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Jeffrey Robert MacDonald Trial: 1979 - Murderer Sues Writer

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In 1984 one of the most extraordinary civil actions in American legal history began. The plaintiff, MacDonald, a thrice-convicted murderer, claimed breach of contract and fraud against Joe McGinnis, author of Fatal Vision, the definitive account of the murders. McGinnis had been contacted prior to MacDonald's trial. The intention, as MacDonald saw it, was for McGinnis to write an account that painted him in the most favorable light. The two had signed a contract in which MacDonald agreed to provide material in return for a handsome percentage of the book profits. As is customary, MacDonald signed a release, the third paragraph of which read:

I realize, of course, that you do not propose to libel me. Nevertheless, in order that you may feel free to write the book in any manner that you deem best, I agree that I will not make or assert against you, the publisher, or its licensees or anyone else involved in the production or distribution of the book, any claim or demand whatsoever based on the ground that anything contained in the book defames me.

As an afterthought Bernard Segal added the following, "… provided that the essential integrity of my life story is maintained."

It was this addendum that proved so controversial. No one reading Fatal Vision could have been in any doubt that McGinnis thought Jeffrey MacDonald had slaughtered his wife and children. The book, which later became a TV movie, portrayed MacDonald not as an innocent victim but as a heartless murderer. For this perceived betrayal MacDonald cried foul, claiming that McGinnis had taken advantage of his privileged position, and filed suit.

The action was heard in Los Angeles, California in 1987 before Judge William J. Rea. At the heart of the plaintiff's case was a series of letters that passed between MacDonald and McGinnis, in which the writer, right up to the publication of the book, continued to impress on MacDonald a purported belief in his innocence. Attorney Gary Bostwick, appearing for MacDonald, asked McGinnis: "Did you consider yourself [MacDonald's] … friend at the end of the trial?"

"I considered myself the author," said McGinnis, "I don't know how you would define 'friend'. It was a professional relationship."

Bostwick tightened the noose.

"Would you look at Exhibit 36A [a letter] again.… It says, 'Goddamn it, Jeff, one of the worst things about all this is how suddenly and totally all of your friends—self included—have been deprived of the pleasure of your company.'"

"Well, that was eight years ago," McGinnis replied lamely, "And my recollections were a lot fresher." It only got worse.

You said yesterday,… looking at the letters of the first six to nine months after the trial, that you never intended to deceive him.… After the first six or nine months, did you intend to deceive him?

"Well, there certainly came a time when I was willing to let him continue to believe whatever he wanted to believe, so he wouldn't try to prevent me from finishing my book."

"Is the answer yes?"

"The answer could be interpreted that way, I suppose."

Such candor did not sit well with the six-person jury. And neither did the testimony of noted authors Joseph Wambaugh and William F. Buckley, both of whom stated that McGinnis' only obligation was to the truth as he saw it. Defense attorney Daniel Kornstein steered them through a high-minded rationale of the journalist's craft. Their testimony, given with the best of intentions, provided Bostwick with just the weapons he needed to portray MacDonald as the injured party. He extracted a painful admission from Wambaugh that duplicity and deception were everyday currency for the investigative writer, wholly acceptable so long as the ends justified the means. Bostwick, in his charge to the jury, concluded simply, "We cannot do whatever is necessary. We have to do what is right."

Undistracted by any of the murder evidence, the jury heard only Bostwick's tale of a gullible subject, duped by an unscrupulous writer. Five members of the jury agreed with his reasoning; one did not. On August 21, 1987, a mistrial was declared. Later, the parties agreed to settle for $325,000, the sum originally requested. Interestingly, afterward, each jury member revealed his or her belief that MacDonald had murdered his family. That they were able to divorce personal bias from their deliberations on a purely civil matter speaks highly of the essential integrity and impartiality of the jury system.

In July 1991, Judge Franklin T. Dupree, after hearing arguments that MacDonald should be granted a new murder trial on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, denied the petition.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Garbus, Martin. "McGinnis: A Travesty Of Libel." Publishers Weekly (April 21, 1989): 69.

Malcolm, Janet. The Journalist And The Murderer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

McGinnis, Joe. Fatal Vision. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.

Taylor, John. "Holier Than Thou." New York Times (March 27, 1989): 32-35.

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