TOPIC: Media Coverage
The following is a chronological timeline of how the media has perceived and presented this case to the general public.
February 1970Upon hearing the details of MacDonald's version of events, newspaper reporters were immediately skeptical of MacDonald's claims. Pat Reese would certainly have placed himself at the front of the skeptic's line. Reese was an investigative reporter for the Fayetteville Observer and he was acquainted with many of the individuals who would later become suspects in the MacDonald murders. One such suspect approached Reese just two days after the murders. Helena Stoeckley told Reese that she had no recollection of her whereabouts on February 17th as a result of her excessive drug use. Reese viewed Stoeckley as an attention-seeking drug addict and his subsequent articles on the case reflected his belief that intruders were not responsible for these horrific murders. The city editor at the Fayetteville Observer was Jim Pharr and he had a great deal of respect for Reese as a journalist. Bill Kirby of the Fayetteville Observer once said, "Before the Washington Post had Woodward and Bernstein, this newspaper had Reese and Pharr, and they gave us credibility and pride for cub reporters to ply their craft." That respect extended to national newspaper reporters as their stories echoed the sentiments of Reese.
Article 32 hearingsNational news outlets and some newspaper reporters began to construct more empathetic stories towards Jeffrey MacDonald after the conclusion of the Article 32 hearings. The mistakes made by the CID seemed to give way to the possibility that maybe MacDonald was telling the truth. Numerous newspaper articles, a television report by Walter Cronkite, and an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show were attempts by the media to give MacDonald the benefit of the doubt.
1972-1979Once Freddy Kassab began a vigorous campaign against MacDonald, the media began to shift back to their original stance on this case. MacDonald's grand jury indictment in 1975 only enhanced the perception that the Article 32 decision merely delayed justice.
1979 trialEvery single newspaper and television reporter who covered the trial felt that the verdict was fair. Descriptions of Bernie Segal's closing arguments, Paul Stombaugh's forensics testimony, and MacDonald's demeanor during cross-examination were consistent and damning.
1983Fayetteville reporters Pat Reese and Steve Huettel interviewed several people whom the MacDonald defense team claimed were involved in the MacDonald murders. Every single individual who was interviewed denied being involved in the murders and all of them pointed out that Helena Stoeckley was the lone source of this claim.
1984-1987Fatal Vision was published in 1984, MacDonald's attempt at freedom was turned down by Judge Dupree in 1985, and MacDonald sued Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss in 1987. The MacDonald vs. McGinniss civil trial revolved around the argument that McGinniss' book was replete with falsehoods. McGinniss' book was one of the most successful true crime books ever written, and a subsequent movie based on the book was also the most watched television movie of 1985. The civil trial resulted in McGinniss settling for $300,000, with a portion of that award going to Mildred Kassab. In the end, MacDonald never really proved that McGinniss lied in his book, whereas new information was brought forth during the civil trial that pointed towards MacDonald's guilt. For example, polygraph expert Cleve Backster was able to testify for the first time in 17 years that MacDonald had flunked his polygraph exam.
1992-2001Several events occurred during this time frame that resulted in a renewed interest in this case. The events included appellate hearings in 1992 and 1998, hearings before Judge Fox in 1997 and 1999, and the publication of the book Fatal Justice. Several newspaper reporters culled information from the court proceedings and the book. This resulted in several articles advocating for MacDonald's innocence. Wall Street Journal reporter Laurie Cohen was the most prolific author of pro-MacDonald articles in the late 1990's. Documentaries produced by A&E and Court TV during this time frame, however, leaned more towards MacDonald's guilt.
2005-2011The media has not been kind to MacDonald in the past few years. This is due to his failed attempt at parole in 2005 and the results of DNA tests in 2006. Neither scenario cast MacDonald in a positive light. In terms of his parole hearing, MacDonald attempted to gain parole by not expressing any remorse for his crimes. Instead, he argued that he was a model prisoner and that he was "factually innocent." In terms of DNA test results, MacDonald had argued that specific unsourced hairs found at the crime scene were the hairs of Helena Stoeckley and Greg Mitchell. The DNA test results confirmed that not one of the 29 DNA exhibits matched the DNA profiles of Helena Stoeckley and/or Greg Mitchell. In addition, a limb hair, found clutched in Colette MacDonald's left hand, matched Jeffrey MacDonald's DNA profile. MacDonald's last public interview was on the Larry King Live show in 2003. Since that interview, MacDonald's second wife has made numerous public appearances on television and given several interviews to newspaper reporters. Kathryn MacDonald's last public appearance was on the Larry King Live show on the same day that the DNA test results were announced.
