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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. It's a hot afternoon in July 1979, Jeffrey MacDonald is jogging around a track in Raleigh, North Carolina.

[00:01:37]

It has been almost nine years since Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald resigned from the Green Berets in order to build a new life. He says money is a means of forgetting his past, which still haunts him. It's a way of, I think, relieving some tension and anxiety. It's my way of relaxation. So tension right now. So I'm running a little more than normal.

[00:01:57]

Jeff's in Raleigh to stand trial for the murder of his wife and two daughters nine years ago. But at least he's got a new friend to run with. The writer of his story, Joe McGinniss.

[00:02:06]

I jog with him around the track. I sat and drank a beer with him in the evening. I began liking him very much.

[00:02:15]

It's summertime. So Jeff rented a fraternity house on a local college campus. Everyone's moved in together. Jeff's lawyers, their assistants, Jeff and Joe. Per their agreement, Joe would have access to every aspect to Jeff's defense, and one of the first things he got to see was this videotape. Dr. McDonald, this is Dr. Kroger and I do have your permission, do I not, to use hypnosis today once again, in an attempt to get more details about what happened the night of the murders, Jeff's lawyer arranged for him to be hypnotized.

[00:02:56]

And so I'd like to do is to have you look at a spot directly above your forehead. The count of three, you will close your lips and after you close your legs, you will go into this nice, deep seated relaxation that we call hypnosis. One, two, three. Jeffrey MacDonald was the best and the brightest, a golden boy, Ivy Leaguer and Green Beret back in 1970 with his pregnant wife and their two daughters were brutally murdered in their army home.

[00:03:37]

I never assaulted anyone in my life and certainly not my wife and my two children. Why was he still alive and then family murdered the way it was he drove the six month Army investigation, cleared Dr. McDonald. When the Donald was indicted for the murders of his wife and his two young daughters, Mr. Joe McGinniss is the author of a best selling book. It is the fruit of a Great Deception.

[00:04:04]

This guy named Jeff MacDonald was going to stand trial nine years before and he thought, oh, my God, this is a great story. There was a gleam in his eye, a gleam in Joe's. I was a good sign that something big was going to happen.

[00:04:15]

He made promises, but they were all just. I'm Marc Smerling, and this is morally indefensible, Steve. Chapter two, the trial.

[00:04:34]

Your eyeballs roll into the back of your head, notice how your lives in a fraternity house in Raleigh, North Carolina, writer Joe McGinniss is watching a videotape of a hypnotized Jeffrey MacDonald talking about the night his family was murdered.

[00:04:50]

And now, doctor. We're going back in time. It's February 17th, 1970, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. And in the darkened theater of your mind, look around and tell me what time it is so close to. Where are you located? On the couch on the night of the murders. Just said he was watching TV and fell asleep on the couch. But then he was awakened by the screams of his wife. I hear quote, What is she saying?

[00:05:27]

Jeff Helmly. Jeff also heard his daughter Kimberly calling out for him.

[00:05:34]

What's Cami saying? Daddy, daddy, daddy. Daddy. I see some people, three men, I start to get up the hill, are you people go to my house? I see this girl between the two white guys, there's a light on her face. She's blonde hair. She's saying acid is groovy, kill the pigs, acid is groovy.

[00:06:08]

Kill the big black guy has got something in his hands. He's going to hit me.

[00:06:23]

Two guys are punching me. They're pulling me to the end of the couch. There's a blade, he's trying to stab me. I can free my arms, my fucking pajama top is wrapped all around. Someone hit me with a club bag on the before I applied for an. Jeff says he was knocked out, Joe would write about what he saw on this videotape in his book Fatal Vision, in a voice so distraught, so filled with desperation, he recounted what had happened after he regained consciousness.

[00:07:25]

Giving mouth to mouth, Collette observing Kimberly in bed, Kristin, a little girl. The emotional impact, the tape was overwhelmingly.

[00:07:47]

Years later, sitting on the front porch of his house in Wilmington, North Carolina, Joe Redescribe for journalist Janet Malcolm how he felt about Jeff before the trial.

