Jeffrey MacDonald is accused of stabbing his family to death

Jeffrey MacDonald is accused of stabbing his family to death

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Jeffrey MacDonald stands trial in North Carolina for the murder of his wife and children nearly 10 years before. Captain MacDonald, an army doctor stationed at Fort Bragg, made an emergency call to military police in the early morning hours of February 17, 1970. Responding officers found Colette MacDonald and her two children, five-year-old Kimberley and two-year-old Kristen, dead from multiple stab wounds. The word “pig” had been written in blood on the headboard of a bed. Jeffrey, who had a few stab wounds himself, told the officers that four hippies had attacked the family.

With little evidence of disruption to the home, investigators doubted MacDonald’s story of struggling with the killers. An Esquire magazine containing an article about the notorious Manson murders was on the floor in the living room where MacDonald claimed to have been attacked. Investigators theorized that the hippie story and writing on the wall were attempts to mimic that crime and diffuse suspicion.

More important, the blood and fiber evidence did not seem to support MacDonald’s account of events. In a stroke of luck for detectives, each member of the MacDonald family had different and distinguishable blood types. Little of Jeffrey’s blood was found anywhere in the home except in the bathroom. In addition, his wounds were much less severe than those of his family; his wife and children had been stabbed at least 20 times each.

Still, the initial forensic investigation was badly bungled and the charges were eventually dropped later in 1970. A three-month military hearing ended without a court-martial due to lack of evidence and MacDonald was honorably discharged shortly afterward. Although MacDonald appeared on television complaining about his treatment, investigators stayed on the case. In 1974, a grand jury indicted him for murder, but due to various delays, the trial did not begin for another five years. In 1979, MacDonald was convicted and given three life sentences.

MacDonald, still vigorously insisting on his innocence, enlisted author Joe McGinnis to help exonerate him. McGinnis interviewed MacDonald and investigated the case on his own, but decided early on in the project that MacDonald was indeed guilty. The subsequent book, Fatal Vision, was a bestseller and it enraged MacDonald, who sued McGinnis for fraud.

MacDonald has since exhausted his appeals—his case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court more than any other—and remains in prison.

The case was re-examined by documentarian Errol Morris in the 2020 FX series "A Wilderness of Error."

Did Jeffrey MacDonald Kill His Family or Was He the Victim of Manson Copycats?

Portrait of American convicted murder, former doctor and Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald at the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island in San Pedro, Los Angeles, California, November 9, 1990. Photo: Bob Riha Jr./Getty Images

Did Jeffrey MacDonald Kill His Family or Was He the Victim of Manson Copycats?


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Did Jeffrey MacDonald Kill His Family or Was He the Victim of Manson Copycats?

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Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including violence to children. Reader discretion is advised.

Amid 50 years of uncertainty about whether Jeffrey MacDonald killed his family, there is no doubt his wife and two young daughters died in pain and anguish.

A pregnant Colette MacDonald, 26, and her children Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, were brutally attacked early February 17, 1970, at their home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Army surgeon MacDonald, who suffered a punctured lung, told police that drug-crazed hippies slaughtered his family. The Green Beret captain recalled a woman chanting �id is groovy… kill the pigs,” and fighting three male assailants before losing consciousness.

To some, it sounded like a copycat killing modeled after Charles Manson’s sadistic cult. Among other atrocities, Manson disciples murdered actress Sharon Tate in California on August 6, 1969 and wrote “Pig” in blood on the front door.

The word “Pig,” was inscribed with blood on the headboard of the MacDonalds’ bed.

But Army investigators found the doctor’s story and Manson connection dubious. There was no forced entry into the home and MacDonald’s injuries were far less substantial than that of his wife and daughters. On May 1, 1970, the Army charged MacDonald with three counts of murder. But five months later, investigators dropped all the charges and honorably discharged him from the Army.

Eventually, after pressure from Colette’s family, MacDonald was indicted and found guilty of the three murders on August 29, 1979.

The now 76-year-old is serving three consecutive life sentences and is currently housed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.

MacDonald, who maintains his innocence, has appealed and sought a retrial several times.

“I don’t want or deserve this,” he wrote from prison in 1982, according to the book Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss. “I need to walk out of here, back to life. I would like to smell the flowers again, and I think I should.”

Despite MacDonald’s claims of innocence, Bob Stevenson, Colette’s brother, remains convinced of his guilt. “He butchered her,” Stevenson said following a 2012 court hearing.

The savage act calls out for closure but “people are still debating the merits of his case today,” criminal defense attorney Phil R. Dixon tells A&E Real Crime.

“The grisly nature of the case and Manson-like details, as well as the length of litigation surrounding it, seem to have generated an almost mythical status around the case,” says Dixon, a University of North Carolina School of Government defender educator, who has blogged about the murders.

Jeffrey and Collette MacDonald’s Romance and Marriage

Jeffrey and Colette dated in high school on Long Island, New York and married in 1963 when she was pregnant with Kimberley.

“I adore you,” then Skidmore College student Colette wrote MacDonald in 1963, McGinniss recorded in his book.

“She had this sort of very lovely appearance, quiet beauty and a sort of vulnerable look,” MacDonald is quoted as saying in the book, Fatal Vision.

After graduating from Princeton University, MacDonald attended medical school, then pursued a military career.

Colette was often left alone to raise the girls and the marriage experienced rough patches, her mother Mildred Kassab testified in a September 1974 grand jury hearing.

“‘Mommie, don’t ever say anything to Jeff because he cannot stand criticism,&apos” Kassab recalled Colette saying once when she suggested her son-in-law should help more. During their last Christmas together, the 𠇊tmosphere was very tense,” Kassab said.

A Brutal Crime Scene

At about 3:30 p.m. on February 17, 1970, a distraught MacDonald called the police and told them to send an ambulance.

Military police entered by an unopened back door and found the physician alive, lying on the floor near his wife in their blood-splattered bedroom.

Colette’s head had been struck with such force that her skull was visible, court documents indicate. Her body was punctured multiple times with an ice pick and knife.

Kimberley was tucked into bed, her head battered and neck slashed.

Kristen also lay in bed. She had been stabbed repeatedly in the heart. Some of Colette’s wounds were defensive and authorities contended her last moments were spent trying to save Kristen.

“She was a very gentle person, but she was extremely maternal,” Kassab said.

MacDonald told investigators he dozed off in the living room and woke to screams. Standing over him were three men and a blonde with long hair and a white, floppy hat holding a candle.

𠆊 Wilderness of Error’

Through the years, MacDonald and his defense team have blamed military authorities for not securing the crime scene and mishandling evidence

For example, a medic righted a fallen flowerpot on the living room floor. Kristen’s fingerprints weren’t taken and those of Colette were incomplete. A doctor removed MacDonald’s bloody pajama top from its place on Colette’s body, court records show.

Another blunder involved the woman with the floppy hat, author Errol Morris wrote in his book A Wilderness of Error, which contends MacDonald was railroaded and is innocent of the murders.

A military police officer glimpsed a woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat while driving to the MacDonalds’ home at 544 Castle Drive, but that information wasn’t acted on promptly, Morris noted.

The woman turned out to be Helena Stoeckley, a free spirit, drug addict and police informant living in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She owned a large hat and blonde wig but disposed of both after learning about the tragedy, according to court records.

Stoeckley later moved to Nashville and confessed being “involved in some murders” to an acquaintance who reported it to the FBI. Stoeckley also told a Nashville police officer she thought she witnessed the MacDonald killings.