2012-2016In 2012, an evidentiary hearing on the "evidence as a whole" was conducted in North Carolina and in the first few days of the hearing, this case garnered an impressive amount of media coverage. A majority of the television and print coverage was a mixture of ignorance and hyperbole. This included erroneous claims involving "new" DNA evidence and Judge Fox potentially deciding to release MacDonald immediately after the hearing was completed.
The media was also influenced by a book and subsequent interviews on the case by noted filmmaker Errol Morris. Despite assertions to the contrary, Morris firmly believed in MacDonald's innocence since 1992. Eight months prior to the evidentiary hearing, I spoke with Morris over the phone for about 90 minutes. I challenged him on his claim that the book was not an advocacy piece, but an even-handed analysis of this case. Morris continued to insist that the book's focus was on the reasons why the case continued to capture the public's imagination.
All of Morris' subsequent interviews demonstrated that he lied to me about his intentions. The truth of the matter was that Morris' belief in MacDonald's innocence had never waned, the book was an advocacy piece, and that he purposely released the book shortly before the evidentiary hearing in the hope that the book would somehow effect the outcome of the hearing. Bob Stevenson did his best to set the record straight, but for the most part, the media ignored his plea to stick to the documented record in this case.
Fortunately, the worm turned when the government began to present their case. They pointed out that Jimmy Britt presented 27 falsehoods in his 5 affidavits, that the DNA evidence further strengthened their case, and that the defense relied on 2nd and 3rd hand hearsay testimony to combat the mountain of physical evidence linking MacDonald to this crime. Brian Murtagh also provided a thorough presentation of the 1979 trial evidence.
Once the government focused on facts rather than speculation, the media began to filter out of North Carolina. After his testimony, Joe McGinniss commented to a reporter that he was surprised at the dearth of news vehicles on the streets. McGinniss even took shots at Morris' book, calling it a "piece of shit." In the days after the hearing, the media covered their bases by stating that a timeline for a decision by Judge Fox could be anywhere from a month to a year.
Ultimately, Judge Fox took almost two years to make a decision, but his decision covered the case from stem to stern. He decided that all of MacDonald's evidentiary arguments lacked merit and that no reasonable fact finder would have concluded that MacDonald was innocent of this heinous crime. Judge Fox also denied MacDonald's motion for additional DNA testing and in 2016, the 4th Circuit Court concurred, stating that there was "no reversible error."
2017-2018The defense appealed Judge Fox's 2014 ruling and oral arguments were presented to the 4th Circuit Court on 1/26/17. The 4th Circuit took almost 2 years to rule (e.g., 12/21/18) on whether Judge Fox erred in finding that MacDonald did not establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty of the offense.
By a vote of 3-0, the 4th Circuit concluded that,
Our comprehensive review of the trial and postconviction evidence convinces us that MacDonald has not met the rigorous requirements of § 2255(h)(1). As we cautioned in our 2011 decision, § 2255(h)(1) was "designed to ensure that [it] could be satisfied only in the rare and extraordinary case." See MacDonald, 641 F.3d at 614-15 (internal quotation marks omitted). Though we have given MacDonald the opportunity to do so, he has not demonstrated that his is one of the rare and extraordinary cases justifying pursuit of a claim premised on newly discovered evidence by way of a successive § 2255 motion. Simply put, we cannot say that the new evidence underlying MacDonald's Britt and DNA claims, considered with all the other evidence, would be sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty of the murders of his wife and daughters.
Outside of North Carolina, media coverage of this ruling was scant. Since there was no hook to draw in readers or viewers, the media responded with a collective yawn to the 4th Circuit's thorough presentation of the facts in this case. Joe McGinniss stated that his book Fatal Vision would have been far more successful if he had constructed a "man bites dog" narrative. This type of narrative would have portrayed MacDonald as some sort of tortured innocent, but the truth sometimes outweighs the kind of hyperbole that is all too commonplace in the coverage of high profile murder cases.