Jeffrey MacDonald, Innocence, and the Future of Habeas Corpus

http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/a/a-wilderness-of-error/9781594203435_custom-35aab152915da7383fb778db384107cdfd594cfc-s15.jpgJust last month, the Wilmington, NC, federal district court held a long-awaited and hard-fought-for evidentiary hearing in the case of Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald. In 1979 Dr. MacDonald was convicted of murdering his daughters and pregnant wife, and he has spent the last 33 years in federal prison, never wavering from his claim of innocence. Over the years, an enormous aggregation of previously unavailable (in large measure because it was suppressed) evidence has corroborated MacDonald’s account of the night of the murders: that four drugged-out intruders, three men and one woman, invaded his home, beat him unconscious, and murdered his family.

The vast trove of evidence uncovered post-conviction has emerged mainly through repeated court filings by MacDonald’s lawyers over the years, including the most recent filing of DNA evidence that convinced the notoriously conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to order a lower court to convene an evidentiary hearing to take further evidence and to then consider the full picture, including all of the accumulated evidence. Now, importantly, the evidence is bolstered by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s new book, A Wilderness of Error, which was released on September 4. The book is an impressive feat, cataloguing the decades of lies, cover-ups, false narratives and grave misfortunes and outrages that have characterized the MacDonald saga. It raises serious doubts about the fairness of MacDonald’s trial and leaves little doubt about his innocence. It is well worth a read, as is its accompanying website, which serves as an invaluable repository for the enormous amount of evidence contained within the text.

A Wilderness of Error chronicles not just a human tragedy, but a chilling case that puts front-and-center pivotal questions about the future of the writ of habeas corpus—the ancient procedural device for revisiting otherwise final convictions. Until now, MacDonald’s repeated attempts to have courts look anew at his conviction have come to naught, largely due to procedural factors that favor “finality” over truth and accuracy. In my most recent column for Forbes.com, I argue that this case should force the courts to condemn to history’s scrap heap these Byzantine obstacles to justice that keep the wrongly convicted in prison.

Those of you who know me understand how strongly I feel about this mind-bogglingly outrageous miscarriage of justice. I am thankful that Errol Morris, who has his choice of absolutely any topic on which to do a book or make a documentary movie, has chosen to write on the MacDonald case.

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Unlearning Liberty Now Available on Amazon

The Draconian restrictions on freedom of speech and thought throughout American higher education are an extraordinarily dangerous but under-appreciated development. This is what motivated me to co-author the book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses in 1998 and to co-found the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) in 1999, whose board of directors I chair. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff has now taken on the urgently important task of updating the dismal (although in some ways oddly entertaining, if not hilarious) picture in his new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, now available on Amazon.

In Unlearning Liberty, Lukianoff takes readers through the life of a modern-day college student, from orientation to the end of freshman year. He describes various examples from the past 15 years of horrendous (and yet typical) violations of university students’ free speech rights: a student in Indiana punished for reading a book, a student in Georgia expelled for a pro-environment collage he posted on Facebook, students at Yale banned from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on a T shirt, and students across the country corralled into tiny “free speech zones.” Lukianoff further demonstrates how our universities’ cultures of censorship are bleeding into the larger society and stunting our ability as a nation to engage in rational discussion.

I highly recommend Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate to all those concerned with the future of liberty and open debate in America.   


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"On Liberty" Premieres on NightSide with Dan Rea

On September 27, Wendy Kaminer and I appeared together on WBZ 1030's NightSide with Dan Rea for the inaugural broadcast of our soon-to-be-recurring "On Liberty" segment--a project that has been brewing for many years. During the show we discussed the violent protests in the Muslim world supposedly incited by the "Innocence of Muslims" YouTube video, and then opened up the phone lines for callers. The calls led us to an array of First Amendment issues, from flag burning to students' free speech rights to the infamous "shouting fire in a crowded theater," which has become a kind of slogan for would-be censors in recent years.

It was a gripping conversation, and is well worth a listen. You can find it as a podcast on the CBS Boston/WBZ website.

The next installment of "On Liberty" will be on air during the rapidly-approaching holiday season, and will focus on religion in the public sphere.
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Vote for Death with Dignity

Massachusetts voters face a question of profound importance on the ballot this November. That is, whether to approve the Death with Dignity Act, which would permit physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to patients with incurable disease and less than six months to live. In a recent column for the Boston Herald, co-authored with my research assistant Juliana DeVries, we argue that personal liberty should govern this most personal area of life: one’s own death. If terminally-ill adults want to end their lives and their suffering, the government should allow them the merciful option of doing so. 

The column after the jump...

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Harvard Botches a "Cheating" Scandal

Many of you have heard of the ongoing cheating scandal at Harvard, in which 125 students in a class called “Introduction to Congress” were accused of cheating on a take-home final exam.  Harvard’s administrators have initiated a vast inquiry into the allegations, pledging to adjudicate each student’s case separately before the notorious Administrative Board. However, doubts have been expressed here and there over whether Harvard’s cheating rules, and the professor’s and teaching assistants’ instructions to the students, were sufficiently clear to function as a fair basis for these allegations in all cases.

In our recent piece for Minding the Campus, my research assistant Zachary Bloom and I offer the case of John McCoy, a former Harvard Extension School student falsely accused of cheating on an exam, as an object lesson in why one should be skeptical of these kinds of charges emanating from Harvard, and of the reliability of the Administrative Board to actually come to a fair and rational decision on allegations of cheating. McCoy’s battles with implacable administrators show that Harvard’s disciplinary system is a far cry from the truth-finding apparatus that it claims to be.

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