Fatal Vision controversy

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"Fatal Vision" redirects here. For other uses, see Fatal Vision (disambiguation).
Fatal Vision
Fatal Vision book.PNG
First US edition cover
Author Joe McGinniss
Language English
Genre True crime, Biography
Publisher Signet Books
Publication date
August 1983
Media type Print (hardcover & paperback)
ISBN 978-5550488560
Followed by Blind Faith (1989)

The controversy over Fatal Vision, journalist and author Joe McGinniss's best-selling 1983 true crime book, is a decades-long dispute involving as well several other published works.

In the early morning hours of February 17, 1970, at their home on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Green Beret Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, M.D., was injured, and his pregnant wife and two young daughters were murdered. MacDonald told Army investigators that they had been attacked by multiple assailants; the details were reminiscent of the sensational Tate-LaBianca murders of the preceding year. After several months of investigation, Army lawyers charged MacDonald himself with the three murders, leading to a three-months-plus adversarial hearing that recommended he not be prosecuted. In 1971, his father-in-law became progressively suspicious of MacDonald and sought formal reopening of the case; in July 1974, a Federal judge acted on a citizen's criminal complaint by him and others, by putting the case before a grand jury. MacDonald was indicted for all three murders in January 1975, and after two rounds of appeals to Appeal and Supreme Courts, went to trial on July 16, 1979.

Between the Supreme Court's denial of review and the trial date, McDonald arranged with McGinniss to interview him, attend the trial, and write a book about the case.

After a six-week criminal trial, MacDonald was convicted of second-degree murder of his wife and two daughters on August 29, 1979 and was immediately sentenced to three consecutive life terms (equivalent to life imprisonment). Afterwords, MacDonald has raised further appeals, one of which set him free on bail for about 15 months before yet another reversal by the Supreme Court in March 1982.

In the spring of 1983, McGinniss published Fatal Vision, saying that he had become convinced of MacDonald's guilt early in his research due to MacDonald's behavior and the court evidence, and presenting detailed arguments for guilt. The book sold well, and gave rise the next year to an NBC miniseries under the same name.

Fatal Vision[edit]

In June 1979, MacDonald had hired McGinniss to write a book about MacDonald's innocence. But McGinniss later became convinced that MacDonald really was guilty of murdering his family. McGinniss suggested that MacDonald killed his family in a drug-induced rage. Around the time of the murders Fort Bragg had been experiencing problems and crime associated with drug-addicted soldiers returning from Vietnam.[1] Later on MacDonald accused the author of breaching an agreement to write a book about his innocence. The jury deadlocked and the case was settled out of court for $325,000.

In 1990, The New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm published an article, "The Journalist and the Murderer", with the thesis that journalism inevitably conflicts with morality as it is usually conceived; she considered Fatal Vision as the specific case leading her to this conclusion, and said that McGinniss committed a "morally indefensible" act in pretending that he believed MacDonald was innocent, even after he became convinced of his guilt.[2]

In 1995, Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost published Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders, attacking the murder jury's conclusions.

In 2012, McGinniss published Final Vision: The Last Word on Jeffrey MacDonald, rebutting MacDonald's case in his multiple post-1983 appeals.[3]


MacDonald expected that the book would show his innocence; however, like other authors MacDonald had contacted, McGinniss insisted on a signed release from MacDonald, allowing him to write freely, and the final version was precisely the opposite of what MacDonald had expected. Fatal Vision, told in a narrative format that interpolates case events with transcripts of recordings MacDonald sent McGinniss, becomes an investigation and the investigation steadily builds a case against MacDonald. As a motive, McGinniss suggests that MacDonald killed his family in a spur-of-the-moment, fit of psychotic rage as a result of taking amphetamines.

The Fatal Vision case, as it has come to be known, has a long legal history, not all of which was covered by the book and movie. Originally, MacDonald's lawyer, Bernie Segal, was able to get the charges dismissed after a preliminary investigation, or Article 32 hearing. This meant that "jeopardy" never attached, i.e., there was no criminal trial, which would have triggered his constitutional guarantee against double jeopardy. MacDonald's father-in-law, Freddie Kassab, began investigating the case himself, mainly by obtaining transcripts of the Article 32 investigation hearing. He persuaded a government lawyer, Victor Worheide, to reopen the case, and Worheide obtained a federal indictment from a grand jury. Because this occurred on Fort Bragg, a military reservation under federal jurisdiction, his crime was prosecuted in federal court under the Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. section 13. A federal court of appeal then decided that MacDonald's speedy trial rights had been violated. In United States v MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1 (1982), the Supreme Court said his speedy trial rights had not been violated and he went to trial in Federal Court in North Carolina.

One of the notable things about this case is that all four members of the MacDonald household had different blood types, which allowed blood spatter experts to determine the source of each drop of blood at the crime scene. All of the blood found at the crime scene matched these four types.

The case went back up to the Supreme Court for another decision in 1985, when the jury verdict was affirmed.

In 2014, a federal court ruled that new evidence offered by MacDonald failed to support a conclusion that no reasonable fact finder would have found him guilty of the murders.[4]


  1. ^ "Jeffrey MacDonald Biography". The Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved Oct 13, 2014. 
  2. ^ Falcon, Gabriel (September 30, 2012). "After 35 years, 'Fatal Vision' author, killer meet again". Cable News Network. Retrieved Oct 13, 2014. 
  3. ^ "Joe McGinniss counters Errol Morris' 'Fatal Vision' claims: 'No doubt' that Jeffrey MacDonald has blood on his hands" Daily News Online Book Blog, December 14, 2012.
  4. ^ 2014 US District Court Decision

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