Point of No Return

The Army charged MacDonald with murder in May 1970. Officials conducted an Article 32 military hearing (similar to a civilian preliminary hearing), then dismissed the case because of “insufficient evidence” in October.

MacDonald started a new life in California as an emergency room doctor, purchasing a luxury condominium, a sports car and a yacht.

Colette’s stepfather, Freddy Kassab, was at first a staunch supporter of MacDonald, but then became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt and crusaded for the case to be reopened.

MacDonald was indicted by a federal grand jury in January 1975 for the three murders.

One key piece of evidence during the trial was MacDonald’s pajama top, found riddled with 48 punctures� times the number of wounds in his body but matching the number of wounds on Colette’s chest. MacDonald had claimed it had been ripped off while struggling with the intruders and he used it to ward off blows. But laboratory tests matched fibers and threads from the pajamas to a piece of lumber used as a club and stained with blood. The fibers and threads also were scattered through the bedrooms.

Prosecutors speculated MacDonald’s rampage followed an argument with Colette that spiraled. The noise woke Kimberley, who entered the bedroom and was hit by her father amid the chaos.

MacDonald realized he was at a point of no return and needed to eliminate any witnesses, attorneys said. After killing both daughters, MacDonald placed his pajama top on Colette’s chest and stabbed her through the fabric, possibly to bolster his story, they surmised.

In a setback for the defense, Stoeckley denied knowledge of the murders during the trial, saying “it was only like in a dream or something,” court records show.

Will Jeffrey MacDonald Appeal Case in 2020?

The jury convicted MacDonald August 29, 1979 on three counts of murder. He appealed and was released in 1980 after the 4 th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled MacDonald was denied the right to a speedy trial. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision in 1982.

In 2012, defense lawyers tried to introduce new DNA analysis—which wasn’t available during MacDonalds’s original trial—of three human hairs found at 544 Castle Drive. The hairs did not match MacDonald or any of the victims.

He also sought to include evidence from a U.S. Deputy Marshal who claimed Stoeckley told him in 1979 that a prosecutor threatened her with a murder indictment if she testified that she was in the MacDonald home the night of the murders.

U.S. district court and 4 th Circuit Court of Appeals judges rejected requests for a retrial in 2014 and again in 2018.

“There are no pending appeals right now,” Raleigh attorney Hart Miles, who represents MacDonald, tells A&E Real Crime.

Veteran North Carolina defense attorney James P. Cooney III works with the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to free the wrongly convicted.

Asked if MacDonald would be a good candidate for the organization, Cooney tells A&E Real Crime, “I’m just not sure he would. In the sense that, with the Innocence Project, what you’re really looking for is good, solid forensic evidence that will include or exclude somebody.”

MacDonald’s story continues to be paradoxical, Cooney notes.

“He’s less wounded [than his wife and daughters], even though he’s in more of a struggle. How does that happen? The perpetrators—why don’t they kill him? Why are they killing the baby [Kristen]?” Cooney asks.

If the group that MacDonald claimed murdered his family resembled Manson’s crew, they wouldn’t just fade into oblivion, they𠆝 strike again, Cooney theorizes. 𠇏our strangers coming in doesn’t make a lot of sense. They aren’t stealing anything. There’s no signs of a forced entry.”

What is evident, Cooney says, is “there’s a lot of rage and hate at that crime scene.”

'The Wilderness of Error': Why did Colette MacDonald's family and friends believe that her husband was guilty?

Colette and Jeffrey MacDonald (FX)

In February 1970, the gruesome murders of the wife and two daughters of Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald had shocked the nation. MacDonald called for help in the early hours of February 17 that year and when four military officers responded, they came across a bloody scene where they found MacDonald's wife Colette, and his two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen dead. MacDonald himself was unconscious.

Colette MacDonald had been repeatedly clubbed, with both her arms broken and stabbed 21 times with an ice pick and 16 times with a knife. Five-year-old Kimberly was found in her bed, having been clubbed in the head and stabbed in the neck with a knife between eight and 10 times. 2-year-old Kristen was found in her own bed she had been stabbed 33 times with a knife and 15 times with an ice pick.

FX's latest docuseries, 'A Wilderness of Error' takes a deep dive into what really happened that night and is based on the book of the same name by Errol Morris. Among those featured in the docuseries are friends and family of Colette's.

According to MacDonald, four intruders were responsible for the murders and the attacks, including three men and a woman with blonde hair wearing a floppy hat. That woman was later discovered to be 18-year-old Helena Stoeckley, a regular drug user who had, in fact, claimed to have been part of the group that attacked the MacDonalds which included her boyfriend, Army veteran Greg Mitchell. Due to the confusing circumstances, MacDonald was never indicted for the murders.

However, not everyone was convinced. Once the investigations were over, MacDonald gave television interviews to talk about the experience and moved to Southern California where he quickly began to enjoy a prolific life. Colette's stepfather, Freddy Kassab, who initially supported MacDonald, began suspecting that MacDonald did, in fact, have a role in the deaths of Colette and the two children, and began a nearly decade-long crusade to prove that MacDonald was guilty. Even her friend, who is featured in the docuseries says that Colette had admitted problems between her and Jeffrey before her death and had asked her mother if she could go home just before she was killed. Colette's mother, Mildred Kassab told her it was not a good time and Colette had to stay put.

In 1971, Kassab, became progressively suspicious of MacDonald and sought formal reopening of the case. In July 1974, a Federal judge acted on a citizen's criminal complaint by Kassab and others, by putting the case before a grand jury.

The lead prosecutor for the case, Jim Blackburn began to analyze every piece of evidence from the trial, including MacDonald's pajama shirt, which was draped over Colette's body, and the bedsheet she was wrapped in. The shirt had many holes that were stated to be from an ice pick. During a demonstration during the trial, Blackburn and his colleague showed that had MacDonald been attacked, the holes would not be perfectly round as they were, but instead would be ripped. They concluded that the shirt was stabbed while it was stationary. Additionally, Blackburn also accidentally stabbed his colleague in the wrist. The absence of wounds of MacDonald's wrists further sowed doubts about MacDonald in their minds.

Eventually, MacDonald was convicted of second-degree murder of his wife and older daughter and of first-degree murder of his younger daughter on August 29, 1979, and was immediately sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

'A Wilderness of Error' will continue with its remaining two episodes on FX on October 2, at 8/7c.

If you have an entertainment scoop or a story for us, please reach out to us on (323) 421-7515

Who Were the Suspects that Jeffrey MacDonald Says Murdered His Family?

When military police officer Ken Mica arrived at Jeffrey MacDonald’s Fort Bragg, North Carolina apartment on Feb. 17, 1970, he saw MacDonald in the master bedroom, lying on his stomach next to his bloodied wife, Colette.

“I see he’s still alive and I lean down next to him and say, ‘Who did this?’ ” Mica tells PEOPLE. 𠇊nd he starts describing three guys and a woman.”

The woman he described — long blonde hair or wig, a floppy hat and knee-high boots — resembled a woman Mica had passed on the way to the apartment belonging to MacDonald, a Green Beret surgeon. Mica says it was unusual to see a woman alone at that hour at Fort Bragg.

He told his lieutenant to send a police car, but no car was ever sent.

Later that morning, Fayetteville police detective Prince Beasley heard a description of the intruders and recognized one of them — the female — as Helena Stoeckley, who had a history with drugs and was one of his narcotics informants. Beasley had his dispatch call CID, the Army’s investigative division, to let them know he had one of the suspects.

But no one ever responded, he said.

