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[00:00:00]

This season, a morally indefensible is presented by it's a companion podcast to our upcoming documentary TV series, A Wilderness of Error, made by me, Marc Smerling of the Emmy Award winning The Jinx. And with the help from a team of really smart folk, one of the best things about a wilderness of error is it's based on a book by one of my heroes, filmmaker and writer Errol Morris. A Wilderness of Error picks up where this podcast leaves off.

[00:00:25]

If you listen and want to know more, you can tune into a wilderness of error after the last episode of this series 8pm September 25th on Fox Network or stream in the next day on effects on Hulu. I'm really excited to have a series on eFax. You've seen their award winning work, American Crime Story, Sons of Anarchy and my personal favorite, Fargo. They're also home to a growing slate of docs and you can watch them anytime you want on effects on Hulu docs like the most dangerous animal of all, and a.k.a. Janiro, which you could stream right now on effects on Hulu.

[00:01:01]

If you want to know what eral found and what I found, tune into a wilderness of error after the last episode of the series. That's 8pm p.m. September 25th on 8pm, September 25th on eFax for the next day on effects on Hulu. Now, morally indefensible. Throughout this episode of Morally Indefensible, you'll hear dramatic recreations of the correspondence between Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald taken from letters and transcripts of tapes.

[00:01:40]

Dear Jeff, every morning for a week now, I've been waking up wondering where you are in Raleigh, North Carolina, today, a jury convicted Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for murdering his wife and two children nine years ago.

[00:01:57]

It is very hard to get used to on all levels, the sight of the jury coming in of you standing, saying those few words being let out, it's a hell of a thing.

[00:02:07]

MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain, was sentenced to three life terms in prison.

[00:02:11]

There cannot be a worse nightmare than the one you're living now, but it is only a phase. Total strangers can see within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial. Jeff, it's all so fucking awful. I can't believe it.

[00:02:28]

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald is in this prison at Terminal Island, California, whispered after his conviction for murder.

[00:02:35]

There is little I do these days which does not cause me to feel, again, some aspect of this shocking and tragic summer. It's a damn good thing I'm writing a book, otherwise I don't know how I would cope with all these reactions.

[00:02:49]

McDonald, a respected and popular physician, still enjoys the support of fans who were shocked at the latest development. Spend a summer making a new friend, and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey, not for long. Morseu, Joe. Jeffrey MacDonald was the best and the brightest, the one thought surahs to succeed. I never physically assaulted anyone in my life and certainly not my wife and my two children. Now, will you welcome the author, Mr.

[00:03:25]

Joe McGinniss?

[00:03:26]

Author Joe McGinniss will be accompanying Jeffrey MacDonald to his murder trial, Treuting Insider's account of the case. He acted as my best friend, not just my friend.

[00:03:36]

My best friend. The whole country was watching this trial. There's no evidence against this jury's going to find me not guilty. He the truth and they said guilty living with him, this amiable human being.

[00:03:53]

Know, I felt terribly conflicted. I'm Marc Smerling, and this is morally indefensible promises, but they were all just lies and. Chapter three pen pals. Several years after Jeffrey MacDonald was sent to prison for the murder of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, Joe McGinniss is sitting on his front porch in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He's talking to Janet Malcolm, who's there to write about the relationship between Joe the journalist, and Jeff, the convicted murderer.

[00:04:34]

This is heating up day and night to think about assisting Vicki. Do it, do it. And I'm still so, you know, so torn up and upset by it.

[00:04:43]

Joe's talking about how he felt coming home from Jeff's murder trial. She's the prosecutor at the trial, said if we can prove he did it, we don't have to prove he's a guy who could have done well for me. You had a different I had sure. A whole different test. That's only the beginning for me. Now I just figure out if he did it, how could he have and who is he? Still my subject. There's still more I need to know.

[00:05:07]

So Joe started writing Jeff Letters, like the ones you heard at the top of the show, filled with encouragement and hope of getting letters situated altogether.

[00:05:16]

I don't know, maybe 30, 40 or so. And Janet was very interested in these letters. Were they the musings of a journalist who'd simply gotten close to a subject or a paper trail leading to an unholy and sinister betrayal context of the OPCW underway a letter again.

[00:05:33]

Exactly. Exactly.

