Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Civil Suit

Gary L. Bostwick, MacDonald's lawyer in the civil action, listened to the tapes that McGinniss had persuaded MacDonald to make.  "Bostwick compared the tapes with those segments in [Fatal Vision] which purported to be "The Voice of Jeffrey MacDonald."  He satisfied himself that, as MacDonald claimed, McGinniss had skillfully edited passages to make it though MacDonald had taped glib, nonstop soliloquies of self-adoration. 

But nowhere in McGinniss's book were MacDonald's taped words of concern about the tragic deaths of Colette and the children.  The writer had placed MacDonald's doctored thoughts between ongoing revelations of the government's claims, not bothering to challenge the government's claims with any of the relevant defense evidence that had been put at his disposal, not bothering to express in the book his own expressions of disdain [about the government's case] which he had written to MacDonald.  The results, Bostwick charged, were fictional and the book could not be legitimized as nonfiction." (Potter and Bost)

A few days before the trial, McGinniss offered MacDonald $200,000 to settle the case.   MacDonald refused.

The civil trial did not go well at all for McGinniss.  At the end, had it not been for one juror who could not see awarding money to a convicted murderer, McGinniss would have lost.  The other jurors agreed with McDonald's suit and could not persuade the final juror to agree.  Janet Malcolm describes the problem in her book:   "The trouble had started early in the trial, when [the juror who held out], an animal rights activist, brought animal-rights literature to the jury room and wasn't able to interest the other jurors in her cause.  She became the weird Other to the majority, and they became the Oppressors to her...they had scorned this woman at their peril and were now powerless against her."

The judge declared a mistrial but left the door open for a new trial.  At that point, McGinniss offered to settle for $325,000 and eventually they did settle for a bit over that amount.  Again, MacDonald's huge legal expenses determined the decision not to continue this fight.

But the damage of the book Fatal Vision and the movie of the same name had been done.  MacDonald may some day win a new trial, but he will never be able to undo the malicious image that Joe McGinniss created


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