Thus began Stoeckley’s long and complicated relationship with the case of the murder of Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife, Colette, 26, and their daughters Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2. Over the next 12 years, she repeatedly confessed to being at the MacDonald home on Feb. 17, 1970, the night of the murders. So did her boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, a Vietnam veteran who𠆝 picked up a heroin addiction while fighting overseas.

But more than nine years after the murders, in 1979, MacDonald was convicted of the murders. He has always maintained his innocence, though prosecutors and Collette’s brother, Bob Stevenson, are just as adamant he’s guilty.

• For more on the Jeffrey MacDonald case, watch People Magazine Investigates: The Accused, on Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on ID.

On Jan. 26, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia will hear oral arguments on MacDonald’s �tual innocence” claim, which has a high legal hurdle for overturning a conviction.

US Attorney John Stuart Bruce declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying in a statement to PEOPLE: “When cases are pending court proceedings, it is the practice of our office to litigate the case in court — through evidence and argument in hearings and in written filings with the court — rather than through the news media.”

Derek Chauvin’s mother speaks out ahead of sentencing

Former Army captain and ex-surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald — who is serving three life sentences for the high-profile slaying of his pregnant wife and two young daughters more than 50 years ago — is once again seeking his freedom.

MacDonald, whose story was told in the bestselling true-crime book “Fatal Vision” by late journalist Joe McGinniss, has a hearing Thursday afternoon in the Eastern District of North Carolina to determine whether his motion for compassionate release will be granted.

Chief Judge Terrence Boyle is scheduled to hear arguments from both sides but MacDonald, 77, will not be in court. It’s unclear when the judge will issue his decision.

The case attracted international attention for its shocking brutality. MacDonald slaughtered his wife, Colette, and their two daughters, 5-year-old Kimberly and 2-year-old Kristen, on Feb. 17, 1970, in their Fort Bragg home.

Jeffrey MacDonald, right, appears in federal court in Wilmington, NC on Aug. 28, 1979. AP

After an argument, MacDonald used a three-foot-long wooden club to batter Colette, who was five months pregnant. At some point, possibly awoken by the fight, Kimberly entered her parents’ room.

“He used the same club to bludgeon Colette repeatedly, breaking both her arms as she fought to defend herself,” wrote Assistant US Attorney John Harris in a motion opposing his release.

After realizing he’d likely killed his daughter, he transitioned to cover-up mode to save himself — by ensuring each member of his family was dead then claiming that hippies chanting “acid is groovy, kill the pigs” were the real perpetrators, the prosecutor said.

“He stabbed Colette, Kimberly, and little Kristen over and over again with a paring knife — and Colette and Kristen yet again with an ice pick — all in an effort to support his cover story of a ritualistic killing by a group of home-invading hippies,” wrote Harris.

MacDonald’s fanciful story mirrored the Manson Family murders.

After a six-week trial, MacDonald was found guilty in 1979 and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.

He has consistently proclaimed his innocence — and, before the trial, invited McGinniss to collaborate on a book that he thought would support his position.

Jeffrey MacDonald gestures at the federal correctional institution in Sheridan, Ore. on March 1, 1995. AP

But the plan backfired spectacularly after McGinniss became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt and wrote a scathing 976-page tome arguing that the ex-Green Beret was a “narcissistic sociopath” who barbarically murdered his family in an amphetamine-induced rage.

Published in 1983, the bestselling book inspired a TV series and prompted MacDonald to sue McGinniss, whose publisher eventually settled out of court.

MacDonald applied for parole in 2005, which was denied.

After exhausting all his appeals, he applied for compassionate release in November of 2020 on the grounds that he could suffer severe illness or death as a result of contracting COVID-19. Earlier that same year, he had waived his right to two parole hearings, according to court papers.

“Dr. MacDonald’s underlying medical conditions … constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons for a prison reduction,” wrote his lawyer Hart Miles in the motion.

On Jan. 11, MacDonald tested positive for the virus without experiencing any symptoms and called the results a false positive.

Jeffrey MacDonald, right, and his wife Colette in Fort Bragg, NC in 1969. AP

On March 3, he refused the Moderna vaccine — although he suffers from chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure and a history of skin cancer, prosecutors said.

“To the extent that any risk remains, he has voluntarily assumed it by rejecting the risk-mitigating measures offered to him,” wrote Harris. “He cannot reasonably expect that prolonging his risk by declining vaccination will be rewarded with a sentence reduction.”

The horrific nature of the crime also does not support release, wrote the prosecutor, who hammered home the point by including gruesome crime scene photos of MacDonald’s slain little girls and wife.

“To release him would undermine the seriousness of his crimes,” wrote Harris. “That is especially true when the victims were innocent children — his own children — and he has never accepted responsibility or shown remorse for his actions.”

Where is Jeffrey MacDonald Now?

In February 1970, four people were stabbed in a family&rsquos residence in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was almost a scene out of a horror movie and had transpired only a few months after the Manson murders. Three people died that night, and the homicide is still seen as one of the most gruesome crimes to have ever taken place in America. In this article, we take a look at the sole survivor of the incident, who is the subject of FX’s ‘ A Wilderness of Error.’

Jeffrey MacDonald&rsquos Background

Jeffrey MacDonald was born on October 12, 1943, in New York City, to Robert and Dorothy MacDonald. The family lived in Long Island. Jeffery attended Patchogue High School, which is also where he met his future wife, Colette, in the 8th grade. He was voted “most popular” and “most likely to succeed.&rdquo Apart from this, he was also the Senior Class President and the football team captain.

Due to his brilliant academic record, Jeffery was able to secure a scholarship to Princeton University. It is during this time that Colette and he resumed their romance. The couple got married in 1963 when she was pregnant with their first child. Kimberley, their daughter, was born on April 18, 1964.

The father then pursued medicine at Northwestern University Medical School. Consequently, the family moved to Chicago. On May 8, 1967, the couple welcomed their second daughter, Kristen. After an internship with Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Jeffery decided to join the Army in 1969. They then moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was a surgeon and held the rank of Captain.

The Crime

It seemed as though the MacDonalds were the quintessential American family. But a horrific crime occurred in their house on February 17, 1970. Colette, who was four months pregnant with their third child, had been stabbed to death 21 times with a knife and 16 times with an ice pick. She had also suffered blows to her arms and head and was found lying on her bedroom floor. It must be noted that the word &ldquopig&rdquo had been smeared across the headboard.

Image Credit:

Unfortunately, Colette&rsquos daughters suffered the same fate. Kimberley was just 5 when she was discovered lifeless in her bed. She had been stabbed in the neck 8-10 times and had suffered blows to the head. 2-year-old Kristen was afflicted with 33 knife wounds and had also been stabbed 15 times with an ice pick.

The Green Beret doctor was the only one that survived the attack. He had a mild concussion and had been bruised, cut, and scratched. He had also been stabbed in his chest which led to a collapsed left lung. However, Jeffery was still alive and had called the military police around 3:42 am. He was taken to Womack Army Medical Center for treatment. The Army then launched an investigation into the incident.

Jeffery MacDonald&rsquos Annal of Events

When speaking to the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), Jeffery recalled that Kristen had wet his side of the bed that night. He took his child to her own room and slept outside on the couch so as to not wake his wife up while changing the sheets. However, he heard screams, which is when the surgeon woke up only to find four hippies present in his residence.