[00:05:37]

The first week home, I think, was just exhaustion and kind of depression, Joe's widow, Nancy Doherty, remembers a very conflicted Joe walking in the door after the trial.

[00:05:47]

It seemed almost inconceivable to him that this guy could have murdered his wife and two kids couldn't imagine it.

[00:05:55]

So there's a first letter that Jeff wrote to Joe in prison. You remember that letter from Mommy, Dear Joe. I'm not trying to be dramatic, but I can tell you that there's no feeling as deep as a feeling of suddenly being locked up in a solitary steel cell alone from the world and being told that you're spending the rest of your natural life there. It's a feeling that must be very close to death. I hope that you understand the depth of my despair and anguish.

[00:06:31]

Keep the writing going on your it. I think that Joe struggled to figure out the best way to respond to to Jeff's dismay at the verdict. He was sorry that Jeff was in prison and that his friend was suffering and he hadn't come to any sort of resolution about that yet. And he knew that he had a long way to go to write the book. So he needed information from Jeff. So he had to just find some middle path to go down.

[00:07:09]

And what do you say?

[00:07:13]

God damn, Jeff, one of the worst things about this is how suddenly and totally all of your friends, self included, have been deprived of the pleasure of your company. What the fuck were those people thinking of? How could 12 people not only agree to believe such a horrendous proposition, but agree with a man's life at stake that they believed it beyond a reasonable doubt?

[00:07:35]

Joe needed to see Jeff, so he planned a trip to the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Southern California. I'll be out by the first week of November. It will be very good to see you again to get this thing underway and to feel that I am doing something useful and constructive about it instead of just fretting about what a shit place prison must be and how absurd it seems to me that you're there. I would like very much for it to be the best book I've ever done.

[00:08:04]

And in order for that to happen, I'll need a period of total immersion in all facets of your past. The prison was a stark collection of concrete buildings perched on a manmade square of landfill in the harbor off Long Beach, California, just a stone's throw from Jeff Souled Life right near the hospital he'd worked at and just a 20 minute drive from his fancy now vacant waterfront condo. So Jeff offered his condo to Joe for the week and Joe was happy to stay there.

[00:08:38]

Each morning, Joe would drive to Terminal Island to meet with Jeff during visiting hours.

[00:08:43]

Would you sign your name on it? But their daily sessions were supervised, limited in time and held in a grim prison visiting room where Joe had nothing but a pen and paper to jot down notes.

[00:08:52]

The only thing I did was I live with I play softball. Akasaka. Those are my three activities outside of my.

[00:08:57]

The environment wasn't conducive to the kind of unfiltered emotional reflection Joe needed from Jeff in order to bring his book to life. Yeah, so they hatched the plan. Jeff would somehow finagle a tape recorder into his cell. Joe would send him questions and Jeff would speak his responses into the tape recorder and then mail Joe the audio cassettes.

[00:09:18]

For Joe, the trip prove useful in another way. Here's Nancy Doherty again. When Joe went to Jeff's condo, he found a lot of evidentiary material relating to his defense that hadn't come up at trial. Nobody knew about it. So that was something that seemed really significant to Joe.

[00:09:38]

This was everything Jeffs lawyers had collected over many years, investigative files, case notes, testimony. It was all there. As Jeff said, Joe could take it anything to help Joe write the book that would prove his innocence.

[00:09:50]

And he just brought back suitcases full of testimony and so on. And then it just began. Then the obsession began and the obsession lasted a long time, going over and over everything, every detail. Dear Jeff, I will be immersed now in the files until further notice.

[00:10:08]

Occasionally ABAB up to the surface long enough to write, call, collect. You get to a phone. You've got incredibly tedious after a while because it was MacDonald 24/7 in our household.

[00:10:20]

Sure would be nice to talk freely without the constraints of the Terminal Island visiting room. I hope your tape recorder request was granted.

[00:10:27]

And then we started getting the recordings and we listened to MacDonald talking to us. Testing, testing, this is Jeff Tejo tape one side one, Joe would write him a letter and say, Tell me about this.

[00:10:43]

Tell me about that every week or so. Geoff Wood chip Joe a tape. And I'd never met McDonald. So it was a revelation to me to hear him because he was so in love with himself.

