Political Animal


October 14, 2012 2:04 PM Weekend blogging: true crime edition

By Kathleen Geier

I am a woman of many strange interests and hobbies; one of these is that I am something of a true crime buff. I am fascinated by famous crimes, and over the years I’ve done a fair amount of reading about true crimes (I own a shelf full of books about the subject). My favorite trash TV watching are cable television shows like Oxygen’s Snapped! (about women, often mild-mannered soccer mom types, who suddenly lose it and commit unspeakable acts of violence) and Investigation Discovery’s Who the Bleep Did I Marry? (about those poor unfortunates who marry spouses who, they later find out, are career con artists, sex offenders, or even murderers — the episode with the woman who for nearly 15 years was happily married to Green River killer was the best!). When I can’t sleep and I’ve reached the end of the internets (i.e., all my usual favorite websites), a favorite past-time of mine is to visit a site like the the True Crime Library, where I delight in reading about some of the most shocking and twisted crimes in human history.

Given this avocation, I was most interested this weekend to see two substantial and provocative op-eds about famous crimes in the New York Times. The first one is author T.J. English’s excellent piece about the tragic life of George Whitmore. Whitmore, who died recently, was at the center of a notorious case known as the Career Girls murders. In 1963, two young women sharing an apartment in New York City were brutally murdered. Whitmore, a 19-year old African-American grade school drop-out from a severely underpriviliged background, was picked up by detectives and, following a 22-hour interrogation, signed a 61-page document in which he confessed not only to the Career Girls murders but to a number of other horrible crimes. He had been railroaded, and though the case against him quickly fell apart, Whitmore ended up spending over two years in prison. It was a decade before his name cleared and he was exonerated on all charges.

Whitmore’s case led to some salutory reforms. New York State got rid of the death penalty, and his case was also cited in the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision, which strengthened the rights of suspects under police interrogation. But although Whitmore himself eventually won a settlement from the state, he was completely traumatized by his ordeal, and his life was ruined. He died last week at the age of 68, in poverty and obscurity.

Contrast the relatively scant attention paid to that case, of a poor black man whose life was all but destroyed by our criminal justice system, to the lavish attention being enjoyed, once again, by the convicted wife-and-child killer Jeffrey MacDonald. MacDonald is the former Army doctor and Green Beret who has been the subject of a number of books, most notably Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer and Joe McGinniss’s classic true crime account, Fatal Vision. MacDonald is making headlines again because the brilliant film-maker, Errol Morris, has written a new book about the case which all but proclaims MacDonald’s innocence. Morris’s book has generally been well-reviewed, and he’s written an op-ed about the case in today’s New York Times.

I’ll get right to the point: I think Morris’s brief for MacDonald is exceedingly weak, and I’m surprised and disappointed that the Times and intelligent book critics like Salon’s Laura Miller are wasting their time on it. It’s been a long time since I read Fatal Vision and I don’t remember every detail, but in that book McGinniss made a strong and compelling case that in February 1970, MacDonald butchered his wife and two young daughters. MacDonald’s Wikipedia entry has a good summary of the case, which I will recap. MacDonald claims that on the night in question, his home was invaded by a group of drug-crazed hippies, including a woman in floppy hat. While the woman lit a candle and chanted “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs!” her three male cohorts attacked MacDonald and his family with a club and an ice pick. MacDonald’s wife and two daughters were killed; MacDonald himself somehow managed to survive the attack with minor wounds.

There were a number of inconsistencies to MacDonald’s story, which made the police suspicious from the start. They came to believe he made up the story about the crazy hippies and that he himself was the killer; the fact that a copy of Esquire magazine which included an article on the Manson murders was in his living room at the time lent support to the cops’ theory. The cops also found a ton of incriminating forensic evidence. In addition to all that, it was discovered that MacDonald had been living a secret life, engaging in extra-marital affairs and abusing amphetamines.

What always stuck in my craw, though (and I am surely not alone in this), was that “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs!” business. I mean, what real people ever talked like that, except for fake hippies on cheesy TV shows? It recalls what has been, to me, Michelle Obama’s most endearing moment thus far: when rumors of the “whitey tape” surfaced, she said, “I mean, ‘whitey’? That’s something that George Jefferson would say.” Moreover, during the entire hippie era, to my knowledge there was only one series of hippie cult killings, and those were the Manson murders. If MacDonald’s story is true, his family’s deaths would be the one and only set of Manson copycat murders that has ever occurred.

