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Jeffrey MacDonald claims challenged at 'Fatal Vision' hearing

September 20, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • Jeffrey MacDonald, right, appears in federal court in Wilmington, N.C., on Aug. 28, 1979. MacDonald's pregnant wife and two young daughters were killed in their Ft. Bragg home in 1970.
Jeffrey MacDonald, right, appears in federal court in Wilmington, N.C.,… (Associated Press )

WILMINGTON, N.C. – Did the lead prosecutor in the federal murder trial of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald 33 years ago intimidate a key defense witness whose testimony might have led to MacDonald’s acquittal instead of conviction?

Lawyers for MacDonald, who is serving three life sentences for killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters in 1970, have made that argument at a new hearing in the 42-year-old case. They say prosecutor James Blackburn threatened Helena Stoeckley, a heroin addict who claimed she was among four intruders at MacDonald’s house at Ft. Bragg, N.C., the night of the killings.

But for the last two days, federal prosecutors have slowly chipped away at that claim. They continued the attack Thursday as a former assistant U.S. attorney testified that a deputy U.S. marshal who said he heard Blackburn’s threat was not even in the room when Blackburn interviewed Stoeckley.

The claim by the former marshal, the late Jimmy Britt, is a central element in the new evidence brought by MacDonald. The defense also cites DNA on three hairs from the crime scene that does not match MacDonald or any member of his family, suggesting evidence of intruders.

MacDonald, 68, has steadfastly maintained that four intruders – including a woman in a floppy hat who chanted, "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs" – stabbed him, knocked him unconscious and killed his family. The defense says Stoeckley, who died in 1983, is that woman.

The case became the basis of the best-selling book "Fatal Vision" and a hit TV mini-series.

On Thursday, former Assistant U.S. Atty. Jack B. Crawley said Britt was not in the room where Blackburn purportedly told Stoeckley he would prosecute her for murder if she testified that she was at the crime scene. Stoeckley had told numerous people that she was present when her boyfriend and another man stabbed and bludgeoned MacDonald’s family.

But in her interview with Blackburn, witnessed by Crawley, Stoeckley denied ever being at the MacDonald house, Crawley testified. When shown crime scene photos, Stoeckley said she did not recognize the murder scene, Crawley said.

On Wednesday, Blackburn testified that he never threatened Stoeckley and also said Britt was not present at the interview.

Britt also claimed that Stoeckley confessed to him as he drove her from South Carolina to the MacDonald trial in August 1979. Prosecutors introduced law enforcement documents and other testimony Wednesday showing that two other marshals drove Stoeckley that day.

Stoeckley testified at the 1979 trial that she was not at the murder scene and was so high on mescaline and heroin that she had no memory of that night. MacDonald’s lawyers say she wanted to testify that she was at the MacDonald home, but feared retaliation from the prosecution.

Also Thursday, the Army investigator who examined the crime scene the night of the killings in February 1970 gave a detailed account of how he collected blood, fibers and other evidence. Gruesome photos of the bloodied bodies of MacDonald’s wife, Colette, and daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, were displayed in the courtroom.

Also shown was a photograph of the word "pig" written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom, where Colette’s body was found. Prosecutors at the 1979 trial theorized that MacDonald wrote the word while staging the crime scene to make it appear that drug-crazed hippies had committed the killings. They also theorized that MacDonald's injuries, which included a collapsed lung, were self-inflicted. 

Among the evidence found in the home was an Esquire magazine with an article about the Charles Manson cult murders in California six months earlier. The word "pig" was also scrawled in blood at the Manson murder scene.   

The hearing resumes Friday.

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