Contrary to popular belief, Joe McGinniss did not invent the true-crime genre. Lurid biographies of notorious criminals sold like cheap gin in the age of Swift and Defoe. But McGinniss’ 1983 book, Fatal Vision, did establish a tempting new role for ambitious authors: the investigative journalist as homicide detective, not to mention judge, jury, and free-lance psychiatrist. Obsessively detailed and filled with intimate revelations obtained in part by McGinniss’ pretense of sympathy with convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, Fatal Vision convinced most readers that the author had gone deeper into the killer’s tangled mind than either the prosecution or the defense.
Now comes Cruel Doubt, a hugely detailed account of a North Carolina murder suggested to the author by one of Jeffrey MacDonald’s defense lawyers, Wade Smith — who evidently enjoyed the first book a lot more than his former client did. Or possibly the Raleigh attorney wanted to teach McGinniss and the rest of us a few home truths about reasonable doubt, moral certainty, and the practice of criminal law.
If so, McGinniss has learned his lesson well. Any reader who emerges from this hastily assembled, repetitious, cliché-ridden yet absolutely fascinating account of a family murder in Beaufort County, N.C., firmly convinced of exactly who’s guilty, who’s innocent — or even satisfied as to the meaning of those concepts — simply hasn’t paid attention.
Here’s the setup: At roughly 4:30 one morning in July 1988, a reclusive middle-aged businessman named Lieth Von Stein was beaten and stabbed to death in his bed by one or more assailants. His wife, Bonnie, who with her two children stood to inherit roughly $2 million by his death, suffered serious wounds but survived. The victim’s 19-year-old stepdaughter, Angela, asleep in an adjoining bedroom, supposedly heard nothing and had to be awakened by police. Angela’s older brother, Chris, was sleeping in a dorm room at North Carolina State a couple of hours away.
Despite an apparently shoddy crime scene investigation, initial police reports suggested an inside job: There was a faked break-in, and the autopsy seemed to indicate a time of death hours earlier than the initial 911 call. Wade Smith’s client Bonnie Von Stein and her children became immediate suspects. Indeed, investigators never really looked anywhere else.
Seeking vindication, Bonnie Von Stein — portrayed by McGinniss as an emotional wreck who was also morbidly shy — instructed her lawyers, her psychiatrist, her friends and family to tell the author anything he wanted to know (in return for which, McGinniss assures readers, he promised the woman absolutely nothing but fairness). As they so often must, prosecutors bought the story of the first suspect who confessed to the murder (Chris’ friend Neal Henderson, a fellow Dungeons & Dragons player), then packaged and sold it to a judge and jury clearly determined to convict somebody for the crime — even if it meant striking a bargain with the devil. Nobody seems entirely confident about the justice of this outcome, particularly not McGinniss, who after guiding readers through a dense thicket of factual, legal, and psychiatric ambiguities ends up offering no firm answers. Only questions. B+