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Jeffrey MacDonald case: Prosecutor denies threatening key witness

September 19, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • In this Aug. 28, 1979, photo, Jeffrey MacDonald, right, appears in federal court in Wilmington, N.C.
In this Aug. 28, 1979, photo, Jeffrey MacDonald, right, appears in federal… (Associated Press )

WILMINGTON, N.C. – A disgraced former federal prosecutor testified Wednesday that he never threatened a key witness at the 1979 murder trial of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald – a crucial defense allegation in a federal court hearing on new evidencethat MacDonald says could prove he did not kill his wife and two daughters in 1970.

James Blackburn, who led the successful prosecution of MacDonald, denied under oath that he had told a witness he would charge her with murder if she testified that she and others were at MacDonald’s home at Ft. Bragg, N.C., the night of the killings. MacDonald, a former Army doctor, has said intruders committed the murders.

Asked by a federal prosecutor Wednesday whether he threatened Helena Stoeckley, a heroin addict who told numerous people she was at MacDonald’s home the night of the killings, Blackburn replied, "No, I never did that.’’

PHOTOS: The Jeffrey MacDonald case

Blackburn, who pleaded guilty to fraud, embezzlement and other felonies in an unrelated case in 1993, also testified that the deputy U.S. marshal who  said that he overheard the threat was not even in the room where Blackburn and other prosecutors were interviewing Stoeckley. He said he had never allowed a marshal to be present during a witness interview.

Blackburn’s testimony came on the opening day of the government’s case in a hearing to consider two new claims by MacDonald: One, that Blackburn threatened and intimidated a key witness. Two, that three hairs that underwent DNA analysis in 2006 do not belong to MacDonald or his family and could instead be from intruders.

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.

Former deputy marshal Jimmy Britt gave sworn statements in 2005 that Stoeckley confessed to him as he drove her from South Carolina to MacDonald’s trial in Raleigh, N.C., in 1979. But prosecutors presented law enforcement documents Wednesday showing that other marshals, not Britt, actually drove Stoeckley that day.

The defense says that Stoeckley, who died in 1983, was the woman in a floppy hat who MacDonald claims was at his home the night of the killings. MacDonald told investigators the woman held a candle and chanted "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs’’ as other intruders knocked him unconscious and stabbed and bludgeoned his family.

Two of Britt’s former supervisors in the U.S. marshal’s office in Raleigh testified Wednesday that Britt, who has since died, was a fabulist and a troublesome employee who could not be trusted.

"He was rather large in ego and rather small when it came to veracity,’’ said William Berryhill, the chief U.S. marshal in Raleigh in 1979.

Eddie Sigmon, the chief deputy marshal at the time, described Britt as "an attention-seeker’’ who submitted a phony overtime claim and got into a fistfight with another marshal over a woman working in the office.

Also 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 killings because she was "knocked out’’ by mescaline, heroin and other drugs.

The former agent, Frank J. Mills Jr., said Stoeckley told him that she lied to police and military investigators when she said she might 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.’’ Mills also said Stoeckley described "a recurring dream’’ in which she was in MacDonald’s home, holding a candle and chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.’’

Stoeckley told reporters and others over the years that she saw her boyfriend, who has since died, and another man kill MacDonald’s wife and daughters. But on the stand at MacDonald’s 1979 trial, she denied being at the murder scene and said she was so high on drugs that she had no memory of that night.

Blackburn said Stoeckley told him and other prosecutors the day before her testimony that she had never been to MacDonald’s home.

Widenhouse, the defense lawyer, did not directly challenge Blackburn on his denial of Britt’s allegations. Instead, Widenhouse focused on the details of Blackburn’s fraud and embezzlement, in which he lied to clients, forged judge’s signatures and stole $234,000 from his law firm. Blackburn served three months in prison.

"I basically shot my legal career in the head,’’ Blackburn said.

But while he deceived and defrauded his clients and law firm, Blackburn said, he would never lie on the witness stand. He said he had learned from his mistakes and is now a motivational speaker who gives seminars to lawyers.

Blackburn got the loudest laughs in three days of hearings when he told of taking a job as a restaurant host. One day, he said, he asked a customer when her baby was due. Informed that the woman was not pregnant, Blackburn told her, "No more hush puppies for you.’’

He was demoted to waiter.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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