On Christmas morning in 1991, Errol Morris and his wife took a drive—but the trek wasn’t to take in the idyllic landscape, it was to visit the scene of one of the country’s most shocking murders.
The couple drove to the former home of Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, an army doctor whose wife and two young daughters were savagely killed inside their Fort Bragg home on Feb. 17, 1970. MacDonald, who suffered a puncture wound to his chest, was the only member of the family to survive and soon became the primary focus of investigators.
“Early that morning I suggested to my wife we should just go up and look at the Jeffrey MacDonald crime scene together,” Morris recalls in the new FX docuseries “A Wilderness of Errors.” “What better way to spend Christmas.”
The case intrigued Morris, an American filmmaker and author, because of the lingering questions that remained about the case—even years after MacDonald was convicted in 1979 of murdering his pregnant wife and children.
“I get interested in stuff because I get bothered by stuff and what’s really interesting about the MacDonald murder case is how many, many people have gone back over this,” he said in the docuseries. “It’s a case that resists definitive explanations. Wandering in that wilderness of conflicting evidence and interpretations of mistakes, of errors.”
Morris first took a look at the case in his 2012 book “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald,” which raised new questions about the doctor’s guilt.
The book also served as the inspiration for FX’s five-part docuseries.
But just who is the man that inspired a fresh look at the case?
Honing His Interview Skills With Mass Murderers
Morris has spent his career questioning others whether it was former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the documentary “The Fog of War,” Steve Bannon in the 2019 documentary “American Dharma” or revisiting the crime that sent Randall Dale Adams to prison in 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line.”
But his interest in interviewing began with more sinister subjects: mass murderers.
Morris told the Columbia Journalism Review that he decided to interview some of the country’s most notorious killers including Ed Kemper, Charlie Fraser, Herbie Mullin and Ed Gein, who inspired the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Psycho,” while he was a graduate student at University of California-Berkeley.
Morris had been an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin not far from where Gein grew up in Plainfield, Wisconsin when he became intrigued with serial killers—but he wouldn’t meet any killers face-to-face until he arrived in Berkeley a short time later.
“So, that was the beginning, really, of my obsession with talking to mass murders,” he said in 2017. “I interviewed mass murderers in California, and then I arranged to interview Ed Gein.”
Morris—who once worked as a private detective according to a profile in The New Yorker—told the Columbia Journalism Review that he “got bitten by the interview bug” during the creepy interview sessions after realizing that “people will say the craziest, the bat-shit craziest things” if they are given an opportunity to tell their stories.
“I’ve been privileged over the years to hear things that are quite, I don’t know how to put it…outstanding,” he said.
Releasing An Innocent Man
Morris’ strategy is often to let his subjects talk rather than the typical volleying back and forth of questions and answers.
His focus during his career has been on documentary films that leave a “remaining mystery in each of them” about who the interview subject may really be.
“Partly it’s the historian in me,” he said of his focus on documentary films. “Endlessly fascinated by the past. And if we’re being scrupulously honest with ourselves, murder investigations, crime stories, are a form of history. We’re looking into the past and we’re trying to figure out what really transpired, what really happened. It’s a form of history.”
His first movie in 1978 “Gates of Heaven” focused on two pet cemeteries in California, but it was 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line” that showed the power his work could have on the justice system.
His investigation during the film into the killing of a Texas police office, ultimately led to Adams’ release after it was determined he had been wrongly convicted of the crime.
Adams had been picked up the day before the murder by 16-year-old David Ray Harris after his car broke down and the pair ended up spending the afternoon together, drinking beer and smoking marijuana. Adams said that after they went to a drive-in movie to watch porn he returned to his motel.
But Harris later told police Adams had been with him when he was stopped by two Dallas Police officers on November 28, 1976 and that Adams had been the one to fire at officer Robert Wood, killing him, according to the Northwestern Bluhm Legal Clinic.
Adams was convicted and sentenced to death, but after Morris’ film brought more attention to the case and the flimsy evidence connecting Adams to the crime, the charges against him were eventually dropped and he was released from prison in 1989.
Morris told The New Yorker it was his interview with prosecution witness Emily Miller that helped lead to Adam’s release after she began to talk about why she initially failed to pick Adams out of a line up.
When Morris asked her how she knew she had picked out the wrong person she said, “I know. I know because the policeman I was sitting next to told me I picked out the wrong person, and then pointed out the right person, so I would not make that mistake ever again,” Morris recalled.
Morris has also enjoyed critical acclaim during his decades-long career, winning the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2003 for his McNamara-focused film “The Fog of War” and earning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for “A Brief History of Time,” a film that looks at the life of Stephen Hawking, according to his website.
Morris has also directed more than 1,000 commercials including campaigns for Apple, Miller High Life and Target.
In 2001, he won an Emmy for the PBS commercial “Photobooth.”
MacDonald Family Murders
Errol made his holiday trip to the MacDonald crime scene in 1991, according to the docuseries, but his book about the case wouldn’t come out until decades later in 2012.
He wasn’t the first author to revisit the infamous crime.
In 1983, Joe McGinniss wrote the book “Fatal Vision” after befriending MacDonald and his defense team and then turning the tables on the doctor and former Green Beret by writing that MacDonald had been a psychopath guilty of slaying his family. The bestseller later spawned a popular mini-series of the same name.
Janet Malcolm also published “The Journalist and the Murderer” in 1990 examining McGinniss’ actions as journalist as he tried to gain MacDonald’s confidence.
Morris’ look at the case is distinctive because of the doubt it casts about MacDonald’s guilt—suggesting that two others who allegedly later confessed to the crime could have been two of the hippies that MacDonald told authorities he saw in his home that night.
“He will leave you 85 percent certain that Mr. MacDonald is innocent,” one reviewer wrote in the The New York Times. “He will leave you 100 percent certain he did not get a fair trial.”
Morris leads the viewer through the case again in the new FX docuseries directed by Marc Smerling as he’s interviewed by filmmakers.
“Certainly in this case, the mystery is about what happened in that house. I went into it with the hope that I could crack it, that I could come to some kind of conclusion, but you don’t know whether truth is going to be difficult to find unless you try to find it,” he said.
Morris later acknowledged that although he believes MacDonald could be innocent of the heinous crimes, he also can’t know for sure.
“We have all of these myths about our system, how it works, the importance of a level playing field, fairness, equality before the law. Here you have a tangled mess of people all trying to figure out what’s real and what’s make believe. What really happened versus what we think really happened,” he said.
“A Wilderness of Error” premieres Friday at 8 p.m. ET/PT time on FX and will be available on Hulu on Saturday.
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