A Wilderness Of Error
- Brian Donaldson
- 8 April 2021
Retreading a notorious murder case which continues to shock through a documentary series with nothing new to add
Documentary-maker Errol Morris has long been obsessed with the slaughter of a family on a US Army base in 1970. A pregnant mother and her two young daughters had been savagely murdered, with their husband/father Jeffrey MacDonald found blooded and bamboozled at the gory scene. Nine years later, this former Green Beret and military surgeon was given three life sentences, despite proclaiming the innocence he maintains to this very day.
The slayings of Colette, Kristen and Kim seemed like an open-and-shut case, but MacDonald retains supporters, including his new wife Kathryn as well as Morris, who is among the interviewees here. But if MacDonald didn't do it, then who did? Throughout, we are told about a gang of four hippies (led by a 'girl in a floppy hat') who entered the home and carried out the atrocity, in similar vein to the Manson murders which took place a few months earlier. A genuine alternative theory or a hare-brained scenario quickly dreamed up by MacDonald in the wake of this bloodbath?
The case's waters are constantly muddied by that floppy-hatted girl, Helena Stoeckley, constantly chopping and changing her story: yes, she thinks she was there that night; yes, she was there but no, she can't identify the three men with her; and actually no, she wasn't there and had nothing to do with it at all. The fact that on her deathbed in 2007, Stoeckley's mother signed an affidavit insisting that her daughter (who herself had died in 1983) had confessed that she was indeed in the MacDonald house that night fails to be especially convincing.
This five-part documentary series looks like an Errol Morris production with its highly stylized reconstruction scenes and the intimate, straight-down-the-camera interviewing methods he achieved with his Interrotron contraption, while the documentary title comes from the book Morris wrote about the case in 2012. But A Wilderness Of Error has, in fact, been made by Marc Smerling, a filmmaker cut exactly from Morris' cloth and who made a name for himself in producing Capturing The Friedmans (originally about birthday party clowns but which stumbled upon a tale of child sex abuse) and co-writing The Jinx (which pretty much nailed its murder suspect, Robert Durst).
But where The Jinx had a taped confession from Durst when, in a private moment, he failed to realise his microphone was still on, and Morris' groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line literally helped save an innocent man from the electric chair, there is nothing even close to the whiff of a smoking gun here. Even Morris himself is not sure that MacDonald has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Ultimately then, what is really the point of all this? At the end of Making A Murderer, many people were demanding Steven Avery's release from prison yesterday. Despite giving the constant impression that some jaw-dropping revelation is just around the corner, A Wilderness Of Error surely does little to make anyone consider that a wronged man is in prison.
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