MacDonald’s story has always had the same odor of bogusity about it as the whitey tape legend. Still, I have a lot of respect for Morris, and I was curious to see what evidence he has to support his claims of MacDonald’s innocence. Morris deals with those claims in op-ed, and not to put too fine a point on it: he’s got nothin’. No exonerating DNA evidence or anything like that. All he’s got is a dead woman, a mentally ill drug addict named Helen Stoeckley, who confessed to the crime.

It’s profoundly embarrassing that Morris takes the Helen Stoeckley story so seriously. For one thing, McGinniss already did a persuasive job of debunking her claims, years ago in his book. For another, as any true crime fan knows, well-publicized crimes very often attract false confessions. That is, in fact, what happened in the Whitmore case. False confession is a very weird phenomenon that does not seem to make any sense, but it does occur, and drug addicts and the mentally ill — two groups of which Stoeckley was a member — are among the groups most likely to engage in it. Every true crime fan knows that, in unsolved crimes, cops always keep some information about the case private. The reason is so that they can distinguish between the real criminal and the false confessor; the real criminal will always know details about the case that were never disclosed to the public.

I was discussing this case with a friend of mine who is a recovering drug addict. He said he thinks Errol Morris needs to get around a little more. My friend has spent a lot of time hanging out with people who habitually abuse drugs, and he says that, in those circles, you hear some extremely bizarre things. People who are heavy drug users have had their brains addled and their perceptions altered. A good part of the time, they are not necessarily in touch with reality. They may see, hear, and believe things that do not exist. It’s probably very difficult for a rational, straight-laced dude like Morris to understand this, but maybe he should try expanding his circle of acquaintances.

But utlimately, what doesn’t pass the smell test are the details of Stoeckley’s confession. Check out Morris’s summary of what, according to Stoeckley’s attorney, she actually confessed to:

He recalled that Ms. Stoeckley had eventually confessed that she was at the MacDonald house at the time of the murders. That she belonged to a cult. That Mr. MacDonald had been targeted because he discriminated against drug users in his medical practice, that Mr. MacDonald’s wife was pregnant and that the cult associated newborn babies with the devil.

New York Times — seriously? A hippie druggie cult that associates newborn babies with the devil?! Does that sound remotely plausible to you? This is redolent of the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the 1980s. The Times should be ashamed of itself for wasting newsprint on these lunatic delusions. I mean, seriously, if you buy that story, please email me immediately, because I know a Nigerian banker who would love to get in touch with you.

I think there is a pretty freaking glaringly obvious reason why Errol Morris and other prominent people, such as Janet Malcolm (who previously was agnostic but now appears to believe in MacDonald’s innocence), have been so extraordinarily sympathetic to MacDonald, in spite of the mountains of evidence that suggest his guilt. It’s simple: MacDonald is a white, upper class male — a successful doctor, yet! Because of his race, sex, and class identities, people have a hard time believing he’s a vicious killer. His white male privilege makes people, especially other white people of privilege, predisposed to be sympathetic and to give him the benefit of the doubt.

In addition to his race and class privileges, MacDonald, in classic sociopath fashion, is handsome, charming and well-spoken. Over the years he has conned a lot of people. Morris isn’t the first and he won’t be the last.

How many falsely convicted white doctors are there in our nation’s prison system, after all? I’m willing to bet that their numbers are remarkably few.

On the other side of the coin, George Whitmore’s very different race and class background got him railroaded and pretty much ruined his life. As the famous Innocence Project has demonstrated, there a frightening number of people like Whitmore — poor, nonwhite, friendless — who every year are falsely convicted and are rotting away in our country’s prison system. It would be a wonderful thing if people like Morris started paying a bit more attention to them, and a lot less attention to people like MacDonald, a man of privilege whose case for a retrial is extraordinarily shaky at best.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • TCinLA on October 14, 2012 5:03 PM:

    I once had some business dealings with the guy. Your criticism of him is exactly right.

  • TCinLA on October 14, 2012 5:05 PM:

    Forgot to ask: is this true crime addiction a "female thing"? I ask because CinCHOME, normally a mild-mannered intellectual lefty lady, also has a "thang" for these true crime shows.