[00:11:01]

If there is to be a new trial, first of all, we'd make me into this incredible job hero, Dr. Mueller, nice guy, football player type person. And they went on and on and on because Jeff didn't have much to do and he loved to talk about himself.

[00:11:16]

My mother is also extremely bright, another extremely voracious reader, not as fast reader, I don't think, as my father, who was an unbelievably fast reader and. Dear Jeff got the first two tapes yesterday. Listen to them last night, I got it in good beginning.

[00:11:37]

And I'm sure as you grow more relaxed and accustomed to the process, you'll find yourself able to go deeper. Just keep them coming.

[00:11:46]

The more tapes you can manage over the next few weeks, the better.

[00:11:49]

Let yourself wander and remember, you're talking to me and only me and anything you say will be placed in the context of the overall book.

[00:12:01]

So hang as loose as you can. Joe. Tape six side to Jeff, to Joe, the first year, Princeton, I was in absolute love with Colin without any question, the neatest woman I ever met. I look forward to being an orthopedic surgeon. We'd have the farm, we'd have the horses, we'd have a boat with beautiful kids on the way.

[00:12:28]

It wasn't just your tendency in recollecting is to gloss over rough spots to idealize your past because your present is so fucked and your future is so uncertain.

[00:12:42]

Jeff, I would do the same. Let's face it, early marriage is no picnic for anyone. It sure as hell wasn't for me marrying at 21, having a child the next year and then another and another year.

[00:12:56]

I was thinking about my career, telling myself in terms of love and sex that there must be more to it than this.

[00:13:05]

Basically, I would like you to tighten your belt just a notch or two and risk a description of your life with Colette that might be more realistic than ideal.

[00:13:19]

Don't be bashful. I am the only one who hears these tapes, Joe.

[00:13:29]

For Janet Malcolm sitting with Joe on his porch in Williamstown, these letters may be evidence of Joe's unholy and sinister portrayal of Jeff, but Joe explains that it's just not that simple.

[00:13:40]

Those letters are embarrassing. I wish I'd never written those letters because I'm embarrassed at how genuine the feeling in those letters is. You can't suspend all human feeling just because you decide you're going to write about somebody. And Janet seems to understand what my experience is, probably much like yours. Well, this stage of things is going on. You're taking it in saying as open as possible. And here you are with another human being. Right. And only when you start writing it does that kind of work in human.

[00:14:18]

That's right, that's right. Me, I like to take my kids traveling with food, Italian on Sunday, an occasional cocoa that Sequoyah secure. It's a great way to express how much you love someone. But these days, who's got the time? That's why I love hello. Fresh hop on the computer. Pick your meals for the week. The ingredients come right to your doorstep. Cook a restaurant quality meal for less than buying food at a grocery store and much less than eating out.

[00:14:53]

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[00:15:24]

Please visit. Hello, fresh dotcom for more details.

[00:15:33]

Jeff, to Joe, Joe, I'm sure there's part of me that's been hiding the little bad things, you know, the things that could possibly be misinterpreted and maybe the full truth about the relationship. So I'm trying to talk about it now. For months, Joe McGinniss had been writing to Jeffrey MacDonald in prison, trying to get him to open up, then finally one day Joe got this tape.

[00:16:03]

I think if there was a little point to the marriage, there's no question it was the summer after after year. I have to admit, this is the first time I've ever really said this. There was never any deep commitment or attachment to anyone else. I was avoiding my, you know, my family responsibilities.

[00:16:29]

Suddenly, it was like a faucet had been turned on. Tapes really began flowing, filled with the most intimate details of Jeffrey MacDonald's past, his marriage, his sex life, his broken dreams and his anger.

[00:16:41]

And I said, fuck yourself. I don't think he ever used the words. I thought he should have go fuck yourself.

[00:16:47]

But I'm sure I have good tapes, very good tapes. And that is what is known as biting the bullet or cassette and getting down to it. I know it is hard, but I need it. I need it now. And I am very pleased that you've been able to begin. As you can imagine, it is those very portions which are most difficult for you, which turn out to be most valuable for me. As in therapy, the more it hurts, the more good it does.

