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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