
The preponderance of true crime podcasts, docuseries, and TV reboots is a fascinating manifestation of our scramble for firm footing among the shifting sands of subjectivity. There’s an appetite so massive that producers are grasping at anything with crime scene tape around it and selling it in five to ten hour blocks to the highest streaming bidder. It’s a genre whose best work shatters speculation with absolute truth, and our culture, rife as it is with disinformation and conspiratorial thinking, can’t seem to get enough of it.
Errol Morris notes during the Wilderness doc that jury trials are endlessly compelling because they’re perhaps our most formal process for divining truth. And truth, more than ever, is in short supply. He’s right. We are a species that craves a narrative: the investigation and explication of crime reconciles our most animal behavior with our most noble desire for purpose.
The MacDonald case is particularly emblematic of this: the brutality of the murders—a pregnant wife, two young and helpless children—impedes even the most casual observer or most seasoned legal practitioner from remaining objective or emotionally neutral. Their deaths were so gruesome it’s difficult to linger on the question of whether or not a stranger would have committed these crimes, and an abundance of readily impeachable evidence (right down to two disparate sets of photographs from the same unsecured crime scene) allows you to cherry-pick exactly what you need to confidently take the side that suits your own worldview.
In true crime, epistemological murkiness is especially intolerable when it comes to cold cases. Thanks to improvements in DNA testing and the popularity of genealogy databases, nobody can hope to remain anonymous if their third cousin twice removed spits into a 23 and Me tube to determine how Irish they are. Every advance of forensic science makes the desire to exhume ancient history ever more irresistible. Even vintage series like Unsolved Mysteries have returned to streaming services, hoping to leverage robust new communities of armchair detectives and far-flung tipsters that the internet has nurtured since the show was last on the air.
Crime writer Michelle McNamara spent the last few years of her life attempting to tease resolution out of the long unsolved EAR/ONS case, a string of more than sixty violent crimes perpetrated by a nameless and faceless monster she nicknamed the Golden State Killer. Her tireless research churned up plenty of suspects and forged new links between previously siloed jurisdictions, but she never succeeded in confirming that there was a single offender or identifying a viable suspect. DNA sourced after McNamara’s death and independently of her research was ultimately what confirmed the singular identity of an individual who, in different parts of California, had been known as the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Visalia Ransacker. And thanks to DNA, there was nothing left to debate once he was arrested; there was no circumstantial evidence or post-traumatic testimony for attorneys to parse and pick apart because there was no getting around the genetic material he’d left at the scenes of his many crimes.
(MacDonald’s case, by the way, offers this kind of conclusiveness, too. DNA analysis of a hair found in the late Colette MacDonald’s bloodied hand was matched to her husband, among other blood evidence that indicates he alone battered and stabbed his wife and two children to death.)
How remarkable, then, that even though our nation is presently divided over whether or not a separate microscopic phenomenon—COVID-19—is a hoax, the exculpatory certainty of DNA is one scientific premise we still agree on. Perhaps if evidence of COVID-19 infection could be presented to a grand jury as a determination of murder charges, we wouldn’t be so iffy about it. Or maybe I have to consider it from the opposite, scarier direction: what would criminal justice look like in the United States if a politician was craven enough to politicize DNA matching as a pseudoscience?
Earlier this year, a murder took place on the street in front of my building. I was home when it happened, but in its aftermath I think of myself less as a witness to the murder, and more of a witness to the other witnesses. The murder happened in seconds. The aftermath lasted for hours, and ultimately in some ways, a lifetime. The blistering agony of the bystanders was, I’d posit, far more traumatic than seeing a crime scene or a dead body—after all, those are the static elements. The witnesses’ palpable distress was far more explosive and stood out in wrenching relief against the methodical hum of procedure as police and EMT’s executed perfunctory tasks amid people experiencing a specific horror for the first time.
The familiarity of the place I’ve lived for the better part of a decade took on a garish, alien quality after it was girded in caution tape and police lights. I kept my drapes pulled for days to block out an encampment of news crews on the street. True crime, as a genre, often compresses those initial moments into a prologue or an opening montage, but in real life, the flashpoint of a tragedy is actually more of a submersion. What “happens in a second” turns into days which turn into weeks while investigators plod through any number of mundane details, one of which usually identifies the killer. Detective work, as I learned from watching it happen in real time, is not thrilling or uncertain. It is grinding and bureaucratic and it leaves a long wake behind it.
There wasn’t much forensic evidence left at the scene in my neighborhood, but as it turned out, not much was needed. Within a few weeks, the killer’s family turned him in, along with the weapon. And that was that. There was no great victory in knowing who the killer was, no allure in probing his psychology, just a dull misery in realizing how fully senseless his actions were and the ruin they left behind: both the murderer and the victim had young children who are now fatherless.
The appeal of true crime, I think, is that it affords us the comfort of examining the worst elements of our nature from an elegantly curated remove. Violence isn’t foisted upon viewers unexpectedly in their homes, it’s shaped into episodic packages with its most gruesome aspects edited out. There’s no argument about the legitimacy of bad acts because they are presented as inherently bad. Subject and audience live in two symbiotic camps that never need touch each other; the audience is empowered and all-knowing, the subject is a specimen and a story.
America’s true crime craze reflects the psychic conflict of a society that cannot come to terms with truth, but keenly senses its absence. We are surrounded by the consequences of indulging our basest inclinations, but overwhelmed with the desire to evolve toward something better and less ugly than the world we’ve made. Somehow, true crime has woven the disparate threads of bereft spirit and warring intellect together: consuming hours of murder gives us a feeling of control, of solidarity, and of simplification—it narrows global, cultural, philosophical or socioeconomic issues down to singular case files which can be handheld, summarized, and then neatly closed.
It’s a curious comfort food in a world that feels more beyond solving than ever.