Image Credit: The Fayetteville Observer

There were 3 men (2 white and 1 black) and 1 woman present, according to Jeffery. The father claimed that he had been attacked by the men. Furthermore, he described the female as white with blond hair. She was wearing a floppy hat that partially covered her face and heeled boots. Apparently, she was also saying &ldquoKill the pigs. Acid&rsquos groovy&rdquo while holding a candle. She was later identified as Helena Stoeckley, and an MP even saw a similar person half a mile from the MacDonald residence that night around 4 am.

Jeffery passed out from the assault and when he woke up, the group had left. The first thing the husband did after regaining consciousness was checking on Colette. However, he was greeted by a vicious sight. He tried to give her mouth to mouth, but it was too late. He went to check on his children, but they, too, had died. Then, he covered Colette&rsquos chest with his pajama top and passed out again.

The CID Investigation

The investigators felt that Jeffery&rsquos story did not add up to the evidence they had found. Firstly, there was little proof of a struggle in the living room aside from a flipped table and a knocked over flower pot. Next up was the fact that the fibers from his pajama top were found in the bedrooms of the deceased, but not in the living room, where Jeffery claimed it had been torn.

Apart from this, the injuries that the surgeon sustained were not as severe as the ones inflicted on his family. Therefore, authorities felt that he had first killed them, and then afflicted himself to make it look like a home invasion. This notion was only strengthened due to Jeffery&rsquos medical prowess. In May 1970, he was found guilty of murdering his wife and children by the Army.

Many sources have stated that the crime scene had been heavily contaminated. In fact, The Fayetteville Observer also reported that critical mistakes were made while retrieving and testing the samples. For example, fingerprints had not been collected from the children&rsquos bodies. Furthermore, some bloody handprints and footprints were also destroyed. People were allowed to enter the premises even before the evidence had been completely dealt with, and in fact, Jeffrey’s wallet had also been stolen. The MacDonald case, now, is often used as an example of how not to treat a crime scene during training.

Jeffery&rsquos Legal Trysts

An Article 32 hearing in 1970 actually cleared the name of the surgeon in relation to the crimes. He was also honorably discharged. Following this, he felt the need to start afresh. So he moved back to New York City, and then in 1971, he went to Long Beach, California. He worked as a physician in the emergency room of St. Mary Medical Center. Jeffery even went on &lsquoThe Dick Cavett Show,&rsquo where he mostly spoke about the military&rsquos focus on him and did not talk much about his family. Many found his behavior during the segment odd.

It was also around this time that Jeffery&rsquos biggest supporter, his father-in-law, Freddy Kassab, turned against him. Freddy said, &ldquoIt wasn’t any one thing. The little doubt about Jeff’s story just kept multiplying.&rdquo He also went over the court documents from Jeffery&rsquos trial, and soon, Freddy was convinced that the events could not have happened the way the doctor had alleged. So, Colette&rsquos stepfather filed a citizen’s complaint against MacDonald.

In 1975, Jeffery was indicted, and by 1979, he was convicted on one count of first-degree murder for Kristen&rsquos death, and two counts of second-degree murder for Colette&rsquos and Kimberly&rsquos killing. He was awarded a life sentence for each count which had to be served consecutively. But Jeffery has always proclaimed his innocence. Over time, numerous appeals have been declined by various courts, including the US Supreme Court. He also applied for parole in 2005, which was denied.

The 1979 Trial

Although Jeffery&rsquos legal team was confident about winning the case, especially after the Army had exonerated him, things changed over the course of the trial. Judge Dupree did not allow the defense to submit psychiatric evaluations of the accused (that had stated that Jeffery was incapable of committing the crime) since there an insanity plea had not been entered.

It must also be noted that Helena had reportedly told many people that she was at the house on the night of the crime. ABC News wrote that she had confessed to her mother that Jeffery was innocent. The Atlantic also reported that she had later done an interview with 󈨀 Minutes&rsquo where she reiterated her presence. (This, however, was never aired). Greg Mitchell, her boyfriend (also a drug user), told people that he was involved with the crime.

But during the trial, when Helena was called to testify, she simply stated that she was too high to recall what had occurred that night. There was no evidence tying her to the crime scene, and hence, she was not seen as a credible witness, especially due to her long-term drug usage. Other witnesses to whom Helena had confessed were not allowed to testify following her statement.

The prosecution alleged that Jeffery MacDonald went into a homicidal rage when he saw that Kristen had wet his bed. Interestingly, all members of the family had different blood types. This statistical anomaly helped retrace Jeffery&rsquos path that night. Also, the pajama top was a key piece of evidence. Prosecutors tried to show that the holes in Jeffery&rsquos top aligned with the wounds on Colette&rsquos body. The jury deliberated on all available evidence for 6 hours before they found the surgeon guilty.

Where is Jeffery MacDonald Today?

Presently, Jeffery (who is 76) is serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution at Cumberland, Maryland. He also got remarried to a woman he met years ago in Baltimore. Her name is Kathryn Kurichh, and she used to own a children’s drama school. The pair tied the knot back in 2002, while he was still in prison. Although Jeffery was eligible for parole again in May 2020, there are no credible sources that can confirm if he applied for it or not.

Now addressed as Kathryn MacDonald, the wife naturally believes that her husband is not guilty. She stated that she had met Helena&rsquos mother in 2006, and Mrs. Stoeckley had only reaffirmed Jeffery&rsquos innocence. It was well known that the surgeon was vehemently against drugs, and Kathryn recounted what the mother had told her&mdash &ldquoHelena Stoeckley stated she and her friends thought Jeff was too hard on drug users, and they wanted to teach him a lesson, but not to kill anybody. He was trying to help soldiers returning from Vietnam break their drug habits.&rdquo

Marc Smerling, the director of ‘A Wilderness of Error,’ also tried to contact Jeffery MacDonald. However, Marc said, “I went via his wife, Kathryn and we got as far as making a time. I was going to drive down to the federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, and a few days before, they canceled. he only thing I could say is that Jeffrey, from his perspective, has not been treated well by storytellers in the past, so I think maybe they got cold feet.”

The Fort Bragg murders: is Jeffrey MacDonald innocent?

Captain Jeffrey MacDonald in October 1970 after the US army cleared him of murdering his family. He was convicted in a new criminal trial nine years later and remains in prison today. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Captain Jeffrey MacDonald in October 1970 after the US army cleared him of murdering his family. He was convicted in a new criminal trial nine years later and remains in prison today. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

T he Oscar-winning film-maker Errol Morris made his name in 1988 with The Thin Blue Line, a bravura piece of documentary-making that gained the release from prison of an innocent man who had been on death row. But although he spent several years working on that investigation, it's not this crime that has maintained the most insistent hold on his intellect and imagination. That prize goes to one committed on 17 February 1970 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

He is not alone in his obsession. The killings that took place in the early hours of that morning and their protracted aftermath have cast an ever-lengthening shadow over not just America's criminal justice system – it is the longest-running criminal case in US history – but also its national media. A small library of books, a TV mini-series, countless documentaries and a forest of newsprint have all tried to explain what happened 43 years ago inside the home of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, then 26 and a promising surgeon in the Special Forces.

At the heart of the crime and its coverage were capital letter concepts like Truth, Justice, Impartiality and Honesty but each one of these high ideals seemed to be in conflict with the others. Dishonesty was employed to establish truth, and justice often appeared less than impartial. In turn, all the media attention produced a seminal debate on the nature of journalistic ethics. Here are some basic facts on which all sides agree. At some time before 3.30am someone brutally attacked the MacDonald family in their home at 544 Castle Drive on what was then the open military base of Fort Bragg. MacDonald's 26-year-old pregnant wife, Colette, had both her arms broken and was stabbed repeatedly in the chest and neck with a paring knife and an ice pick. The couple's five-year-old daughter Kimberley was beaten across the head with a club and stabbed multiple times in the neck. Two-year-old Kristen was stabbed over 30 times in the back, chest and neck with a knife and an ice pick. MacDonald himself received relatively minor injuries except for a single stab wound that punctured his lung.