  • Mike in Montgomery on October 14, 2012 5:36 PM:

    I was living in North Carolina at the time the crime occurred, and it took place at base housing at Ft. Bragg. Believe me, it is completely implausible that in 1970 a group of hippies could have been running around Ft. Bragg chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs" without attracting attention from base police, and none of the neigbors reported seeing that either. As you said, this is nuts. The trial revealed that not a single stab wound MacDonald suffered was inconsistent with self-inflicted wounds and not one was near-fatal, which his medical knowledge would have allowed him to calculate. I completely agree with the post and find it dismaying that people are being sucked in by this.

  • coralsea on October 14, 2012 5:39 PM:

    I imagine next he'll turn his talents to trying to convince people that Scott Petersen didn't snuff Lacey. That prick, incidently, is the recipient of tons of love letters from legions of addle-brained female admirers.

    Another quirk of women I've never understood - and would love if someone could explain it to me.

  • Rand Careaga on October 14, 2012 5:49 PM:

    I'm with "Mike in Montgomery" on this. I was a college freshman in California at the time of the murders, and upon reading the "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs" bit, my bullshit detector pinned at the "eleven" mark.

  • pontormo on October 14, 2012 5:52 PM:

    Who cares what you think of the MacDonald case?
    Is this the Washington Monthly or have the weekend editions become
    a dump for high school writers?

  • TomParmenter on October 14, 2012 6:21 PM:

    I had the husband pegged from Day 1 and it was the "Acid is groovy! Kill the pigs!" that sealed it for me. If he'd quoted something like "We are an infinity of transparent silver balls travelling through the womb of the universe," I might have believed him.

  • MaryRC on October 14, 2012 6:46 PM:

    Mike from Motgomery nailed it. Despite all the arguments on MacDonald's side including the Stoeckley confession, his story just doesn't make any sense for the two reasons cited. Aside from the incongruity of a group of Manson-inspired hippies marauding through an Army base without being seen, MacDonald wasn't that badly hurt. He suffered some minor wounds to his chest, supposedly while he was fighting off the same attackers who bludgeoned and stabbed his wife and children over and over.

    One theory that has been posited is that possibly the murders were committed by intruders, but that MacDonald hid instead of confronting them. If this were true, he could never admit it. But it's the only other possible explanation as to how he wasn't seriously injured while supposedly defending his family.

  • c u n d gulag on October 14, 2012 6:56 PM:

    I taught in Greenhaven, NY - a Maximum Security Prison - from 1977 to 1981, until Reagan eliminated the prison education program I was involved with. He turned it over to the states, and at the time, NY couldn't afford that great program.

    I can tell you quite a few horror stories that I heard from the prisoners - none, that I can remember, from white prisoners. Not that all of the stories can be believed, but... I never heard any amazingly abusive and evil ones from the white ones.

    I don't believe that our justice really provides much justice.
    At least if you're not white.

    It always has been, and is now, a 'What can you pay for what?', system.

    And this MacDonald maniac was guilty, and remains guilty.
    I remember reading about this case when I was in JHS (yes, I was a newspaper reading geek!).
    I never thought otherwise. The whole "hippie" sh*t was what it appeared to be - total BS!.

    McGinniss is a fool and a sucker, believing a grifting murdering sociopath.

    I just wish I met him a while ago.
    There's a nice, antique bridge in Brooklyn he might have been interested in purchasing from me.

  • mudwall jackson on October 14, 2012 7:38 PM:

    someone by now should have posted something on the death of arlen specter, even if only to note his passing.

  • RAM on October 14, 2012 7:58 PM:

    Wow, I'd highly recommend that Ms. Geier read "A Wilderness of Error" before she takes Mr. Morris to task. I too was skeptical having remembered the mini-series and "damning" 60 Minutes interview from the early 80's, but Morris pretty methodically takes apart the case that convicted MacDonald. You would know that that "mountain of evidence" against first of all wasn't a mountain, secondly was pretty shoddy and the explanations of how they fit into the prosecutions case sometimes strains credulity and for a big case like this there was no discernible motive. You'd know that Ms. Stoekley did offer information about the crime scene that wasn't available to the public and only investigators were aware of and that there was forensic evidence that still has never been matched to anyone who lived in the house. You'll also understand that MacDonald is a jerk and didn't exactly meet everyone's expectations of the grieving husband but as Morris makes the case we don't put people away for life for being jerks, either. I know its a huge book but a worthy read.

