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JUSTICE : 'Fatal Vision' Doctor Waits for Ruling on New Trial : MacDonald would be free today if fiber evidence in the 1970 killings had been presented, lawyers say.

April 07, 1992|DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-two years later, Jeffrey R. MacDonald still insists that he didn't do it: He didn't stab and club to death his pregnant wife, Colette, and their two young daughters early in the morning of Feb. 17, 1970, at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

MacDonald, a physician whose case was etched into the nation's consciousness with the 1980s book and television movie "Fatal Vision" is waiting again to hear whether the legal system will believe him. A panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., is expected to rule soon on his request for a new trial.

The request is based on evidence that MacDonald's lawyers, including Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, say is new.

"I am absolutely convinced of Jeffrey MacDonald's innocence," said Harvey A. Silverglate, MacDonald's lead attorney. "MacDonald wanted me to represent him in 1984, and I turned him down. When I looked at the evidence in 1989, I immediately agreed to take the case. This is the strongest habeas corpus petition I have filed in 25 years."

The Justice Department, in briefs signed by Criminal Division chief Robert S. Mueller III, rejects as insignificant the new evidence and urges denial of MacDonald's request for a new trial.

"(MacDonald) attacked his wife and family with makeshift weapons from his household, moved their bodies and rearranged the crime scene to comport with his version of Manson-type murders," says the Justice Department brief.

MacDonald, a Princeton-educated former Army captain, has told the same story since the hour he was questioned in his blood-spattered home: He and his family were attacked by four intruders, one of whom was a woman with dark clothing and flowing blond hair. One chanted: "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs."

Now, MacDonald's lawyers contend that materials they have found through Freedom of Information Act requests prove his innocence. These include notes revealing that dark woolen fibers were discovered in Colette MacDonald's mouth and that a 22-inch synthetic blond strand was found in the house.

Other notes, the lawyers say, show that human limb hair found in Colette's left hand was tested by a government examiner before trial and did not match that of Jeffrey MacDonald. A prosecution expert testified in 1979 that the limb hair at issue was too small to be of value.

If the evidence of the woolen fibers and the blond strand had been known earlier, MacDonald's lawyers assert, the trial judge might have allowed testimony that a woman named Helena Stoeckley claimed to a government investigator and six other people that she and three male companions committed the murders. Stoeckley died in 1983.

"If the original MacDonald jury had learned of the undisclosed forensic evidence and heard the testimony (related to Stoeckley), Jeff MacDonald would have been acquitted," said Roger C. Spaeder, a Washington lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney now working for MacDonald's defense.

Silverglate also alleges that the government purposefully shielded laboratory notes and other evidence from MacDonald's original defense team.

The Justice Department denies those assertions and contends that some of the purportedly new information was, or should have been, known to MacDonald's previous lawyers. The government contends that the dark fibers in Colette's mouth "were forensically insignificant" and speculated that the 22-inch blond strand may have come from a doll.

Not in dispute is that 22 years ago, someone using an ice pick, two knives and a club killed Colette MacDonald and Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2. Jeffrey MacDonald was found at the scene with less severe stab wounds, including a partially collapsed lung.

In telephone interviews from an Oregon prison, MacDonald, now 48, says he still thinks of his wife and children. The memories, he said, can be worst during April and May--on their birthdays.

"I try to aim at the next achievable goal," said MacDonald, called "Doc" by other inmates. ". . . There's a comfort deep within me, because I know the truth. I know I'm innocent."

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