Daughter Kimberley. Photograph: The News & Observer

At around 3.30am MacDonald called the emergency services, while apparently drifting in and out of consciousness. He told the first military police to arrive that his family had been attacked by four intruders – two white men, a black man and a white woman. He said the woman held a candle and chanted "Acid is groovy" and "Kill the pigs". On the headboard in the marital bedroom the word "PIG" was written in blood.

America was a nation in turmoil in 1970. The backdrop to the murders was the Vietnam war, an increasingly vociferous protest movement and a drug-fuelled and disillusioned counterculture. Six months earlier Charles Manson's followers had committed similarly depraved murders in Los Angeles. At Roman Polanski's home they killed the director's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and with her blood smeared the word "PIG" on a wall.

That crime spooked the suburbs of America. It seemed to be the evil fruit of a society in flux, rootless, Godless, unpatriotic. And MacDonald was the very opposite of all that. A graduate of Princeton, he was the embodiment of the all-American hero – the athletic school quarterback who became a handsome, hard-working emergency doctor, the Green Beret who married his childhood sweetheart. Yet investigators soon began to suspect it wasn't drugged-up intruders who killed his family but MacDonald himself, who then carefully stabbed himself to make it look as though he had been attacked.

He was arrested by military police, but following an extensive inquiry, the longest pre-court martial hearing in military history, he was exonerated and honourably discharged from the army. He then made the tactical error of appearing on the Dick Cavett talkshow, the first of several disastrous interactions with the media. In front of a national audience, he complained at length about his treatment by the military authorities. Most viewers thought it suspicious that he spoke so much of his own plight and so little of his murdered family. Cavett talked afterwards of MacDonald's curious lack of "affect".

Watching the Dick Cavett show was MacDonald's father-in-law, Freddie Kassab, who up until that point had been his most tireless advocate. Almost overnight he became his most unstinting adversary. MacDonald made the further mistake of telling Kassab that he had tracked down one of the intruders and killed him. It was a lie, MacDonald later admitted, designed to get Kassab off his back, but it only served to deepen his father-in-law's distrust. Kassab relentlessly pressured the authorities to reinvestigate MacDonald, and five years later a grand jury was convened to establish whether the doctor should stand trial as a civilian. Eventually, in 1979, he was brought to trial in North Carolina. After hearing the evidence, the jury took just six hours to find him guilty. The judge, Franklin T Dupree, sentenced him to three consecutive life sentences.

The story might have ended there but for MacDonald's second fateful engagement with the media. Running up to the trial, he recruited Joe McGinniss to write a book about him and the case to help pay for his legal defence. McGinniss was a nonfiction author who had come to prominence with The Selling of The President, a bestselling book about Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. Both men were in their mid-30s, bright and sporty. They enjoyed each other's company and, although they had their own separate reasons for collaborating, by all accounts became close friends.

They signed a contract in which MacDonald would pick up a quarter of the author's profits. There was just one significant stipulation: McGinniss agreed to maintain "the essential integrity" of MacDonald's life story. So that he could have full access to his subject, McGinniss was made part of MacDonald's legal team. He moved into a fraternity house with MacDonald, his lawyers and various helpers. He then followed the trial assiduously. After MacDonald was found guilty and sent to prison, McGinniss remained in close correspondence, all the time giving the impression that he believed in his friend's innocence.

In 1983, almost four years after the trial, McGinniss published Fatal Vision, a big, closely researched nonfiction narrative in the tradition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Beyond all else it was a damning indictment of MacDonald. Describing at great length the surgeon's bachelor lifestyle in southern California, where he moved after leaving the army, the book is replete with MacDonald's louche trappings: sports cars, Jacuzzis, a boat called the Recovery Room, and his various young girlfriends. It was a richly detailed character assassination in which McGinniss portrayed his onetime friend as a narcissistic, woman-chasing, psychopathic child killer. It was also a massive bestseller.

MacDonald with his father-in-law at the 1970 military inquiry. Photograph: AP

The following year MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. The resulting court case was held in 1987. There was a hung jury and to avoid an expensive retrial McGinniss's insurance agents settled out of court. That civil case formed the core of a two-part New Yorker piece by Janet Malcolm that was later published in book form as The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm viewed the relationship between McGinniss and MacDonald as a symbol of the unethical relationship that exists between all journalists and their subjects. The famous opening line has since become a defining comment on the duplicity of the news media. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on," wrote Malcolm, "knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

MacDonald and his lawyers went on to make a series of appeals against his murder verdict, arguing that his trial was unfair, that key evidence was suppressed and vital witnesses silenced. The most recent hearing was held last year in Wilmington, North Carolina, in which several key witnesses gave evidence before a judge. Around the same time two more books were added to the ever-expanding bibliography. McGinniss gave a summary update entitled, perhaps optimistically, Final Vision, and Errol Morris published A Wilderness of Error, which re-examines much of the evidence and finds it wanting. Morris first got interested in the MacDonald story in the 1980s, and has been dipping in and out of the details since the 1990s. In trying to explain what brought him back to the case again and again, he writes: "It wasn't the brutality of the murders. I was afraid of something even more chilling – that MacDonald was innocent. That he had been made to witness the savage deaths of his family and then was wrongfully convicted for their murders. I wondered if people needed him to be guilty because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate."

With diagrams, photocopies and timelines, Morris's book sets out to be a forensic analysis of the murders, the various legal cases that ensued, and the critical role of media coverage. The New York Times review said of Morris: "He will leave you 85% certain that Mr MacDonald is innocent. He will leave you 100% certain he did not get a fair trial." Moreover, it is written as a defence of the notion of verifiable truth, and against the fashionable encroachment of relativism. For Morris, truth is not a matter of subjective interpretation. Something happens or it does not. MacDonald either killed his family or he did not. And Morris is far from convinced that he did.

‘Given to ironic expressions and knowing smiles’: Errol Morris in his Massachusetts office this month. Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer

Errol Morris works in a large, airy studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I visit him on a bitterly cold afternoon in February, he's editing a film about Donald Rumsfeld, provisionally titled The Known Unknown. Morris won his Oscar for The Fog of War, a brilliant documentary about Robert McNamara, the US defence secretary during the Vietnam war. Did he, I wonder, get access to Rumsfeld?

"Too much," he replies drily. "Eighteen hours of interviews."

Morris has cropped silver hair and a large genial face given to ironic expressions and knowing smiles. He was a private investigator before he was a film-maker, and before that he studied history of science under Thomas Kuhn, the man responsible for giving us the phrase "paradigm shift". Kuhn was what Morris would describe as a postmodern relativist. He was sceptical of the idea of objective truth, whereas Morris, ever since he was a child, has firmly held to the conviction that truth exists, even if it can't always be proved. Kuhn maintained that different paradigms, or scientific eras, were "incommensurable", meaning that they couldn't be understood in terms of each other. Therefore, he argued, it was a mistake to see the history of science as a progressive movement towards truth. But Morris pointed out that if paradigms were incommensurable, then the past was incommensurable, and any history of science was impossible. Kuhn grew so frustrated with his young charge that, according to Morris, he threw an ashtray at his head.

Morris was not deterred. As he later wrote in an essay on the subject of truth: "There is such a thing as truth, but we often have a vested interest in ignoring it or outright denying it. Also, it's not just thinking something that makes it true. Truth is not relative. It's not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are."