[00:17:26]

I appreciate you putting up with the pain. As a reward, you will begin to receive courtesy of Delacourt, a check in the mail every month. As long as I continue to produce, they will pay the next two phases of my advance. Remember, Jeff and Joe signed a contract so the book could be written, that contract stipulated that Jeff would receive a share of the profits from Joe's book, including a cut of the publisher's advance. Well, Jeff finally started letting loose in the tapes.

[00:18:00]

Joe said he would start letting loose with Jeff's checks.

[00:18:03]

Dr. McDonnel, you know why we're here. We want to talk to you about today than Jeff. Use that money to pay a new team of lawyers.

[00:18:09]

The Constitution guarantees your right to a speedy trial. And those lawyers had filed an appeal claiming that the government had taken simply too long in bringing Jeffrey MacDonald before a judge.

[00:18:22]

Do you think that was speedy? No, it certainly wasn't. We were pressing all through the early 70s for a resolution of the case.

[00:18:29]

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald insisted that his right to a speedy trial had been violated by repeated investigations and appeals that delayed his trial for nine years.

[00:18:38]

And the former Green Beret may be freed at least until the next decision. So I've just sort of been getting a whole set of positive vibes about the appeal, I think that this is the stage now that they are going to reverse this. This is what the appeal system was designed for, rectify abuses of the system that there's ever been abuse of the system. It's certainly been the last 10 years of my case. Dear Jeff. Well, I don't have to convince you that you ought to be out.

[00:19:07]

But what do your lawyers say, Joe? Jeffrey McDonald called up and Joe wasn't home, so I talked to him on the phone. I answered he was very happy to speak to me and meet me on the phone. And I was very polite. I was holding a crying baby.

[00:19:27]

So I was able to cut the conversation short, but it gave me chills to hear his voice. He'd been released from prison. A federal appeals court today reversed the murder convictions of former Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald in the slayings of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. Father Ryan has traveled the Midwest accused of swindling millions, he's stolen people's money and their faith in a con that's lasted decades. A new podcast called Smokescreen Fake Priest, hosted by me Alex Schulman, explores why he's never been brought to justice.

[00:20:21]

Subscribe to find out what this white collar criminal has to say for himself to listen to this nineham show. Just search for Smokescreen. Fake priest in Apple podcast or wherever you listen. In a two to one opinion, a federal appeals court charged that what it called sheer bureaucratic indifference violated McDonald's right to a speedy trial.

[00:20:43]

In August of 1980, Jeffrey entered society as a victim of America's lethargic justice system. So it took nine years to come to trial.

[00:20:51]

To me, it's inconceivable. I was so distraught I could barely function.

[00:20:55]

Jeff quickly managed to piece his life back together. And when he left here for Barbe level in a CBC in a six seven emergency physician and I practiced medicine at St. Mary's Medical Center, Jeff returned to his old life, his old job and his beachside condo.

[00:21:10]

Meanwhile, Joe was studying Jeff's old life in the evidence from those file boxes he'd taken from that condo, and he was listening to the recordings Jeff had sent him from prison for Joe as he listened to those tapes.

[00:21:23]

I think it gave him more distance from the Jeff that he felt close to. Here's Nancy Doherty again.

[00:21:31]

Jeff was out of prison. Joe did not celebrate with them. Jeff does not confront him. And Joe does not reassure him. Nobody says anything. There were hints that all was not well. There were rumblings, rumblings of Joe having a change of heart.

[00:21:48]

But Jeff was busy rebuilding his life. That is until this happened.

[00:21:52]

The Supreme Court today reinstated the conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret army doctor, for killing his wife and two daughters.

[00:21:59]

Prosecutors have been working around the clock to appeal the speedy trial ruling that set Jeffrey Dafter just 19 months of freedom. The Supreme Court reinstated Jeffs conviction shortly after this decision was handed down.

[00:22:11]

McDonald was taken from his Huntington Beach home to the federal prison in nearby Terminal Island. But the saga of Jeffrey MacDonald probably isn't over just yet.

[00:22:23]

There was still hope if Jeff could prove that he was innocent, Jeff hired a private investigator to look for new evidence that would prove that someone else had murdered his family. Meanwhile, Joe was finishing the book and Jeff was very eager to read it.

[00:22:36]

Joe, has anyone actually seen your work yet besides the ED finalize the various segments of the book? I mean, what the hell is the ending going to be? A new trial was ordered. I'm sad, angry, scared to throw away the key unless I will assume. Yes, a lawyer was totally aghast that I had no artistic control over the book. I hope I'm not naive and I have no reason to be aghast at my lack of artistic control.