[00:07:56]

Here's a man who has maintained his innocence as arguably the worst crime a person could commit with his own family. If this guy didn't do it, it's terrible what he's going through. And if he did do it well, he's terrible. I thought that you started out thinking he was innocent. I started out not knowing until I started out as a juror would making a presumption of innocence. In Long Beach, California, Jeffrey MacDonald is an emergency room doctor in the Army.

[00:08:33]

He was a Green Beret here in Raleigh. He is on trial for murder.

[00:08:38]

It had taken nine years for the government to indict Jeffrey MacDonald after a military court had let him go free. Nine years of newspaper stories and TV segments speculating about what happened to the McDonald family on that horrible rainy night back in 1970. A former army doctor is on trial for the murder trial, facing three counts of first degree murder. Jeffrey MacDonald, Green Beret. To some extent, the whole country was watching this trial. Rick Temse was one of the many reporters there to cover the case.

[00:09:06]

He got his first glimpse of MacDonald outside the courthouse.

[00:09:11]

Audra McDonald was a charismatic personality, no doubt about it.

[00:09:17]

There was such a mystery about it to you in some ways, hoping that the fact that you're a doctor, that you look you sound like a doctor, will, in fact, make a very strong impression on the jury. Well, I have no control over my appearance.

[00:09:30]

If you talk to people about it on the street, a lot of them would say, I just can't make up my mind, but I can't believe he would do this. There's no evidence against me. There never has been. And this jury is going to find me not guilty. I am innocent.

[00:09:43]

My audience could not get enough of this. At exactly 945, Jeff walks through the large wooden doors into the courtroom, he sets his briefcase on the defense table, opens a small pack of green mints and waits for the prosecution to start. This would be prosecutor Jim Blackburn's first murder trial. Sure, I was nervous, I see McDonnel and all these lawyers and all his friends there. He was a rock star. He was considered that in Raleigh.

[00:10:27]

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a complicated case. Physical evidence is real. Let me assure you that things did not lie. Reporter Rick Temse was in the gallery that day. There was a lot of stuff in front of the courtroom. The government had collected a mountain of evidence, more than 150 exhibits. And you didn't really understand yet what it all meant. But they assured us in the opening argument that it would make sense by the end of the trial.

[00:11:01]

We believe that the physical evidence points to the fact that one person killed Collette, Kimberly and Kristin and that that person is the defendant. Blackburn had his job cut out for him. Jeff was a doctor, a life saver, not a killer. And the case was cold. A lot of people would say to us, it's been nine years. Won't you let this guy? The lights dimmed as prosecutor Blackburn flipped the switch on a slide projector. If I show you a photograph, the body of a young daughter, time becomes irrelevant, an image a five year old Kimberly McDonald flashed onto the screen.

[00:11:40]

She was the older child stabbed or eight times. And the club she's laying on her side in her bed, the right side of her face is caved in. Then a picture of two year old Kristin McDonald, younger daughter, stamped over 30 times. Her bed sheets are soaked with blood. Jeff's wife, Colette, lying on the floor of the master bedroom, a bright red halo staining the shag carpet around her head, stabbed 21 times with an ice.

[00:12:10]

Pick it with a claw. Both arms crushed, her skull crushed. If I show you a picture of a 26 year old mom totally and utterly destroyed, time becomes a. There was only one way for Blackburn to describe how the McDonald family had been murdered. Overkill. Did we want to enrage the jury? Darn right we want to enrage the jury because it was enraging that these people were killed.

[00:12:41]

But then Blackburn showed the jury Jeff's injuries. He has some superficial cuts, a few bruises. And a small, almost surgical incision in his chest that it punctured his lung except for the surgical fine on his chest. He didn't even have a Band-Aid on him later on. He didn't have a stitch. How it, Jeff, sustained so few injuries when the rest of his family had been so brutalized?