It's this conviction, and the fact that so many people believe they know what happened without any real knowledge of the evidence, that drew him to the MacDonald murders. Harvey Silverglate, an attorney for MacDonald, is an old friend of Morris, and it was he who first told him of the anomalies, doubts and inconsistencies he had encountered with the prosecution's case. "The reason for me doing it," says Morris, "is that error is something worth examining in its own right. It's a subject of great interest to me. How we come to believe things that are either not true or could be false. The title of the book [a quote from Edgar Allan Poe] captures my thinking about this case and a lot of other things. It certainly has ramifications in a geopolitical realm. It's Iraq and Vietnam writ large to me, horribly destructive wars created in a crucible of false belief."

What Morris is really talking about is the manner in which we persuade ourselves that information is proof when it's merely information. He originally wanted to make a film about the case but he says no one was interested. He describes a meeting with a studio executive in which he was told that the film can't be made. "Why?" he asks. "Because he's guilty," the executive replies. "The man killed his family."

This is a common belief in America, and its prevalence, Morris contends, has much to do with the account disseminated by McGinniss. As Morris writes: "Jeffrey MacDonald was condemned to the story that had been created around him."

In reply in Final Vision, McGinniss coolly notes that Judge Dupree did not base his evidentiary rulings "on a point of view expressed in a book published four years later", adding that the conviction was also upheld in appellate courts well before Fatal Vision was published. In a series of emails with me, McGinniss was less circumspect about Morris's book, describing it as "a whoremongery, meretricious, unmitigated piece of shit".

The MacDonald case brings out strong opinions on either side. It's not just that those involved have spent years arguing their case, nor that they fervently believe they are the seekers and defenders of the truth – it's also a sense that those who disagree with them are guilty of bad faith. Although Morris insists he doesn't want to focus on McGinniss, he can't resist taking pot shots at his character. He talks disparagingly of McGinniss's memoir Heroes. "I find it an enormous irony," he says, "in those passages written by McGinniss in Heroes where he talks about his dreams of mutilating his family." He's referring to a diary section in which McGinniss records his guilt and anxiety about leaving his first wife and children for another woman, who would become his second wife.

"Morris uses this to try to compare me to MacDonald?" says McGinniss. "That's both pathetic and ludicrous. But if you are going to take this seriously, please note that I wrote, 'I dreamed terrible dreams about the maiming and destruction of my daughters.' I didn't dream that I maimed them."

McGinniss is correct but Morris's interpretation is instructive. So much of the MacDonald case comes down to who you believe, but in carelessly or intentionally misrepresenting McGinniss's meaning, Morris serves only to undermine his own credibility. And that presents an epistemological problem. If you don't have access to the original evidence, you have to rely on interpretation. But can we trust the interpreters? At which point do facts become shaped by opinion?

Colette and Jeffrey MacDonald in 1969, a year before her murder. Photograph: Kathryn MacDonald/AP

I ask Morris if he thinks McGinniss is a reliable witness. "What am I supposed to say?" he sighs. "It was shown fairly powerfully in court the enormous number of things that McGinniss lied about. And it goes well beyond the issue of whether he misrepresented his intentions to Jeffrey MacDonald, which of course he did. If this ultimately becomes a tribunal on whom to believe, I don't think we should believe anybody, including me."

Morris talks about the case as if it was a curse, a dark spell cast on everyone who becomes embroiled in its myriad complexities and conflicts. He lists the players whose careers have been shaped or stalled by its legacy and those who went to their graves believing the truth was drowned out by false testimony.

In contrast, McGinniss insists it's a simple, clear case deliberately muddied by a killer who refuses to accept his guilt. He also maintains that he was never sucked into the quagmire that MacDonald created. "The book was published in 1983, and I moved on," he says. If his reputation was affected by Malcolm's unflattering portrait of him in what has become a set text for journalists, he says he has never regretted his role. And having been excoriated by Malcolm, he claims he is little bothered by Morris's criticisms.

"Compared to a black widow spider like Malcolm, Morris is just a penny-ante grifter," he says. "Mostly, as I'm sure you know, Morris makes his living doing TV commercials for major American corporations. Nothing wrong with that, but his artiste pose is as phoney as a North Korean election. He writes about many perceived 'injustices' that occurred during the trial without letting the reader know that these were all litigated in later years and all decided in favour of the prosecution and Judge Dupree."

Despite their mutual antipathy, there is one area on which Morris and McGinniss share some common ground, namely Janet Malcolm's critique of journalistic deception. Morris rejects Malcolm's central accusation. "For Janet Malcolm [deception] becomes the crime of all journalism," Morris says, "but you could call it the crime of human existence if you chose. The crime is that McGinniss misrepresented his intentions to Jeffrey MacDonald, that he lied and manipulated, he betrayed. To me that's not the real crime."

Morris argues that Malcolm herself was guilty of a haughty indifference that in reality was no more elevated than McGinniss's ingratiating ruse. MacDonald sent her a "mountain of documents" during her research that she effectively ignored. In The Journalist and the Murderer she treats the whole question of analysing the evidence as a tiresome and futile inconvenience. "I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald's guilt or innocence from this material," she wrote, without having examined the contents. "It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower."

"You can't be interested in the meta-history of anything without ultimately being interested in the history," Morris insists. "That's my ultimate criticism of Janet Malcolm, whom I revere, that she wants it both ways. You can't write about the relationship of a journalist and a murderer, and somehow avoid the underlying reality of whether or not… he did it!"

He draws a comparison between Malcolm and McGinniss that makes them both equally culpable of abandoning MacDonald to his hopeless fate. "It's like the parable of the drowning man. What would you prefer, the person who says 'Fuck you, I'm not going to throw you a life preserver because I think you're a cold-blooded killer and psychopath, a misogynist and a narcissist' or the postmodernist standing there with a life preserver who says, 'You just misunderstand the nature of our relationship. You just see yourself as a drowning man and me as a person standing on the shore with a life preserver, but I'm really examining the relationship between a drowning man and the person standing on the shore with a life preserver, and because of those constraints, I really can't do anything'?"

Ever since the murders, MacDonald's best hope of a life preserver has been a woman called Helena Stoeckley. Now dead, like many involved in the case, she was a major drug user living in Fayetteville near Fort Bragg who confessed to being at 544 Castle Drive the night of the murders. When the military police arrived at the house, MacDonald described the female intruder as wearing a blond wig, floppy hat and white boots. Racing to the scene, a policeman had seen a woman of that description on a street corner not far from MacDonald's house – a suspicious sight at 4am. Stoeckley admitted to being at the house, and over the years repeatedly confirmed her presence there. But at other times she withdrew the confession, and also said that she had an affair with MacDonald and had tried to buy drugs from him – both of which claims have been dismissed by all parties.

One of those to whom Stoeckley allegedly confessed was a federal marshal called Jimmy Britt. Twenty-five years after the trial Britt suddenly came forward with an affidavit stating that he had driven Stoeckley from Greenville in South Carolina to Raleigh in North Carolina, a five-hour journey, to attend the trial. During the trip, he said, Stoeckley told him she was in the MacDonald house while the murders were committed. He also stated that he had witnessed a prosecutor named James Blackburn, in a pre-trial meeting, threaten Stoeckley with prosecution if she testified that she had been at Castle Drive. Blackburn denied coercion and insisted that Britt was not present. In the event Stoeckley denied in court (although not in the presence of the jury) that she was at the MacDonald house at the night of the murders.

