Friday, February 8, 2013

A Wilderness of Confusion

Photographer Lois Greenfield writes on her website
I can’t depict the moments before or after the camera’s click, but I invite the viewer’s consideration of that question.
Jean Luc Goddard once said that 
Film is truth at 24 frames a second.
Which makes something of the same point.
This isn't the first time I've quoted those two sentences at the opening of a blog post.  When I did it before, the post focused on a still image and two videos of UC Davis Police Lieutenant James Pike pepper-spraying peaceful students.*  That is, I used comments about photographs and film as a lead-in to a photograph and video.  This time my subject is precisely not visual.  Except it sort of is.

Jeffrey MacDonald, physician and green beret, did or did not murder his wife and children in their home at Fort Bragg in North Carolina that February morning in 1970.  He was sort of charged and kind of vindicated by the military.  He was absolutely charged and convicted in federal court.
He's in prison still. and he still maintains, has maintained for 43 years, that he didn't do it.  Which may or may not be true.

Errol Morris thinks it is true.  Jeffrey MacDonald, he believes, is innocent.  Morris can't prove it, he says, but A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald is his effort to convince.  And convincing it is.  At 24 frames a second.

A Wilderness of ErrorMorris is best known as a filmmaker, a serious documentarian. For our purposes here, his most important film was The Thin Blue Line, about the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood, and about how Randall Dale Adams was convicted and sent to death row for the crime, largely on the testimony of David Harris, who more-or-less confesses at the end of the film that he killed Wood and blamed Adams for it to save his own skin.  Adams was exonerated.  Harris was executed in 2004 for another killing.

He wanted to make a film about the MacDonald case, too.  He couldn't get the financing, though, so he decided to write the book, which he does pretty much as a documentary film maker.  He focuses on objects. He includes line drawings of them, still images, like film close ups.  He gives us brief chapters, scenes really sometimes just quick cuts.  He quotes affidavits and provides transcript excerpts from hearings and from conversations he had with people while investigating the case.

It's thoroughly compelling.  And convincing.  At 24 frames a second.

Think of A Wilderness of Error as the framework, the statement of facts on which hangs a legal argument for an appellate court, better still, think of it as an elaborate (and goes-on-way-too-long) closing argument at trial.  Put yourself on the appellate panel or on the jury. You'd be angry at the way the prosecutors and the investigators fucked up the case and the way the judge's rulings denied MacDonald a fair trial.You'd want to overturn the conviction.  You'd want to vote not guilty.  You'd want to send Jeffrey MacDonald home, even after all these years.

MacDonald's was, of course, a celebrity case from the moment of the killings.  He was a physician with sterling credentials.  And a green beret.  The crimes were, gruesome.  Blood, bludgeons, a horrific scene.  MacDonald himself was injured, stabbed in the chest.  He said there were 4 people: a white blonde with a floppy hat (holding a candle and saying, "Acid is groovy. Kill the Pigs"), two white guys, and a black man.  Oh, and on the headboard of the bed in the master bedroom, where his wife's dead body was found, someone had written "PIG." In blood.

The military police and investigators mucked up the crime scene.  At an Article 32 hearing, to determine whether there was a basis for to court martial MacDonald, the presiding officer, Colonel Rock concluded there were not:
All charges and specifications against Captain Jeffrey R. MacDonald [should] be dismissed because the matters set forth in all charges and specifications are not true.  There are no lesser charges and /or specifications which are appropriate.
Which is about as clear as can be.  MacDonald was factually - not just legally, but factually - innocent.  He didn't do it.  At 24 frames a second.

Until he was charged in federal court in 1979 and sentenced to life in the slammer.

Because . . . well, maybe he did it.
Morris, of course, doesn't think so.  He believes in the blonde with the floppy hat (who turns out to be a woman named Helena Stoeckley who sometimes claimed she was there and sometimes denied it and sometimes remembered stuff and sometimes certainly seemed to believe she was there but who . . . . Well, it's not nice to speak ill of the dead, which she now is, so let's just say that her credibility ain't what you'd really like.
Sadly, though, neither is Morris's.  See, here's the thing.  

The defense isn't the only side to put on a story.  Prosecutors get to have their turn, too.  They get to explain just what's wrong, what Morris fudged, what he in fact wrote that seems to be factually false.  They get to show what happens in the interstices between those 24 frames.
Forget Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision and the ensuing mini-series of it.  Forget how Janet Malcolm savaged McGinniss in The Journalist and the Murderer.   Forget the BBC documentary False Witness.  Instead, look at what Gene Weingarten wrote for the Sunday Washington Post Magazine.
 
It's recent, it's kind of skeptical (and kind of not) and it makes a compelling case for MacDonald's factual guilt.

But see, here's the thing.  Trials aren't about factual guilt or factual innocence.  They're about proof.  The idea is that the evidence will be presented fairly, challenged fairly, and the jurors will sift through it and relying solely on the evidence decide whether the government proved its case.  The hope, of course, is that the jury will reach a factually correct determination.  Sometimes it does.  Sometimes it doesn't.  But it's job isn't to discover truth, it's to evaluate evidence.  There's a relationship between the two, but they're not the same thing.
 
Weingarten writes:
Many of the supposed disclosures in “A Wilderness of Error” are not new — the original jury heard them, weighed them against the prosecution’s competing evidence, and sent MacDonald away for life. Several of the trial jurors are still around, but Errol Morris didn’t talk to any of them. 
As if that's scathing.  Which of course it isn't. Nor is it that when a juror tells Weingarten that MacDonald got a fair trial and that the jury waited fruitlessly for  the defense to "blow [the government's case] out of the water," well, that's just a evaluation of the evidence.  And with all respect, the juror doesn't have a clue whether MacDonald got a fair trial.

And, frankly, today that's the right question.  Oh, sure, maybe in some theoretical realm where facts are absolutely knowable and whatever was done wrong can always be set right it would matter whether MacDonald did or did not murder his wife and children.  But that isn't our world.  And it's too late to fix if the jury was wrong.  Even if we could know.
 
Morris writes:
But what happens when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted - or is left uncollected at the crime scene - simply because it does not support the chosen narrative? It is easy to confuse a search for revealing plot details with a search for evidence. But there is a difference. In one case, we are wandering through a landscape of words.  In the other, we are in the physical world.
Morris wants the physical world, but all he can offer is his own, imperfect, occasionally disingenuous or even dishonest "landscape of words."  Then again, MacDonald's is a legal case not a morality play.  (Many would disagree.  I'm right, they're wrong.)
 
Even if Jeffrey MacDonald is factually innocent, he can't regain those years.  The bad guys (if not he) are pretty much beyond reach of man's justice.  And it doesn't matter.

It's not that innocence doesn't matter.  It's that innocence is beyond what the system can even dream of reaching at this remove.  Here's what it can do.  It can correct error.

Regardless of McGinniss and Weingarten and all the prosecutors and hangers on who are invested in MacDonald the psychopathic monster, the question we can ask, the only one that can be fairly asked today, is whether he got a fair trial.  Not an accurate result, a fair trial.

What Morris makes pretty clear, in his own imperfect way, is that he did not. 

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* The post is here.  It's altogether irrelevant to this post. 

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