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Final chance for 'Fatal Vision' convict?

Jeffrey MacDonald's prosecutors challenge testimony that Helena Stoeckley said she witnessed others killing the Army doctor's family in 1970.

September 19, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • DNA testing could show that human hairs found in the MacDonalds’ house belong to the intruders, Jeffrey MacDonald's defense says.
DNA testing could show that human hairs found in the MacDonalds’… (Brian Thorpe, Fayetteville…)

WILMINGTON, N.C. — His ankles are shackled as he shuffles into the courtroom, looking older than his 68 years after half a lifetime in prison.

He wears white socks and shower sandals, baggy pants, and a drab tan pullover stamped with the words "Inmate New Hanover County," the temporary home for federal prisoner number 0131-177. His thinning silver hair is worn in a choppy prison-barber cut.

Jeffrey MacDonald, the Army doctor imprisoned for life for killing his family, is back in federal court to seek exoneration 42 years after the crime.

In 1970, MacDonald was a captain assigned to the legendary Green Berets at Ft. Bragg, N.C. His marriage to his high school sweetheart, Collette, ended in horror when the pregnant Army wife and the couple's two young daughters were stabbed and bludgeoned to death inside military housing late one night in February of that year.

A federal jury convicted MacDonald of the murders nine years later. He's serving three life sentences, still insisting that his family was slaughtered by intruders, including a woman in a floppy hat chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs."

MacDonald has now achieved a rare legal feat. His lawyers have persuaded a federal appeals court to grant him a hearing based on new evidence.

For the last three days, MacDonald has sat at the defense table, listening in silence at a hearing to consider his claims that new DNA analysis and a belated revelation by a U.S. deputy marshal could prove his innocence.

The DNA evidence consists of a 2006 analysis of three human hairs found in MacDonald's house at 544 Castle Drive at Ft. Bragg. The defense says the DNA does not match MacDonald nor any member of his family, but could belong instead to the intruders.

In 2005, former U.S. Deputy Marshal Jimmy Britt, now dead, gave sworn depositions saying a key witness — a heroin addict the defense says is the woman in the floppy hat — was threatened by the lead prosecutor in MacDonald's 1979 trial. Britt told the defense team that prosecutor James Blackburn warned Helena Stoeckley that he would charge her with murder if she testified that she was at the MacDonald house the night of the murders.

Stoeckley is dead too — of post-hepatitis cirrhosis in 1983 — and the hearing has become an echo chamber of disembodied voices from a dim past. Richard Nixon was president and J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI when the murders took place.

U.S. District Judge John C. Fox has allowed the defense considerable leeway, saying Monday, "We don't want to come back 42 years later and do it again." Fox can reject the defense's case and leave MacDonald to serve his three life sentences (his release date is 2071). He can vacate the convictions, or order a new trial.

Whatever his ruling, this is probably MacDonald's last shot at freedom.

As the old stories played out inside the darkened courtroom in this former Confederate port city, the compelling narrative arc of the case took shape once again, two decades after a best-selling book and hit TV miniseries imprinted the murders on the public consciousness.

MacDonald, glib and handsome in 1970, managed to convince his wife's parents that intruders had stabbed him and beat him unconscious as they murdered his family. The Army ultimately sided with him too, exonerating MacDonald in October 1970.

But soon the in-laws turned on him, and so did his erstwhile partner in championing his innocence, journalist Joe McGinniss, author of the damning 1983 best-seller "Fatal Vision," which portrayed MacDonald as a scheming psychopath.

It was a horrific crime. Collette was stabbed 16 times with a knife and 21 times with an ice pick. Kimberley, 5, was bludgeoned in the head several times, and repeatedly stabbed in the neck. Kristen, 2, was stabbed 48 times and her finger nearly severed as she tried to defend herself.

Someone wrote "pig" in blood on a headboard. Prosecutors suggested it was MacDonald, concocting a phony murder scene to cover up his crimes.

This week, prosecutors poked holes in Britt's claim that Stoeckley had confessed to him as he drove her to court in 1979. They

introduced documents showing that two other marshals, not Britt, drove Stoeckley. Britt's fellow marshals testified that he was a fabulist and attention-seeker.

Further, Blackburn denied on the stand Wednesday that he had ever threatened Stoeckley, and said Britt was not even in the room where he purportedly overheard Blackburn's threats. And Wade Smith, 75, MacDonald's co-counsel in 1979, conceded that while Stoeckley may have told Britt she was at the murder scene, she refused to repeat that to defense lawyers.

Stoeckley told numerous people that she was at the murder scene or that her boyfriend and another man killed MacDonald's family. But on the stand at MacDonald's trial, Stoeckley denied that she was ever in the house and said she was so debilitated by heroin and mescaline that she had no memory of that February night.

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