[00:13:08]

It's a devastating question because it's exactly what the jury is thinking for Joe sitting in the gallery watching all this, that question war on him. Even years later, talking to Janet Malcolm on his porch, he remembered those pictures to be exposed firsthand to the graphic evidence, the murder of little girls who was pregnant woman. This was very upsetting. I couldn't reconcile this guy who I had become so well acquainted with, with a person capable of having done this to his own wife and children.

[00:13:46]

Hi, I'm Marc Smerling from Morally Indefensible and Crime Town, and I'm excited to tell you about a new podcast, Smokescreen Fake Priest. It's about Ryan Scott, alias Randall Stocks, alias Ryan Golinger and seven other aliases. Ryan, whatever his name happened to be, was a popular priest who swindled millions from his parish. Whenever questions arose, Ryan would declare bankruptcy and move on to the next con. He's out there right now. The series is hosted by Alex Schulman.

[00:14:14]

Alex gets a chance to sit with Ryan and what he learns is shocking. I'll leave that for you to find out. Smokescreen Fake Priest is available on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast. To write the best book he could, John McGinnis had to attend every day of Jeffrey MacDonald's murder trial. Listen carefully and take notes.

[00:14:38]

And even outside the courthouse, his attention was always on Jeff. He would write about it in his book Fatal Vision.

[00:14:46]

It began to grow rather unsettling as I wrote to and from the courtroom with Donald. And as I sat up late with him watching Saturday Night Live, it was not the sort of thing one spoke about over the Kappa Alpha dinner table, but he had not been badly hurt in 1970. I had by now seen the pictures of his wife and two children. I've seen too many pictures too many times. There were a lot of nights I didn't sleep in Raleigh and when he couldn't sleep, Joe would sneak down the hall to call his wife, Nancy.

[00:15:28]

He would call up and sort of have whispered conversations with me. And I think it was already starting to get pulled apart by the conflict that was going on inside him. He started to just get more and more scared. Back in the courtroom, the prosecution called Bill Ivery, the Army's lead investigator, Ivery had arrived to 544 Castle Drive soon after the military police to find Clete McDonald in the master bedroom. He was laying on her back. She had been badly beaten and there was a blue piece of cloth laying across her abdomen and we thought that was strange.

[00:16:23]

Backcloth was Jeff's torn blup top Jeffard had told investigators that when he discovered his wife, he put his pajama top on her chest to keep her warm so she wouldn't go into shock. Joe McGinniss was in the courtroom listening to Ivory's testimony.

[00:16:38]

Ivery picked up the pajama top that had been draped across the chest. He felt it was a little bit small, cylindrical round holes. He immediately said, we better get someone to the hospital to talk to this man because anybody who was wearing his pajamas isn't going to survive very long. The pajama top had more than 40 ice pick holes in it, but I found out later that Jeffrey had only one wound.

[00:17:02]

So how did those holes in the pajama top get there as Collette's body was lifted onto a gurney? I noticed something else.

[00:17:10]

A blue thread from the pajama top dangling from the back of Collette's head. If Jeff hadn't been in the room and Collette was attacked, why was this thread underneath her body?

[00:17:20]

There was a preponderance of fabric threads that matched this pajama shirt all over the bed. He claimed that the life and death struggle with four people took place in the living room. The only thing that was found in the shag carpet was a piece of Christmas tinsel. However, there were dozens of threads found in the master bedroom. Common sense will tell you that's where the fight took place. His story did not hold up against the physical evidence. And Blackburn had a theory about where Jeff story came from, an Esquire magazine found on the floor in the living room.

[00:18:02]

I think that the concept of intruders came from that that magazine had articles in it about hippies and drug culture.

[00:18:11]

We read that in the trial.

[00:18:13]

Some of the article acid does expand the mind, I believe, Powers, you can't swim. That's the whole thing that too many people turned to acid.

[00:18:23]

To most of you, you get the words like acid ingredient. Acid is groovy.

[00:18:29]

Kill the pig's. And there was another article in that magazine about the Manson murders McDonnel writing the word pig on the headboard was sort of a throwback to the Manson murders, staging a scene to make it look like drug crazed hippies. McDonald claimed that he was stabbed in the living room. That's not so. The only blood that is found in the living room is a speck of blood on his glasses on the floor and a fingerprint smudge on the Esquire magazine.