In A Wilderness of Error Morris writes: "The significance of Stoeckley's testimony and the outcome of the trial itself depends on whom you believe: Blackburn or Britt." But at the hearing in Wilmington last year it was revealed that Britt did not and could not drive Stoeckley from Greenville because that job was done by several marshals and there is conclusive proof that Britt was not one of them. In other words, he lied on his affidavit. If he lied about the journey, was he also lying about seeing Blackburn threaten Stoeckley?

Morris's book came out too late for him to amend, and one harsh review dubbed the result The Wilderness of Errol. When I ask whom he now believes, Blackburn or Britt, he begins to sound like the sort of relativist he derides. "Do I believe the various challenges made by the prosecution to Britt's account invalidates everything he said?" he asks rhetorically. "No, I do not agree. Do people remember things that didn't happen and forget things that did happen? All the time."

Blackburn, an assistant US attorney, was disbarred in 1993 for ethical violations and jailed, having been convicted of embezzlement and fraud. Understandably, Morris raises question marks about his character and reliability. But it also transpired that Britt, the marshal, was embittered about his government service, and it seems likely, according to evidence presented in Wilmington, that he knew that certain government records were to be destroyed after 25 years – hence the timing of his affidavit.

The MacDonald case has more than its fair share of oddities. Every established truth appears to rest on a foundation of doubt, and each of the dramatis personae embroiled in controversy. One of the most controversial figures was Judge Dupree. Even McGinniss allowed in Fatal Vision that Dupree demonstrated a physical, if not judicial, bias against the main defence lawyer, the Californian Bernie Segal. "… from the earliest days of the trial," he wrote, "the expression most often seen upon [Dupree's face] as Bernie Segal conducted cross-examination was one of distaste."

Segal believed that Dupree, a southern gentleman of the old school, was antisemitic. But perhaps he just didn't like Californians. He certainly did MacDonald few favours, ruling against the admission of psychiatric evidence that suggested he was not the kind of man to commit such a horrific murder, and preventing witnesses who heard Stoeckley confess from giving testimony.

The figure of most controversy, though, is Jeffrey MacDonald. He remains incarcerated and steadfast in his protestations of innocence. In a prison ceremony in 2002 he married a woman who is equally convinced that he is not guilty. Yet nothing adds up with him. His story about the hippie intruders seems fantastic. Acid is groovy? Kill the pigs? That sounds like dialogue from one of Roger Corman's more hamfisted exploitation movies. And why would a gang go to such sustained and ferocious lengths to kill a pregnant woman and two small children and yet leave a powerful and therefore dangerous man with only a single puncture wound?

"It's very interesting these syllogisms we set up in our head," says Morris. "We think we're arguing to some incontrovertible logical conclusion but we're doing nothing of the sort. "Why is MacDonald alive and his family dead?" asks Morris. "Good question. To me, you turn it around: Are you saying because he's alive, he killed his family?"

An artist’s sketch of the woman MacDonald claimed was involved in the killings. Photograph: Corbis

Equally, why would a man who had never previously shown aggressive tendencies, known as a loving husband and father, without warning slaughter his own family? The prosecution was never able to construct a convincing motive. Nor was McGinniss. Instead he assembled a large array of character assessments and examples of minor indiscretions to create a portrait of a seemingly normal man who, underneath a carefully composed exterior, was a raging psychopath.

McGinniss discovered that MacDonald had been taking an amphetamine diet pill called Eskatrol and surmised that the drug, and a punishing work schedule, triggered his latent psychopathy. Morris is scathing of McGinniss's account of that February night.

"MacDonald comes home and he finds that one of the kids has wet the bed and he goes berserk because he's on Eskatrol, and the underlying narcissism/misogyny/psychopathy/sociopathy caused him to slaughter his entire family? My wife is actually very good on this. We've all been tortured by this case. She says MacDonald's an emergency room doctor. Are we to believe he's never seen bodily fluids, blood, urine, God knows what else? A Green Beret emergency room doctor sees the bed is wet, 'Oh no, bodily fluids, I think I'll kill everybody.'"

Morris has had several communications with MacDonald, although he avoided contact during the writing of the book so as not to allow emotion to affect his focus. "He is a problematic person," he says. "Is there anything he said to me, anything in his demeanour that tells me he slaughtered his family? Not really, no. To me the issue is not whether I like Jeffrey or I don't like Jeffrey, because I do like Jeffrey, but I still think it's irrelevant. There are lots of people from 1969 and 1970 who really liked him, admired him and his family, saw him as a loving father."

Unlike Morris, McGinniss interviewed the jurors at the trial and he says they also warmed to MacDonald. "Not one was gleeful," he says. "They all liked and felt sorry for MacDonald. But they also all knew he'd committed the murders, and so, in many cases teary-eyed, they did their duty as citizens."

Ultimately what did for MacDonald was not his personality or his lifestyle but the forensic evidence. Morris maintains that the crime scene was despoiled by the military police who first arrived and that therefore the forensics are unreliable. But every disputed criminal case of note has its totemic piece of evidence. With OJ Simpson it was the glove that didn't fit. In the assassination of JFK it was the so-called magic bullet. In the MacDonald case it's a pyjama top.

Colette MacDonald was found by military police with her husband's folded-up pyjama top placed over her chest. MacDonald said he took the top off and laid it on his wife after he tried and failed to revive her. But the top had 48 ice-pick holes in it and MacDonald had only one puncture hole in him. He explained this by saying the top had been pulled over his head by the assailants as they tried to stab him with the ice pick. In court the prosecution showed that the top could been folded in such a way that its 48 holes could be aligned with the 21 wounds in Colette's chest, suggesting that MacDonald had placed it there before attacking his already unconscious wife. Morris argues that the prosecution withheld evidence that showed that the directionality of the pyjama fibres did not match up with the hypothesis demonstrated in court.

"I believe the pyjama top was deliberately misleading," he says. "There was a systematic pattern of the prosecution manipulating evidence, withholding evidence, destroying evidence and hiding evidence."

One of those prosecutors, Brian Murtagh, sent me a long email explaining exactly why the pyjama top demonstration was accurate and conclusive. Trying to work out who was right and what was real, I began to understand why Malcolm was reluctant to examine the evidence. The case can resemble one of those images that depict two entwined but distinct faces, only one of which can be seen at a time.

To believe one narrative is to reject the other. Yet only one can be true. There is a wilderness of error or a wasteland of truth. Either MacDonald has spent 34 years in jail for a crime he did not commit or he is a manipulative psychopath shamelessly asserting his innocence. Neither version is palatable.

"I have a slime theory of humanity," Morris told me with a playful grin. "Like molluscs, we leave this trail of slime behind us that really prevents us from seeing the world. Our own desire to create narratives, to suppress certain kinds of observations in favour of others. Our failure to collect evidence that may interfere with our underlying core beliefs. Whatever. That by the time we're done we've obscured the world around us in such a way that we can never recover it. It's not that the truth is unknowable, we make it unknowable. Basically, you can think of it that we defecate on reality."

Later this year the judge in Wilmington is due to report on his findings on the long saga of the people versus Jeffrey MacDonald. It should be the last throw of the dice for the 69-year-old doctor. McGinniss and Morris are of the same opinion: they are not expecting him to get lucky.

A Wilderness of Error is published by the Penguin Press in the US

Where is Jeffrey MacDonald now in 2020?

MacDonald went on trial in the summer of 1979, and he was convicted of one count of first-degree murder (for the death of his daughter, Kristen MacDonald), and two counts of second-degree murder (for the deaths of his wife, Colette MacDonald, and his other daughter, Kimberley MacDonald).

