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Jeffrey MacDonald case: Prosecutors attack new evidence

September 19, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • Jeffrey MacDonald in 1970.
Jeffrey MacDonald in 1970. (Associated Press )

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Federal prosecutors on Wednesday attacked new evidence presented by convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, turning to witnesses who challenged a claim by a former deputy U.S. marshal that others may have killed MacDonald's family in 1970.

The former marshal, Jimmy Britt, said in sworn statements in 2005 that a key witness in the MacDonald case told him she was at MacDonald's home at Ft. Bragg, N.C., the February night his pregnant wife and daughters were murdered. Britt said Helena Stoeckley, a heroin addict, confessed to him as he drove her from South Carolina in 1979 to testify at MacDonald's murder trial in Raleigh, N.C..

But on Wednesday, Britt's fellow marshals testified that other marshals transported Stoeckley, and they portrayed Britt as a fabulist and troublemaker with a drinking problem. Prosecutors produced law enforcement documents showing that Britt was not one of the two marshals who drove Stoeckley that day.

PHOTOS: The Jeffrey MacDonald case

The claims by Britt, who has since died, are a central part of new evidence presented by MacDonald’s lawyers at a federal court hearing ordered by a federal district court panel. MacDonald, now 68, is serving three life terms for killing his wife, Colette, and daughters Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2. The killings became the basis for a bestselling book, "Fatal Vision,’’ and a hit TV miniseries.

The defense says Stoeckely, who died in 1983, is the woman in a floppy hat who MacDonald told investigators was at his home the night of the murders, chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs," as three male intruders stabbed and bludgeoned his family.

Further undercutting Britt's claims Wednesday, a former FBI agent who drove Stoeckley on a different occasion in 1979 testified that she told him she had no memory of the night of the murders because she was "knocked out" by mescaline, heroin and other drugs she had taken.

The former agent, Frank J. Mills Jr., said Stoeckley also told him that she lied to police and military investigators when she said she could have been at MacDonald’s house.

"A lie would be more believable than the truth, which was simply that she was so high on drugs she couldn't remember anything," Mills said, paraphrasing Stoeckley.

On cross-examination, Mills conceded to defense lawyer Gordon Widenhouse that Stoeckley did not "categorically state that she was not involved in the murders."’

Stoeckley told several reporters over the years that she witnessed her boyfriend, who has since died, and another man kill MacDonald’s family.

MacDonald, a former Army doctor, was granted the hearing based on Britt's claim and on defense contentions that DNA in hairs from the murder scene, tested in 2006, do not belong to MacDonald or anyone in his family. In court papers, prosecutors have contended that the hairs could not have come from intruders.

On Monday, Britt's former supervisor at the marshal’s office in Raleigh, William Berryhill, described Britt as a "marginal employee" who caused "discord" in the office.

"He was rather large in ego and rather small when it came to veracity,"’ Berryhill testified.

Another former supervisor, Eddie Sigmon, described Britt as "an attention-seeker’’ who submitted a false overtime claim and got into a fistfight with another agent over a woman working in the office.

Britt also claimed that he heard the lead prosecutor at MacDonald's trial tell Stoeckley that he would charge her with murder if she testified that she was at MacDonald's home the night of the murders. Stoeckley testified in 1979 that she couldn’t remember anything about that night because she was high on drugs, but the defense says she was afraid to testify truthfully because of the prosecutor's alleged threat.

Wednesday's testimony came as the government opened its presentation following two days of defense testimony by six witnesses. The hearing is set to continue Wednesday afternoon.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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