Final Vision (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from his long-awaited follow-up to the 1983 bestseller “Fatal Vision,” Joe McGinniss describes the period after Jeffrey MacDonald’s initial Article 32 hearing before Army investigators was dismissed, leaving him a free man.

  1. Despite the fact that the Article 32 hearing was closed to press and public, there had been print and broadcast coverage, and MacDonald was obsessed with it. His public image seemed to be his primary concern. On June 16, 1970, he wrote in his diary: “The publicity … was very good. Page one in the Sunday Raleigh News and Observer and was a good human interest story except we are sorry they used a picture of me in my convertible …”

    On July 7: “Yesterday’s press fairly good to me … Evening TV coverage excellent.”

    Two days later: “It is apparent that the press is strongly behind me.”

    Later in July, agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) forcibly removed MacDonald from his car in order to take a hair sample he would not provide voluntarily, despite being ordered to do so. His civilian lawyer, Bernie Segal, called a press conference to protest. “The news was out immediately,” MacDonald noted. “It appears to be the biggest story in weeks. Headlines all over, TV, radio … Jack Anderson’s column in Washington—everyone is interested. The AP and UPI told Freddy [Kassab, his father-in-law] in Long Island that it is world wide, not just national.”

    When Kassab held a news conference of his own to demand that the Article 32 hearing be opened to the public, MacDonald noted that it was attended “by two major TV stations, multiple radio stations, AP, UPI, local newspapers.”

    By October, even as he was awaiting the investigating officer’s Article 32 decision, MacDonald had begun to contact writers.

    He wrote to John Sack of Esquire:

    This letter is being written to you for the purpose of interesting you in writing a major article and/or book regarding the events of the last 9 months. … The case has received nation-wide publicity on several occasions … [It] certainly has all the emotional impact any case could have, and in addition has some interesting sidelights, such as a fund-raising drive by a prominent NY socialite … My lawyers are currently in contact with Look magazine regarding a possible article, but I am more partial to your style …”

    On the same day, he wrote to Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times:

    I have recently read of your exploits in the world of exposé as chronicled by Time magazine—it occurs to me that you are well-suited to write a major article on my case. … My lawyers are currently in some first-stage talks with Look and Esquire, but nothing has been firmed up …

    After Sack turned him down, MacDonald wrote to Robert Sherrill, author of a newly published book titled Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music:

    This letter is an attempt to stimulate your interest in writing a major article and/or book regarding my case. My lawyers are having some very preliminary-type discussions with Look regarding the case, but nothing is finalized. They will agree with me on whomever I choose to write the article/book, and I like your style.

    But no one took the bait. Frustrated, MacDonald, now a civilian, reached out to late-night television show host Dick Cavett. It was an act whose consequences would prove disastrous.

    On the show, MacDonald alternated between joking with Cavett and excoriating the Army for having had the gall to accuse him of the murders. “There was no evidence,” he told Cavett indignantly. He denounced the “charade” of the hearing he’d been forced to endure. He displayed no grief, and gave not the slightest indication that he was still mourning the loss of his wife and children. It was as if the murders had been a mere prelude to the crimes committed against him.

    In addition, he claimed to have suffered twenty-three wounds in the attack, “some of which were potentially fatal.” MacDonald’s in-laws, Freddy and Mildred Kassab, were incredulous as they watched the show. Twenty-three wounds? Some potentially fatal?

    “There wasn’t so much as a Band-Aid on him,” Mildred said later, recalling how he looked when she saw him the day of the murders. “Not even Mercurochrome.” Freddy remembered MacDonald’s first night in the hospital. He was “sitting up in bed and eating dinner with apparent enjoyment.”

    MacDonald’s inappropriate affect and false claims about his injuries planted the first seeds of doubt in the minds of the Kassabs, who had been his most outspoken supporters. Freddy, in fact, watched the Cavett show on the night of his return from Washington, D.C., where he’d hand-delivered to members of Congress five hundred copies of a letter demanding a hearing into the Army’s mishandling of the case and a reinvestigation of the crimes.

    MacDonald’s own accusations against the Army, made to a national television audience, brought matters to a boil. The CID command in Washington evaluated the charges leveled by MacDonald and Kassab. They concluded that while the investigation had not been “a model of its kind,” neither had it been “the amalgamation of incompetence, perjury and malicious prosecution” that both Kassab and MacDonald alleged.

    Stung by MacDonald’s accusations on the Cavett show, the CID launched a reinvestigation of the murders in January 1971. Agents under the command of Colonel Jack Pruett pursued leads in thirty-two states, Vietnam, Okinawa, Germany, the Canal Zone, and Puerto Rico. They conducted dozens of new tests at the crime scene and analyzed thirty-four additional laboratory reports. They interviewed 699 people and took sworn statements from 151. On June 1, 1972, the CID delivered a three-thousand-page report to the Justice Department concluding that evidence clearly pointed to MacDonald’s guilt.


    Preview more of Joe McGinniss’s Final Vision.

Originally published in Byliner, December 2012

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