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Killer Wins Settlement on 'Fatal Vision'

November 24, 1987|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army Green Beret and physician convicted of the bloody murders of his wife and two young daughters, won a $325,000 settlement Monday from the author who portrayed him as a killer in the book "Fatal Vision."

Writer Joe McGinniss agreed to the settlement without admitting liability in a case that has sparked widespread attention in the publishing industry because it sought to hold an author liable for breaching an implied contract to write a favorable book about his subject.

"I think the fact that the case even got to trial initially has an extremely chilling effect upon any nonfiction writer," McGinniss' lawyer, John Sturgeon, said after the settlement was announced.

"Once you have to defend yourself in a lengthy trial, they've punished you, win, lose or draw. . . . The writer is at the mercy of someone who has a lawyer that's willing to take on his case and has nothing else to do," he said.

In a $15-million lawsuit that ended in a mistrial this summer in Los Angeles federal court, MacDonald, a former emergency room director at St. Mary's Hospital in Long Beach, claimed McGinniss had duped him into cooperating on "Fatal Vision" by leading him to believe that McGinniss was a friend who believed in his innocence.

McGinniss, who also helped turn the best-selling book into an NBC miniseries, said he had initially hoped to write a book exonerating MacDonald but grew chillingly more convinced as four years of research progressed that his one-time friend had committed the murders.

The settlement came three months after a bitterly divided jury failed to reach a verdict in the seven-week trial, which featured testimony from well-known writers William F. Buckley, Joseph Wambaugh and a variety of publishing executives about the need to preserve a writer's independence in determining the outcome of a book.

McGinniss claimed that MacDonald had signed at least two waivers pledging not to sue over the contents of the book. MacDonald, in turn, claimed that he had been betrayed by a "false friend" and was suing not over the book itself but over McGinniss' four years of deception.

"This settlement, which holds McGinniss accountable for his action, is an answer to my prayers and provides me with a ray of hope at what I believe is the beginning of the end of a 17-year nightmare," said MacDonald, who is serving three consecutive life terms for the 1970 killings.

"I can tell you it is an unimaginable horror to . . . spend four years working on a book to prove my innocence, only to find out that the author was a false friend, a writer of falsehoods, who conducted himself in a reprehensible manner," MacDonald said in a written statement.

Sturgeon said McGinniss and the publisher agreed to the settlement to avoid the hardship of trying the case again. "The time and cost of defending one of these things when the other side has really nothing else to do is tremendous motivation for disposing of the lawsuit," he said.

McGinniss, author of "The Selling of the President," "Heroes" and "Going to Extremes," could not be reached for comment Monday. His lawyer declined to say whether the publisher, G. P. Putnam's, Sons, the publisher's insurer, which has been ordered to pay for the defense of the case, or some third party would pay the settlement.

McGinniss, he said, will not be paying the money himself, and neither the publisher nor the author admitted any liability in agreeing to the settlement.

"The integrity of 'Fatal Vision' really stands untarnished," Sturgeon said. "We feel that the book is vindicated and stands as a monument to very good investigative reporting."

But in a brief hallway interview before he was led away by federal marshals, MacDonald, 44, said the settlement is a "clear admission of liability. . . . I think that anyone who paid attention to the trial knows that 'Fatal Vision' is a false book."

MacDonald, who was represented by Santa Monica attorney Gary Bostwick in the civil case, also rejected assertions that the case could have a chilling effect on writers. "A nonfiction writer who researches his book and is truthful has nothing to fear in this settlement," he said.

The one-time Princeton graduate who was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., at the time of the slayings claimed that he was sleeping on the couch on the night of the murders and awoke to find a band of drug-crazed hippies in his home, chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs."

His pregnant wife, Colette, and two daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristin, 2, were found bludgeoned and stabbed to death in their bedrooms nearby. MacDonald himself was bleeding from multiple stab wounds that prosecutors claimed were self-inflicted.

Sturgeon claims that MacDonald was simply unhappy that McGinniss failed to portray him as innocent in the book and said the lawsuit itself would have been quickly dismissed had it been filed as a libel or defamation case, rather than a breach-of-contract case.

"In my view, this was a wolf in sheep's clothing. It was a libel case," Sturgeon said. "Mr. Bostwick said when he addressed the jury that this was a case of a false friend. Well, I don't know of any such cause of action."

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