In 1970, Jeffrey Robert MacDonald, a former Army surgeon, was charged with the brutal murders of his pregnant wife Colette and their two daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2. The crimes, the trial, and MacDonald always claiming that he is innocent of the slayings are the subject of a new FX true-crime docuseries A Wilderness of Error, based on Errol Morris’ bestselling book of the same name.
To coincide with the premiere of the series on Friday, September 25, here’s what you need to know about where MacDonald is now and what the filmmakers seek to show with the docu-series.
MacDonald Remains in Prison
On May 1, 1970, the Army charged MacDonald with the brutal murders of his family. Colette and the two girls were sustained blunt-force injuries from being struck with a piece of lumber and also dozens of stab wounds from a knife and an ice pick. The night of the attack, February 17, 1970, MacDonald called 911 and was found lying next to his wife with cuts, bruises, scratches on his face and chest, a mild concussion, and a single stab wound that partially collapsed his left lung, but his injuries were much less severe than those sustained by his family.
MacDonald claimed four assailants entered their home and attacked him and his family. He said the lone female assailant told him, “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs” and police found the word “PIG” written in blood on the bedroom wall, according to the Associated Press.
The Army investigators did not believe MacDonald’s story about what happened. Rather, they cited evidence (via Vanity Fair) like the fact that the living room (where MacDonald said he was attacked) bore few signs of struggle, a fiber from MacDonald’s pajamas was found underneath Kristen’s fingernail, a bloody footprint matching MacDonald’s was found exiting the bedroom, and a speck of blood matching Kristen’s was found on MacDonald’s glasses, even though in his statement he said he wasn’t wearing them when he went in her room.
The investigators were able to use a statistical genetic anomaly of hte fact that all four family members had different blood types to put together their version of events: that a fight had broken out between MacDonald and his wife and he killed her. During the altercation, they theorized Kimberley interrupted them and was inadvertently wounded (her brain matter was found on the master bedroom doorway). So MacDonald killed her as well and then 2-year-old Kristen to finish it all up. He then inflicted his wounds upon himself and called 911.
MacDonald was eventually found guilty and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. He is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. He is now 77 years old and has appealed his conviction numerous times, always proclaiming his innocence. His most recent appeal was based on three hairs found at the crime scene that were not a match to any of the MacDonald family.
But the 4th District Court of Appeals did not think this new evidence warranted a new trial.
“Simply put, we cannot say that the new evidence … 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,” Judge Robert King wrote in the ruling, according to the Associated Press.
While in prison, MacDonald remarried, to Kathryn Kurichh in 2002. In 2017, she told the Fayette Observer that he has told her, “If I have to die here, I will never admit to something I didn’t do.”
“I know my husband is innocent,” Kathryn added. “He is the most honorable person I have ever known. If I ever had one scintilla of a doubt about Jeff. … I wouldn’t be where I am. He is innocent, and justice has to mean something.”
A Wilderness of Error Author Says The Show Isn’t About Guilt or Innocence
Errol Morris, who wrote the book on which the FX docu-series is based, told the Television Critics Association in a virtual Q&A about the show that it’s not “only about guilt or innocence.”
“I don’t see it ultimately as a story about guilt or innocence. Ultimately, yes, that stands in the background of everything. Did he do it? Did he kill his family? Is he some kind of deranged, lunatic killer? But to me, this story has so many, many, many layers which endlessly fascinate me,” said Morris. “I assume they also fascinate [director] Marc Smerling as well. It’s a very strange case. I hope I’m not saying anything even remotely controversial here. It’s a strange case with very strange characters.
“What makes a murder case great, I suppose, conflicting pieces of evidence, but also conflicting characters, passionate characters who … believe guilt. They believe innocence. And that makes you question. It makes me question the whole nature of how we look at crime, how we consider evidence. To me, that is the deepest and most important message in this story.”
He continued, “This is a story about process, about what happened to Jeffrey MacDonald in all of these intervening years and all of this litigation that has gone on, really, for half a century,” said Morris, adding, “It still fascinates me years and years later — the fact that it is about so many people with so many diverse, conflicting opinions, evidence that almost seems to prove a case but never actually quite does. It’s an extraordinary exercise in ambiguity.”
A Wilderness of Error airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FX.