Errol Morris: The Thinking Man’s Detective

The documentary filmmaker has become America’s most surprising and provocative public intellectual

You probably know Errol Morris as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. Roger Ebert called his first film, Gates of Heaven, one of "the ten greatest films ever made." (Dina Rudick / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)
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From the beginning the case was fraught with cultural implications. Who was guilty: a Green Beret or Manson-like hippies? After being exonerated at an Army hearing, MacDonald was convicted by civilian prosecutors and given a life sentence that he’s still serving, while spending every waking moment proclaiming his innocence.

You’ve probably heard of how two big-name journalists got involved in tormented relationships with MacDonald, then in fractious relationships with each other. First Joe McGinniss (of recent Sarah Palin biography fame), who seemed to intimate to MacDonald that he believed in his innocence but then came out with a book (Fatal Vision) that sought to nail him. MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of trust.

Then the New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm produced a book, The Journalist and the Murderer, which accused McGinniss of treachery and became a huge media-ethics kerfuffle because of Malcolm’s dramatic opening sentence, which still echoes in the dusty classrooms of J-schools throughout America: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

I had thought the case was finally dead.

“It’s not dead!” Morris exclaimed, “He’s got another appeal coming up” (most likely in April).

“On what?” I asked, unable to believe there could possibly be a scintilla of evidence or testimony that hasn’t been combed over in the past 40 years.

“Two pieces of new evidence,” Morris replied. “One involves this federal marshal, James Britt, who was with Stoeckley [Helena Stoeckley, supposedly the woman in a floppy hat and blond wig] and who says that he heard the prosecutors threaten Stoeckley when Stoeckley said that she was going to insist that she had been present in the house that night.” (Stoeckley herself is now dead.)

“The other piece is the DNA evidence of an unsourced hair [untraceable to MacDonald or anyone else in the family] under the fingernail of one of the murdered children.”

Which means...the possible presence of another person at the scene of the crime.

Morris claims he has uncovered more Helena Stoeckley evidence on his own.

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