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Excavating the Tell

A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald by Errol Morris, 2012

Ulysses, it is said, was so full of guile, was such a fox, that not even the goddess of fate could pierce his armor. Perhaps he had really noticed, although here the human understanding is beyond its depths, that the Sirens were silent...   – Kafka

\<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> 16morris<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> ///<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> "A Wilderness of Error" by Errol Morris

At the heart of all forensic science there are questions of epistemology which are often taken for granted. How can things be proven to have happened or not happened? How can memories be verified? What if something that looks like a duck and quacks like a duck was never a duck? All modes of inquiry are both predicated on and forever problematized by the relationship between ourselves and the world, as mediated by organs of perception, evolutionarily specified to very immediate spatiotemporal surroundings. Even in the era of video tape and genotyping, basic unanswered questions of how we know what we know pervade the conversation, and things like language, imagination, and local politics play greater roles in recreating the past for court proceedings than most of us want to think. And when you visit your lawyer the last thing you want to talk about is the semiotics of a photograph of your dead child.

Errol Morris’s optimistic, upbuilding discourse Believing Is Seeing demonstrated how questions about the past can be investigated and, sometimes, answered with logos, using photographs as descriptors of events. The book is, if nothing else, an application of Begriffsschrift for overriding visual ambiguities, constructing a history of consequences, and tracing references backwards either to answers or to breaks in the speech chain. (And it’s endlessly more readable than my overwrought description of it.) In the sobering, frustrating impasse of its sequel, A Wilderness of Error, in which Morris tests the limits of knowledge not by counting cannonballs on a road in the Crimea, but by performing a kind of archaeology of legal data, we learn there are complex and unpredictable limits to the practice of forensic epistemology, as well as sometimes dire ramifications of these limits for justice. Morris doesn’t upend all his hard work for nothing, and in fact Wilderness doesn’t supplant Believing; I think it concludes it by digging into a real-life crime and de-historicizing the narratives around it—a subject containable only in a full length book.

Most everyone—including Errol Morris—has an opinion on who did what at 544 Castle Drive on February 17, 1970. In fact, it is difficult to recollect such a polarized set of opinions regarding an event that otherwise had so little impact on the world at large: an army captain, Green Beret and surgeon, Jeffrey Mac Donald is charged with the murder of his pregnant wife and two little daughters, and serving three life terms for it—a conviction against which he has for over forty years claimed to be innocent. The case has given birth to a cottage industry of supermarket paperbacks, period piece memoirs, and collateral literature about journalistic ethics. Morris wrote A Wilderness of Error to test the hypothesis that Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent, or more accurately that he was improperly ruled against in court. This, in many ways, mirrors the earlier and less well known case of William Heirens: amateurish crime scene investigation and subsequent destruction of evidence, others who confessed to the crimes but whose credibility was thought to be poor, a voracious public appetite for a tidy conclusion one way or the other, and a never fully adequate case for prosecution.[1] Cases like MacDonald’s and Heirens’s start fires because if there is a truth to things beyond the framework of language, one which can in turn restructure the language of inquiries into value and truth, we are cut off from them by interpretive dilemmas. What does the pajama top mean, with its pattern of holes and the position in which it was found? Could it mean more than one thing? Can the entire case, then, have many possible solutions?—as was the case with the Charley Ross affair. What happens to truth value when human error becomes part of the proposition? Can questions be conceived for which answers, such as the duplicity of Kafka’s Ulysses, are too complex for the human mind to formulate?

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Using objects as forensic touchstones, Morris weaves the various narratives of the case to form a supra-narrative in a similar way to Rashomon, and though he is far from Kurosawa’s notion of the ultimate subjectivity of events, much of the same soil is kicked up: what constitutes proof of action? How are accounts of the past spun, consciously or unconsciously, by personal exigencies? As Morris allows to be made clear, none of them is without flaws: the very fact MacDonald was left alive and apparently no pharmaceuticals were stolen from his house, not to mention the wholly unbelievable “acid is groovy”; but on the other hand, isn’t it more than a coincidence that a woman fitting the description MacDonald gave police confessed repeatedly to having been at 544 Castle Drive that night?

You, Brian Murtagh, can be sure in your mind that Jeffrey MacDonald killed his family. Maybe in the end you are right but for now you know it only in your heart. The forensic evidence simply does not get you all the way there. You, along with your friends Joe McGinniss and Gene Weingarten, and even myself at times have taken a leap of faith where the sidewalk of evidence ends, into a ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’-scented ether. Errol Morris, on the other hand, is less sure of MacDonald’s innocence than you might think. His position on this is tactical, made in order to set up arguments without the safety net of ambivalence, and to dissect the prosecution’s excesses. In theory, only one living person knows who killed the MacDonald family. But forensic techniques cannot penetrate the human memory for the same reason the goddess of fate cannot comprehend a man who would fill his ears with wax even when the sirens were silent: you are using devices and techniques to study themselves, guile against guile, logic to undermine logic, and incomprehension par incomprehension. Memory is parcel to and property of the imagination, and the circularity of psychiatric diagnostics runs in perpetuity: there’s no way to be pathologically good, is there? And there is no more 544 Castle Drive to do any talking and the answer may not be at the bottom of the tell of legal documents, which Janet Malcolm refused to excavate, after all.

Knowledge of the past can, therefore, reach a Fitch’s Paradox. If the existence of an unknown truth would be patently unknowable, and therefore all truths must be in the realm of the known, the problem, as Morris has said time and again, is essentially one of access. Why would Ulysses lash himself to the mast of his boat if he noticed the sirens were silent? Perhaps, as Kafka suggested, some knowledge, while extant, is beyond the depth of human understanding. The protagonists in A Wilderness of Error—Jeffrey MacDonald and Helena Stoeckley—might both be bearing false witness. Worse, they might have believed every deluded word they said about their whereabouts and actions, respectively, on the night of February 17, 1970, and be wrong regardless of their intentions. Or, maybe the answer to what happened at 544 Castle Drive is not available in the forensic data, and gone from the rational mind of those who were there. Maybe Ulysses’ reasons for lashing himself to the mast were incomprehensible even to himself. And maybe we will never know who did what at 544 Castle Drive on February 17, 1970.


Critics will pick at this case because so many of MacDonald’s defense points have crumbled under scrutiny, and therefore why didn’t Errol Morris write a book more devoted to them. Maybe I’m overstating the case, but the topic of the book I read wasn’t the exoneration of Jeffrey MacDonald on the grounds of his defense, but rather an indictment of the justice system and its relationship to the prosecution on the basis of many, many errors. Semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit. The book’s epistemological stance begins with a simple and legitimate doubt about the veracity of the history of the prosecutorial evidence, whose gaps certain lawyers, judges, and journalists have seen fit to close in their own ways, and beyond which I am not cured of the ambivalence I took into it. This, what you might call, un-success is not the book’s own error. If Morris added a procedural error to the wilderness, perhaps it was in thinking he could repeat the wild success of Thin Blue Line. Had he seen beyond this, but still gotten in line with the rest of the narratives about what happened at 544 Castle Drive on February 17, 1970, the real value of this book—as a meta-narrative about why can’t we know what happened—would have made itself more clear as a failure of knowledge as a test for truth. And its failure as a test would mean its success as an idea.[2]


[1] What doomed Heirens in the end was his “confession” under duress—something Jeffrey MacDonald never did.

[2] A slightly revised paperback edition of A Wilderness of Error is scheduled to be released later this year.


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