Back in 1988, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris released The Thin Blue Line, a re-investigation of the murder of a Texas police officer that uncovered enough new evidence to reverse the conviction of the initial suspect. The film was acclaimed for Morris’ innovations to the documentary form, including recreations, lack of voiceover, a haunting Philip Glass score, and the whole freeing-a-wrongly-convicted-man thing.
Morris’ fingerprints—if not his “directed by” credit—are all over A Wilderness of Error, the new five-part documentary premiering with three episodes on FX this Friday night. It openly apes Morris’ filmmaking style, and it’s based on Morris’ book of the same name, which re-examined the murder case of Green Beret Army surgeon Jeffrey Macdonald, who was convicted in 1979 of killing his wife and young daughters in their Ft. Bragg quarters in 1970.
The case and subsequent trials were the basis of a bestselling true crime book, Fatal Vision, and a made-for-TV miniseries back in the ‘80s (I remember them both well) and the details remain fascinating. Macdonald told investigators—who found him lying unconscious with minor injuries next to his dead wife after he called 911, and his 5- and 7-year-old daughters lying dead in their own beds—that he had slept on the family couch and awakened to find three men and a woman in a floppy hat in the apartment, chanting “acid is groovy, kill the pigs” before trying in vain to prevent them from murdering his family.
The murders occurred in February 1970, just weeks after the Manson Family was arrested for seven grisly killings they committed in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969; Macdonald’s story suggested these were copycat killings, or maybe even connected to the acid-soaked California hippies all over the newspapers (someone had written PIG in blood on the Macdonalds’ headboard, just like at the Tate residence, and stabbed Colette, Kimberly, and Kristen to death). But when investigators searched the apartment, they found no sign of any intruders or any life-or-death struggle like Macdonald described. As the evidence piled up, none of it supported Macdonald’s story, and all of it pointed to Macdonald himself.
But, Morris argues, that’s not the whole story: there was exculpatory evidence that the prosecution ignored, or even actively suppressed, in order to convict Macdonald, who has been behind bars since 1979.
Whether that evidence is powerful enough to reverse Macdonald’s conviction is left to the viewer, though it failed to secure Macdonald a new trial when it was heard by an appeals judge in 2018.
In any case, director Marc Smerling, who was a producer on HBO’s 2015 Robert Durst documentary The Jinx (you know, the one where he burps when he lies) keeps things compelling throughout, using voluminous archival interview footage and audio of Macdonald, his friends, his in-laws (initially supportive, eventually on a crusade to get him locked up), the prosecutors and defense attorneys, and even the vaporous Woman in the Floppy Hat. This is a bizarre case, even if its commonly accepted theory — that Macdonald and his wife got into a violent argument, he struck her with a piece of lumber and accidentally whacked his older daughter in the head, and apparently finished them both off, as well as the sleeping younger daughter, then staged the crime scene and made up the story aboout the hippies in order to cover his tracks — is the right one.
As many of us discovered with The Jinx, when it comes to a compelling true-crime story, the weirder the better, and this one is weirder than most. In fact, the documentary argues this may have worked against Macdonald’s defense, both in court and in the eyes of the public. The central question Morris asks is “What happens when a narrative takes the place of reality?” It may be a more vital question now than it was 50 years ago.
A Wilderness of Error premieres Friday, September 25 on FX with three episodes; episodes will be available on demand the day after air.