[00:19:11]

Hi, I'm Marc Smerling from Morally Indefensible and Crime Town, and I want to tell you about a new podcast called The Orange Tree. Investigates the 2005 murder of Jennifer Cave near the University of Texas at Austin, the host to New Thomas and Hayley Butler, where student reporters there they lived and took classes near the crime scene. So they have a unique perspective on the case. The orange tree is just good reporting with lots of hard fought interviews and trial recordings.

[00:19:39]

It's produced by The Drag, which is part of Moody College on the University of Austin campus. Listen to the Andrian Apple podcast, Spotify Stitcher, wherever you listen to podcasts. After four weeks of evidence, Blackburn rested his case, Joe flew home for the weekend to be with his wife, Nancy, and their son.

[00:20:03]

He was very agitated. He couldn't relax, he was just so uptight. Our son Matthew was maybe six or seven months old and he was already very attuned to Joe if Joe was upset. Matthew was upset and I could see it in the baby. He was physically reflecting what Joe was feeling.

[00:20:28]

Joe still really liked Jeff. I mean, he had kids who are the same ages as Jeff's little girls would have been if they'd lived. He tried to project himself into Jeffrey's situation as a victim, but he couldn't project himself into Jeffrey's situation if he were the perpetrator. It was really hard to decide which one Jeffrey was. After four weeks of hearing the prosecution's case, it was time for Jeffs defense. I wanted to do the best job I could possibly do for this man.

[00:21:15]

This is Wade Smith, Jeffs lawyer. His main strategy was to prove that Jeff couldn't have committed the murders because someone else did and he had an ace up his sleeve, a surprise witness by the name of James Mitchell. I interviewed him with great care.

[00:21:30]

And this was a truthful man. Back in 1970, Miller was an Army pilot just back from Vietnam. He was Jeff's neighbor. And I remember he was such a vibrant, powerful story. It gave me chills that just come home from Vietnam and I couldn't sleep.

[00:21:51]

This is a recreation of Milnes testimony in the court that day.

[00:21:55]

And so sometimes I get up in the night and work on model airplanes. And on this particular night, I heard Changping. And got up and looked out the door and there were three people with candles walking by my yard. Two men and a woman with long blond hair walking towards a McDonald home. Unbelievable. You may remember the Jeffrey MacDonald described his attackers as three men and a woman wearing a floppy hat. He also told investigators that the woman had a light on her face.

[00:22:47]

Maybe it was a candle.

[00:22:48]

I have no doubt that those people were there. I don't know what they did when they passed through the yard. There's no doubt he told the truth.

[00:22:58]

And there was something else. It turned out that ever since 1970, a local woman named Helena Stokely had been telling people a crazy story in moments of crisis.

[00:23:10]

She had revealed that she was there and that they had murdered his family. Molina was known to wear a blonde wig and a floppy hat. Maybe she was the woman James Milne saw that night, but there was only one way to know for sure.

[00:23:27]

The judge in the MacDonald case had issued a material witness bench warrant for Hilliard historically.

[00:23:33]

This is Frank Mills, the FBI agent set out to find her.

[00:23:37]

They want us to take her into custody and get her back up to Raleigh as fast as we could.

[00:23:42]

Mills tracked Helena to a trailer deep in the woods off a country road, sit, sit and play itself out in the middle of nowhere.

[00:23:56]

That went in a trailer, then went down the hallway. And then when I got to the last bedroom, I opened the door and the female get up along side of the bed and had a rifle in her hand, as you pointed directly at me.

[00:24:15]

And I said to drop that gun. And she put it down on the bed. She said, you're lucky I tried to buy ammunition for this gun yesterday, but I couldn't buy it and I said, well, we're probably both lucky. Elena was brought to the courthouse in Raleigh, where the judge allowed the defense to meet with her in private. Finally, Jeffs lawyers were sitting across from the woman they thought could solve the case.

