Weekend blogging: true crime edition

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

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