[00:23:03]

I figured that can't be all that bad. Dear Jeff, what lawyers know about artistic control is what I know about thoracic surgery, your complete cooperation and your full granting of all artistic rights are all that persuaded me for the first time in my career to embark on a project where someone else received income for work.

[00:23:35]

I did.

[00:23:36]

All you have ever wanted, you have said repeatedly, was for the full and true story to be told, which is what I have attempted to do for almost three years now, which seems like that.

[00:23:48]

Meanwhile, stress levels reach all time high as I sit here absolutely fucking penniless, but with a nearly complete book. My commitment to integrity is absolute.

[00:24:03]

The time for any and all discussion of the book's contents, either public or private, is when the book has been published and is available to readers.

[00:24:14]

Keep in touch.

[00:24:15]

Joe, Joe, I need to see a copy of the book as soon as humanly possible. I can't, for the life of me understand the arrogance ocracy in the that I'm like the general public. It was one thing not to have control over the book I created, and that limited, particularly played games is not right. You should not deny me the right to read a copy of the book. When your revisions are complete, I need to see the book.

[00:24:41]

I would appreciate hearing back from you on this as soon as you can do it.

[00:24:45]

I need to see the book, Geoff, for not the first time, but I hope for the last time you will be sent a copy of the book when there is a copy of the book to send.

[00:24:57]

At no time was there ever any understanding that you would be given an advanced look at the book six months prior to publication. I find it bizarre to even have to discuss this with you, and I hope that will be the end of it. Joe. Joe, I feel I must comment on your apparent exasperation with my questions and feelings about reading the book. I like to point out that our current conditions are remarkably different. Your words are normal, your successful live well and already have a contract for your next book.

[00:25:46]

I'm worried because I'm worried I won't win the case again. I'm worried that I'll never get to be with normal people again. Other than that, I have no other major worries except that the guy who is writing a book and I met him was funny, more and easy to talk to at all. Disappeared and it has never resurfaced. It all seems very strange from here. Certainly in your worst moments, others gave you a little leeway and tired, worn out, still determined to live a life, Jeff.

[00:26:43]

Soon after this letter, a newly excited and energized Jeff left a coded message on Joe's answering machine. TIAA-CREF, however, encoded your telephone message was I got the gist, if all goes according to plan, I assume you will be in court prior to the publication of the book. And the fact that big new things are still happening is just one more reason for my insistence that nobody see this thing in advance. What did Jeff's private investigator find there are pending in the federal court in North Carolina, several motions seeking a new trial.

[00:27:21]

Those motions in great detail prove who did it. And it wasn't Dr. McDonald. That's next time on morally indefensible. If you want to know more about the McDonald murders, tune into our docu series, A Wilderness of Error on Effects and Streaming on effects on Hulu. Morally Indefensible is a production of Truth Media in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment. This episode of Morally Indefensible was produced by Jesse Roy with help from Ryan Swicord, Julia Botero, Zach Hirsch, Kevin Sheppard and Danielle Elliot.

[00:28:00]

Story editing is by me, Marc Smerling and Danielle Elliot. Alesandro Santoro is our associate producer. Our archive producers, Brennan Reese. Scott Curtis is our production manager. Fact checking by Amy Gaines. Kenny Cuse reacted the music mix sound design by Kenny Kuzak and Jesse Rudong. Additional music by John Cusack and Marmoset.

[00:28:23]

Our title track is Promises by the Monophonic Voice, reenactments by Logan Stearnes and Jesse Ridi, Legal Review by Linda Steinman and Jack Browning of Davis Wright Tremaine special thanks to Sean Twigg, Meirion Luke Malone, Brian Murphy, Joe Langford, Peter Schmoll, Diana Dizzily, Bob Stevenson, Christina Miscavige, Bob Keeler and Errol Morris. If you'd like to continue the conversation online, find us on Instagram, Facebook at morally indefensible and Twitter at morally in death, that's morally indef if you like the episode, a morally indefensible.

[00:28:59]

Please subscribe on Apple podcast forever. You get your podcast. It really helps. And thanks for listening.