[00:24:44]

Joe McGinniss was there, too, and as usual, he was taking notes. Her hair was black. She was many pounds overweight, her left arm was in a cast that had been broken in Cincinnati. Someone had hit her with a tire iron during a dispute involving narcotics.

[00:25:02]

Helena told Jeffs lawyers she was so high on drugs the night of the murders she couldn't remember a thing. So they showed her photos of the crime scene to help jog your memory.

[00:25:13]

Kaleena help us end it, I beg of you. Look at this child's face, for God's sake, smash with a club. Come on, Helena. How much longer will that man have to sit there accused of something so monstrous? She stared at the picture.

[00:25:33]

There was absolutely no change of expression on her face. If I could remember, I would say. It was lunchtime, Helena Stokely had just been given a baloney sandwich. She sat quietly chewing her food and slowly turning the pages of the autopsy photo albums as if she were browsing through a movie magazine.

[00:26:00]

The next day, Anthony took the stand and said the same thing, she couldn't remember what happened that night, but Joe wasn't watching Helena, he was watching Jeff. This was a big moment for Joe so big that many years later he would describe it for Janet Malcolm. They finally found the silliness of the witch, the hippie that he said had murdered his wife. So they actually fairly liberal here in here and here he is confronted the first time since that night with this woman who he says killed his wife and kids.

[00:26:32]

You would expect some kind of human response. I used to talk to the trees in my backyard at night. Nobody else was out there with me. Prosecutor Jim Blackburn, again, I remember, was sitting on the grass and I counted up the days that they had been gone collecting the two children that they had not had. And I gave my closing argument. I did it until I got teary at myself. And when I got teary eyed myself, I stopped.

[00:27:21]

My goal, frankly, I'm not going to sit there, I'm not going to stop. Until somebody on the jury, Cryos. On the early morning on the 17th of February, timestamped in the McDonnel, we consider him his family because the events overtook themselves to Tuesday.

[00:27:59]

During the trial, Blackburne presented hundreds of pieces of evidence to the jury.

[00:28:04]

Now, he was going to weave it all into a story early in the morning hours of the 17th of February, Jeff and Clete get into a fight in the master bedroom. I think MacDonald goes into a rage and strikes. His pajama top is torn there during a fight. All these threads followed and there were dozens of those threads found in the master bedroom. There are massive amounts of blood, which is Collette's blood. It's on the ceiling. It got there, I think, by him hitting her with a club and spraying the blood on the ceiling.

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I think Kimberly wakes up and hears this fight and goes to see what's going on and she goes, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, which is what MacDonald says he heard her say. I think she did say these things right at the entryway to the master bedroom or some drops of blood type AB blood. Kimberly's she is struck by the club, the hallway. He picks her up and carries her to her bed and then she's tucked in. Once he struck, Kimberly is gone, his career's gone, his family's gone.

[00:29:32]

You cannot unring the bell no matter how hard you try. According to Blackburne, Jeff realizes what he's done and what he has to do next.

[00:29:42]

Collette's not dead by some miracle. She is not dead. She gets up and struggles into the bedroom to save her youngest daughter. Blackburn says that Jeff chases his wife into Kristen's room and attacks her with the club. Now, two year old Kristen is a witness to her mother's murder and Jeff has a terrible decision to make. He could have let Kristen live. It's true. You've been criminally prosecuted, gone to prison in disgrace. But Kristen would have lived.

[00:30:14]

He chose to kill Kristen to save himself. Jeff heads back to the master bedroom and pulls the sheet off the bed. Mixdown puts his wife in a sheet and dumps are really on the floor in the master bedroom over the threads that are there. According to Blackburne, that's why investigators found threads from Jeff's pajama top underneath Collette's body. There were 48 homes in McDonald's Blvd. Chamitoff. How did those homes get there? He takes his pajama top off and puts out our chance not to keep a warm, as he said, but to contaminate that piece of evidence as an explanation of why her blood's on that pajama top and then stabs her through the pajama top.

