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Thursday, April 27, 2017

True Crime Writer Joseph McGinniss

     Joe McGuinniss was born in Manhattan, New York on December 9, 1942. Raised by well-to-do parents in New York City and Los Angeles, he graduated in 1964 from Holly Cross University in Worcester, Massachusetts. After failing to get into Columbia University's graduate school of journalism (They must have suspected he had writing talent.), McGinniss became a staff reporter for the Worcester Telegram. 

     Following stints at The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Philadelphia Inquirer, McGuinniss published his first book in 1968. The Selling of the President, a nonfiction account of the marketing of presidential candidate Richard Nixon, became a bestseller and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for six months. That book established the 26-year-old author's reputation as a serious investigative journalist and landed him a job as writer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Harold Examiner.

The Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

     On February 17, 1970, Green Beret Captain and Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald reported a deadly invasion of his home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the scene Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers found MacDonald's wife Colette and his two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, stabbed to death. MacDonald himself had superficial puncture wounds. According to MacDonald, he had struggled with the hippie intruders who had murdered his family.

     Following an internal military review of the case, Captain MacDonald was cleared of wrongdoing. But in January 1975, a federal grand jury indicted him on three counts of first-degree murder. He vigorously maintained his innocence and stuck to his original version of the mass murder.

     At some point after MacDonald's indictment, Joe McGuinniss entered the case as a journalist who intended to write a book exonerating the Green Beret officer. The writer acquired access into the inner circle of the MacDonald defense team by gaining MacDonald's trust as a loyal friend. In reality, the more McGuinniss learned about the case, the more convinced he became of MacDonald's guilt. The true crime writer believed that MacDonald, a sociopath who wanted to be free of  his family, had murdered his wife and daughters in a homicidal frenzy aided by his abuse of diet pills.

     In 1979, when the jury found MacDonald guilty as charged, McGuinniss, to maintain his position within the MacDonald defense team, feigned shock and outrage. But when McGuinniss' book on the case, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983, it was Jeffery MacDonald and his supporters who were shocked and outraged by the author's duplicity.

     Shortly after the publication of Fatal Vision, a book that quickly became a runaway bestseller, Jeffery MacDonald sued the true crime writer for beach of contract.

     When the first of its kind lawsuit went to trial, several well-known true crime authors such as Joseph Wambaugh and Norman Mailer testified on McGuinniss' behalf as expert witnesses. According to Wambaugh and Mailer, McGinniss had done what any serious investigative journalist would do to get to the bottom of a case. In other words, a true crime writer has no duty to be honest with the person he's writing about. At the conclusion of the trial, some jurors bought McGuinniss' defense but others did not. This led to a hung jury.

    The insurance company for the publisher of Fatal Vision, shocked and concerned that some of the jurors had sided with a man who had killed his wife and two children over the guy who had written the book about the mass murder, settled the suit out of court for $325,000. In the court of public opinion, McGuinniss did not come off as a likable person, and ordinary people did not approve of his journalistic trickery.

     In 1989, journalist Janet Malcolm wrote a long piece about the MacDonald-McGuinniss suit in The New Yorker. A year later the article came out as a book called The Journalist and the Murderer. (It's a great read, by the way.) Malcolm's defining of the journalist/subject relationship as inherently exploitive has itself become a source of debate. Regarding the MacDonald/McGuinniss relationship, Malcolm famously wrote: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

     Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bott published a book called Fatal Justice that argues for MacDonald's innocence. According to these authors, McGuinniss's book is full of substantive errors and groundless speculation.

     Regardless of one's take on the MacDonald's guilt or innocence, Fatal Vision is an exceptionally well written account of a fascinating murder case. It also popularized the concept of the sociopathic killer who appears normal on the outside but in reality is a pathologically narcissistic liar without feelings of guilt.

     Joe McGuinniss followed Fatal Vision with two bestselling true crime books. Blind Faith, published in 1989, is about a New Jersey man who hired a hit man to murder his wife. Cruel Doubt, 1991, features teenage murderers inspired by the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

     The method McGuinniss used to research his last book, a biography of Sarah Palin, also stirred controversy. In 2010, he rented a house in Wasilla, Alaska next door to the former vice presidential candidate. Critics called McGuinniss a peeping Tom, and Palin accused him of stalking her and her family. The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin came out in 2011. The book, failing to break new ground about a person the public had lost interest in, did not make the bestseller list.

     On March 10, 2014, Joe McGuinniss died in a Worcester, Massachusetts hospital from prostate cancer. At his death at age 71, he was living in Pelham with his second wife Nancy Doherty. He was survived by three children.

     Fatal Vision is considered by many to be a true crime classic equal to Joseph Wambaugh's Onion Field, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song.

     Jeffery MacDonald remains in prison and continues to maintain his innocence. 

1 comment:

  1. JIM: A few corrections and/or comments on your Joe McGinniss-related blog. McGinniss' original intent was not to exonerate MacDonald, but to immerse himself into MacDonald's inner circle in order to find the truth. Like ALL of the reporters who covered the 1979 trial, McGinniss was swayed by the mass of evidence pointing to MacDonald's guilt.

    The prosecution presented over 1,100 evidentiary exhibits which included blood, fiber, hair, bloody footprints, bloody fabric and non-fabric impressions, and fabric damage evidence. MacDonald's guilt was further cemented when DNA test results sourced a broken, bloody limb hair found clutched in Colette MacDonald's left hand to her husband.

    You also fail to tell readers that the book produced by Fred Bost and Jerry Allen Potter is a complete mess. It is filled with distortions, half-truths, hyperbole, factual errors, and falsehoods. I communicated with Bost in 1999, and with Errol Morris in 2011. Morris constructed an endorsement on the back jacket of Bost's book. Trust me, both men are nothing more than journalistic vultures.

    Jeffrey MacDonald is guilty beyond ALL doubt. He is a liar, a coward, a child killer, and a psychopath. His story of mythical hippie home invaders is ridiculous and the physical evidence doesn't jibe with his fairy tale. The good news is that his abuse of the appellate system will not garner him the freedom he desires.

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