  • Gene O'Grady on October 14, 2012 8:15 PM:

    This post pretty much agrees with my not very well informed take on the case, which was pretty heavily in the news when I was young. Just one objection, which is to calling Manson and his followers "hippies." Manson was much too old to be a hippy, wrong social class, and very much in a long running SoCal cult nut tradition. The women, however, were too young to be hippies. There seems to have grown up a habit of calling sexual abused teenage girls from the early 70's hippies. No more true than that hippies ran around saying "acid is groovy."

  • JoyceH on October 14, 2012 8:38 PM:

    I'm old enough to remember when 'groovy' was spoken non-ironically - if fact, I might have even used it myself - and I have never used it or heard it used as an adjective. It was a one-word exclamation. The only time I ever saw 'groovy' used like this 'acid is groovy' malarkey was on television, where it was uttered by actors scripted by middle-aged guys who didn't know what they were talking about.

  • navaro on October 14, 2012 8:39 PM:

    i read "fatal vision" back when it came out and i clearly remember walking away from it with two thoughts--

    1. jeffrey macdonald did not kill his family and was probably not so much framed as put away by an incredibly lazy prosecution.

    2. joe mcginniss developed such a loathing for macdonald that he slanted his book to make macdoanld look guilty.

    despite #2 i still came away believing #1. i also resolved never to read a book by mcginniss again because i believed then, and still believe now, that anyone with such a poisonous disregard for facts does not deserve my patronage. ms. geier seems to have taken a position that facts don't matter if she doesn't want them to in her disregard for the totality of mr. morris' evidence.

  • Roddy McCorley on October 14, 2012 9:10 PM:

    Interesting piece. And yet, for all its length you never deal with the question of whether or not acid is actually groovy. This is an unconscionable oversight. Is it too much to ask for a little journalism here????

  • Robert Waldmann on October 15, 2012 1:58 AM:

    this hep post is totally groovy maannn. I mean I really dig your cosmically careful gnarly demolition of the op-ed. But how can anyone dig through all the cheesy TV shows, their imitators and the feeble effort at parody to determine how real live authentic hippies talked ? I'm too young to remember and I'm 51.

    Also too is there any meaningful difference between a real authentic hippy and a fake hippy wannabe ? It's not as if one had to actually do anything to be a real hippy.

  • attorney-online.info on October 15, 2012 7:12 AM:

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  • Christine Young on October 15, 2012 7:39 AM:

    Clearly, you have not read Morris's book. You should have taken the time to do so instead of drawing such strident conclusions on the basis of his "brief" op-ed summary. "Acid is groovy" always made me suspicious, too. But it's not evidencef, and having read Morris's book, I am now convinced that Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent. I would suggest you read Wilderness of Error now, but if you have decided MacDonald is guilty, and if you're anything like McGinniss, your mind will be closed to the very upsetting and disturbing facts in Morris's book, which raises mountains of reasonable doubt.

  • T. on October 15, 2012 8:41 AM:

    a fascinating "true crime" story from D.C. - if you have the time (a lot of time!) read the comments to the blog posts....pretty insightful. the case will never (in my opinion) be solved.


  • Gene O'Grady on October 15, 2012 10:09 AM:

    Well, Mr. Waldman, I'm many years your senior and actually knew a few real hippies. Probably a greater difference between them and the teeny bopper fakes of the late sixties and early seventies and too many TV shows than there is between an economist like, say Brad DeLong, and the likes of Gregory Mankiw and Tyler Cowan.

    For the record actual hippies tended to talk like earnest young recent college graduates who had read a few items off the standard reading list and done a little back to the land labor.