[00:31:03]

Now Jeff needs a cover story, Blackburn tells the jury that Jeff sees the Esquire magazine in the living room. He picks it up, leaving a bloody smudge and inspired by the article describing the Manson murders. Jeff writes the word pig on the headboard. Finally, in the last moments before Jeff picked up the telephone to call for help, Blackburn says he stood in front of a mirror in the bathroom with a scalpel blade. His blood is found in the bathroom sink.

[00:31:28]

Could Jeffrey MacDonald, being a doctor, insert a scalpel into his lung and could he survive? That's what I believe happened. Ladies and gentlemen, I wish more than you know we are here. I wish more than you know that I did not think the evidence pointed to the defendant. If our evidence is correct and the defendant did it, which we believe he did think for a moment of the last minutes of Collette, Kimberly and Kristin when they realized that they were going to die and they realized who it was, it was going to make them die.

[00:32:20]

That's when the jury cried that summed up the whole thing. We believe strongly, as strongly as we don't want to believe they did it and he is guilty, and I ask you to justify that. Talking to Janet Malcolm, years later, Joe McGinniss described how he felt waiting for the verdict. Tell me about this nightmarish experience you had of realizing that this man was not a normal person, your early conviction that he was guilty. I was so conflicted and torn.

[00:33:05]

This person who spent these weeks in close proximity to actually found yourself, found. How could he did this? I was sitting in a room with the Donald and his lawyer, the secretary. She's on the phone making reservations for him to go to dinner in New York the next night. And then he wants to come to this, a photography workshop that a friend of mine is running. And he sees all the stuff with the trees down the hall deciding whether or not he murdered his wife and daughters nine years earlier.

[00:33:39]

And then they actually come under they a great. Reporter Rick Temse was in the court that day, people came back into that courtroom. I think they were all on the edge of their seat. They did not know what was about to happen. They filed in, some of the jurors looked very sad. I think a couple of jurors were actually tearful. The jury read the first count murder in the first degree against Colette MacDonald. And in unison they said, I thought he's going free.

[00:34:19]

But then there was the second option, the second degree murder charge. And you're innocent. They said guilty. And that was an amazing moment. There was a cry that went out somewhere in the area, the defense team, and I don't know who it was, count to the murder of Kimberly MacDonald. Count three, the murder of Kristen MacDonald, guilty in the first. The courtroom was stone silent, McDonald A quizzical look to the jury like, did I just hear that?

[00:35:01]

And he was being led out in handcuffs and his three piece suit. A jury convicted Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for murdering his wife and two children nine years ago. MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain, was sentenced to three life terms in prison to call up. He was actually tearful on the phone.

[00:35:25]

I felt terrible that he was convicted. Genuine sorrow.

[00:35:40]

Next week, I'm morally indefensible. Joe starts writing his book and finds a way to get Jeff to tell him his darkest secrets from prison. If you want to know more about Jeffrey MacDonald's trial, the evidence against him and the mysterious Helena Stokely, tune into our docu series, A Wilderness of Error on effects and streaming on effects on morally indefensible is a production of Truth Media in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment. This episode, A Morally Indefensible, was produced by Ryan Swicord with help from Jesse Roy, Julia Botero, Zach Hirsch, Kevin Sheppard and Danielle Elliot.

[00:36:18]

Story editing is by me, Marc Smerling and Danielle. Alesandro Santoro is our associate producer ARCI producers Brandon Reese. Scott Curtis is our production manager.

[00:36:31]

Fact checking by Amy Gaines can expected the music mix sound designed by Kenny Kuciak and Ryan Swiger.

[00:36:40]

Additional music by John Cusack and Marmoset, our title track is Promises by the Monophonic Voice, reenactments by Logan Stearnes, Jesse Roy, Robin Swicord, Emma Swicord, Kevin Sheppard and Walker Vreeland, 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 Shmo, Diana Dizzily, Bob Stevenson, Christina Moscovitch, Bob Keeler and Darrell Morris.

[00:37:13]

If you like this episode, a morally indefensible, please subscribe on Apple podcast forever, you get your podcast, it really helps. Thanks for listening.