It’s no surprise the two men felt a common bond when they first met four years ago. Both are handsome, 40ish, Catholic, bright and articulate, and both had known early success. But for months they haven’t spoken. Why? Because the first man, convicted triple murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, bared his soul to the second man, author Joe McGinniss, in the belief that McGinniss would write a book that would exonerate him. Instead, McGinniss reluctantly concluded that MacDonald is guilty and went on to write a mesmerizing and damning account of MacDonald’s life, Fatal Vision (Putnam, $17.95). Says an embittered MacDonald, now serving three consecutive life terms at the Federal Correctional Institution in Bastrop, Texas, “Now I have a much deeper appreciation of the term ‘rape.’ ” Responds McGinniss, “My portrayal is fair.”
MacDonald’s case has been tangled in controversy ever since the predawn hours of Feb. 17, 1970, when his pregnant wife, Colette, 26, and their two children, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, were stabbed and bludgeoned to death in the family’s apartment on the Fort Bragg, N.C. Army base. MacDonald, who was a Green Beret captain at the time, claimed that a Manson-style band of hippies, chanting “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” had invaded his home and committed the murders. (He himself had mostly superficial wounds.) Army officials were soon convinced that MacDonald was the killer, but charges were eventually dropped, largely because of the favorable psychiatric tests and impression he made. His complex legal history since then includes a 1979 conviction for the murders, 51 weeks in prison before an appellate court ordered him released in 1980, and his return to prison in 1982 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that appellate court’s ruling. During his ordeal, MacDonald had moved to Southern California and become a wealthy, prominent, womanizing doctor who, after his 1975 indictment, became obsessed with his defense. To that end, he thought that a book would help. Several writers he contacted, including Joseph (The Onion Field) Wambaugh, refused.
Enter Joe McGinniss. He had struck it rich at age 26 with The Selling of the President 1968, a behind-the-scenes account of Nixon’s ad campaign. In 1971 McGinniss had been tentatively approached by MacDonald’s lawyers. Nothing further happened until 1979 when McGinniss was in Los Angeles and heard about a police benefit for MacDonald’s legal defense. McGinniss didn’t know the case was still pending and, out of curiosity, decided finally to meet MacDonald. McGinniss found MacDonald “easy to talk to, projecting an aura of warmth.” Most people react to MacDonald in the same way, says McGinniss. “Jeff is a likable guy. It’s easy to be a true believer if you don’t know the facts.” As one defense psychiatrist put it, “If he’s guilty, he deserves an Academy Award.”
McGinniss, intrigued, flew to Raleigh, N.C. for the trial. “Either this guy was guilty of committing the worst crime by his own hands and had covered it up for almost 10 years,” says McGinniss, “or he was a tragic victim of a justice system run amok.”
The pair were inseparable for the six weeks of the trial. MacDonald, believing that a book seemed a good way to get his story out and raise defense funds, began giving his biographer startlingly candid access to his life—almost 50 hours of taped memoirs and, perhaps inadvertently, a heretofore confidential account written soon after the murders that McGinniss found in MacDonald’s Huntington Beach, Calif. condo. Ironically, it was MacDonald’s personal revelations as much as the police evidence that convinced McGinniss of his subject’s guilt.
McGinniss says that he began the trial with an open mind and a presumption of innocence, but “I sure got uneasy as the trial wore on.” He found the evidence—including incriminating pajama fibers, bloodstains and the lack of disarray where MacDonald said there had been a life-and-death struggle—”undeniable.” The main thing missing from the trial proceedings was a reason, which McGinniss thinks he may have found in the notes that MacDonald left in the condo. According to McGinniss, they said that, at the time of the killings, MacDonald had lost 12 to 15 pounds in three to four weeks and had been taking an amphetamine compound, Eskatrol Spansule. MacDonald insists now that he took only small doses, but side effects for Eskatrol, now off the market, included, in severe cases, assaultiveness and psychosis.
In addition, buttressed by psychiatric testimony, McGinniss feels that MacDonald may suffer from pathological narcissism and “boundless repressed rage against the female sex.” “Obviously, it’s a theory, but it’s the only explanation that satisfies the question of why he would have done it,” says McGinniss. “All I’m saying is: Here’s what MacDonald wrote. Here’s what happened. It jumps off the page and screams.” Then why did MacDonald open up? “I think Jeff has a subconscious desire to come out with it and see if he’ll still be accepted,” says McGinniss. “He acted so self-destructively. A book about himself might satisfy his narcissism, but why make the notes on Eskatrol available? Why tell me about a lie-detector test that he denied to the grand jury? Why ask that I talk with a woman whose son he assaulted? Why testify before a grand jury when he could have exercised his constitutional right not to?”
MacDonald, meanwhile, sits in his 7-foot by 12-foot cell in central Texas, still resolutely proclaiming his innocence and wishing he’d never met Joe McGinniss. His share of the book’s profits so far totals $62,900, but that means little to a man who won’t be eligible for parole until at least 1991. “The enormity and sleaziness of [McGinniss’ actions] stagger the imagination,” he says. “I feel like a fool for having let him stay at my condo, pawing through my files. His incredible theories about amphetamine abuse and pathological narcissism are outrageous inserts into a supposedly factual book, flights of fancy. He just wants a best-seller.” Although MacDonald’s last appeal was turned down by the Supreme Court in January, he plans to file for another trial this fall on the grounds of new evidence. “Evidence so conclusive,” promises Ray Shed-lick, a private detective working for MacDonald, “that I suspect Joe McGinniss will end up with egg on his face.” Says McGinniss, “I stand by my book, which is thoroughly documented.”