  • lgerard on October 15, 2012 11:13 AM:

    If you are interested in the Whitmore case, you might check out Det. William Phillips memoir, "On the Pad" to see how NYC detectives really worked back in the pre-Knapp Commission days

  • LiberalGRIT on October 15, 2012 11:18 AM:

    Here's another vote for Geier to read a Wilderness of Error! It's a really good read, and takes apart the prosecution step by step. One key note is that MacDonald suffered a punctured lung, and the wound was just inches from his heart -- he could easily have died. Maybe he did play dead or otherwise fail to truly fight intruders, but I think it's 50/50 that he's innocent. What Errol Morris' book exposes is that we will probably never know, due to egregious missteps by the Army and then the state justice system.

  • varmintito on October 15, 2012 11:28 AM:

    Having grown up among real life hippies during the 60s and 70s, I can state with absolute certainty that the hippies sneak into an army base, break into a house, butcher the family, and the vanish without a trace scenario is bushwah of the first order.

    1. For starters, there is the ludicrous "acid is groovy, kill the pigs" chant. This is the kind of cringeworthy stuff I everlastingly encountered when somebody was trying to ape/mock hippie lingo. Lacking in versimilitude, to say the least.

    2. Groups of people who are high (let alone tripping) are not especially strategic or stealthy.

    3. A roving band of freaks on acid would stand out rather conspicuously on an army base, then or now.

    4. Although there was an element of the radical left who would have snuck into an army base for illegal purposes, these were generally political true believers who had a specific (generally symbolic and overtly political) purpose for doing so -- e.g., destroying draft records. The Berrigans, etc. fir this mold. These were generally the result of considerable planning and seriousness of purpose. A spur of the moment killing spree, conducted with complete stealth? Again: versimilitude, please.

    I wasn't there to witness what happened. I can't state with certitude that McDonald killed his family. I can state with absolute certitude that his version of what happened is phony and it comes from the back of a pony.

  • liam foote on October 15, 2012 12:28 PM:

    I was drafted in late 1969, a member of a rock/blues band in Chicago & Madison, WI. Given choice of Army or Marines, I chose the USMC and was at MCRD-San Diego when MacDonald slaughtered his family. Other members of my platoon (3015) agreed that "the guy did it, nobody says groovy." True ... except on Madison Ave or on shows like the Mod Squad, etc. Btw, the term "groovy" actually comes from southern black slang describing jazz and blues performances being "in the groove."

    Several notes on the case, if I may:
    1. His in-laws turned against him after seeing the Army hearing transcript and hearing his inconsistencies.
    2. He claims the younger daughter (2) wet the bed while tests showed that the urine was from the elder (5).
    3. He adamantlyl denied this at trial despite the clear evidence. A pubic hair was found under her own covers.
    4. The father-in-law, Freddie Kassab, stated that molestation might have been cause for the violence.
    5. MacDonald refused polygraph tests, other than those arranged by the defense, which were not favorable.
    6. Under hypnosis, though, he relived events, screaming and yelling at the intruders at length.
    7. But a neighbor (also a babysitter) in the BR above said she heard only faint sounds of crying or laughing.
    8. The defense has introduced many new theories and much evidence over the years, but nothing substantial.
    9. I'll read the book mentioned here, but I doubt if he will ever be anything but guilty of this horror.

  • Steve P on October 15, 2012 1:41 PM:

    "Acid is groovy . . ." Yep, epic tell.
    And the police ID sketches probably looked like Pete, Linc and Julie. (Thank God some local West Memphis Three weren't tried and fried for it.)
    I think Errol Morris spent the 60's in an editing room.

    Which, after all, is what he is, and not Vincent Bugliosi. He may be better suited to writing about Crimean War cannonballs, but his agent may have suggested a topic a little less esoteric.

  • Debbie Wilson on October 19, 2012 9:15 AM:

    My sister, Kathy Whorton, was raped and murdered in 1981, and the serial killers, Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole confessed to her murder. In 2003 I decided to look into her murder myself because the two serial killers confessed to hundreds of murders, and I just didn't believe they did it. I went on a long journey to find her real killer which included the help of the famous Vidocq Society. Twenty-seven years later, her real killer was identified through DNA evidence. He was captured only miles from where he abducted her and took her life. Because of evidence that mysteriously disappeared and an autopsy report that was never filed because of the coroner's suspected substance abuse problem, he will never be brought to trial for her murder. The good news is that through some pretty miraculous twists and turns, he is now serving a life sentence because he stole a bottle of cologne. My book, Sweet Scent of Justice, gives all the details of my amazing story.