The prosecution argued that Colette MacDonald had allowed daughter Kristen to sleep on Jeffrey MacDonald&aposs side of the bed on Feb. 17, 1970.

After Kristen wet the bed, they surmised that the physician got angry and violent toward his wife. They claimed that, when he thought he had killed his wife, he harmed his daughters so that there would be no witnesses. 

Colette MacDonald was pregnant with a boy at the time of the killings. Jeffrey MacDonald was the one who called 911. Jeffrey MacDonald claimed that intruders had come in while he was sleeping on the couch, and that he woke up when his wife and daughter began to scream. 

Compelling pieces of evidence against MacDonald included his lack of significant wounds, and that there was an Esquire magazine found in his living room that detailed the Tate-LaBianca murders by members of the Manson Family. The word "Pig" was written on the headboard of the bed in Colette MacDonald&aposs blood (the word pig was written in blood during the Manson murders a few years earlier).

Authorities later learned that MacDonald had been having affairs during his six-year marriage. 

A woman named Helena Stoeckley confessed to taking part in the murders, and she said that her boyfriend and two others had participated as well. According to Stoeckley, the three men, who were in the Army, were concerned about MacDonald&aposs harsh stance on drug use in the base. She said that they were using illegal substances, and they snapped. 

She was 17 years old at the time of the crime. Stoeckley was a witness in MacDonald&aposs 1979 trial. She had made several contradictory statements about her role in the events in the years between the murder and the trial.

MacDonald was convicted of the murders in August of 1979, and he is currently serving out his three life sentences at the Federal Correctional Institute in Cumberland, Md. 

The now 76-year-old got married to a woman named Kathryn in 2002. The two wed in California, where MacDonald was imprisoned at the time. He was transferred to Maryland in order to be closer to his bride. She believes in her husband&aposs innocence. 

Back in December, the Fourth Circuit ruled on a habeas petition of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, denying relief. The case has been winding its way through federal courts for more than 40 years. I wanted to flag it for readers in this post, both as one of the more notorious North Carolina murder cases and as an opportunity to examine the legal principles of actual innocence claims in federal habeas. Fair warning, this post contains some minimal (but grisly) details of the killings.

Background. In 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald, a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, called the police to report that he and his family had been attacked by a group of strangers in his home. Responding officers found his pregnant wife and two daughters (aged 2 and 5) brutally murdered. MacDonald was originally charged with murder by the Army in May, 1970. In October of the same year, the Army charges were dismissed, but the Army investigators sent their work to the Department of Justice. MacDonald was honorably discharged from the Army but was indicted for the murders in federal district court in 1975. He was eventually convicted at trial in 1979 and is serving life. The case has drawn attention over the years for the brutal nature of the murder and MacDonald’s claim of actual innocence, as well as for MacDonald’s account of the real culprit—according to MacDonald, his family was murdered by a group of mysterious intruders including three men and one blond-haired woman in a “floppy” hat. That account echoed details of the infamous Charles Manson murders, which occurred around 6 months before the MacDonald family was killed. (For example, MacDonald told investigators that the woman carried a burning candle and chanted “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs”, and the word “pig” was written in blood of one of the victims on the headboard of the master bed). A copy of Esquire magazine was found in the apartment that featured the Manson killings on its cover, a fact that did not escape the prosecution’s notice. Extensive forensic evidence was hotly contested at trial, and the debate over the interpretation of that evidence has continued all the way through the post-conviction proceedings.

The blond lady in the floppy hat. MacDonald’s defense at trial focused in part on Helena Stoeckley as a possible culprit. She was blond, a well-known drug user living in Fayetteville at the time, and commonly wore a floppy hat similar to that described by MacDonald. Authorities considered her a suspect at the time of the killing. The defense called her to testify at trial, where she denied being present for the murders. Before trial and for years after (until her death) though, Stoeckley made statements to friends and family indicating she was present when the killings occurred and that she knew the real killers. Her testimony and that of corroborating witnesses was limited at trial, with the trial judge finding parts of her testimony flatly incredible—her statements often conflicted and were contradicted by physical evidence, she was an admitted long-term user of hard drugs (including on the day of the murders as Stoeckley admitted to using heroin and opium several times that day, along with hefty doses of marijuana and a dose of mescaline), and much of the information she purported to have was readily available in public media reports on the case at the time.

Post-conviction proceedings. Since 1984, MacDonald has pursued habeas relief without success. But in 1997, the Fourth Circuit granted his request to have certain items of physical evidence tested for DNA, a procedure previously unavailable. He ultimately alleged two claims in the current district court habeas case: one for prosecutorial misconduct, and one of actual innocence. The prosecutorial misconduct claim focused on an affidavit from a U.S. Marshall who interacted with Stoeckley during the trial and alleged the prosecution improperly withheld exculpatory evidence about Stoeckley, failed to correct her false testimony at trial, and improperly threatened to charge her, causing her to change her testimony. The innocence claim pointed to various items now tested for DNA that failed to match to MacDonald. MacDonald argued this, along with other new evidence, supported his story at trial, and thus his claim of innocence.

The two claims were related, but I wanted to focus on the actual innocence claim. North Carolina has a statutory procedure for innocence claims in state cases. See G.S. 15A-1460-1475. Is there such a thing as an actual innocence claim in federal court? If so, what did MacDonald need to show to obtain relief? To put that question into context, we have to look briefly at some basics of habeas procedure (only briefly, I promise).

Federal Habeas, Procedural Default, and New Evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2255 governs habeas procedure for federal prisoners comparable provisions for state prisoners are found in 28 U.S.C. § 2254. As mentioned, this was not MacDonald’s first habeas petition. A person typically only gets one bite at the habeas apple. Claims not raised in an original petition are procedurally barred unless certain narrow conditions are met: a new claim not previously raised must either deal with a new, retroactive rule of constitutional law announced by the U.S. Supreme Court, or there must be new facts supporting the claim that were not previously available through the exercise of due diligence. Where the petitioner files a successive petition under the second prong based on new evidence, the district court has to determine “whether that new evidence, ‘if proven and viewed in light of the evidence as a whole, would be sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable fact finder would have found the movant guilty of the offense.’” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h)(1) (emphasis added). It is a “rare and extraordinary case” that will meet the new evidence standard to overcome this procedural default. U.S. v. MacDonald, 641 F.3d at 614-15 (4th Cir. 2011). If the court finds that standard met, the successive petition gets reviewed on the merits if not, the claims are barred. MacDonald was hoping his new evidence met that standard to obtain merits review of his allegations, and that was the posture of the current matter—the court was deciding if his petition, if true, was sufficient to get past the procedural bar.

No constitutional right to a freestanding claim of innocence? Back to actual innocence, the U.S. Supreme Court has never recognized actual innocence as a valid substantive constitutional claim on its own. Put another way, “[c]laims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation.” Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S 390, 400 (1993). But not so fast: in Herrera, the Court also assumed without deciding that “in a capital case a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’ made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional.” Id. at 417. There, the defendant claimed that his execution would violate the 8th Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court denied relief in Herrera and has never ruled that any defendant has met this “extraordinarily high” standard. Id. (O’Conner, J., concurring). Several justices have expressed skepticism of “freestanding” claims of innocence. In the words of the late Justice Scalia: “[W]e have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on actual innocence is constitutionally cognizable.” In re: Davis, 557 U.S. 952 (2009) (Scalia, J., dissenting). In short, while the door on a freestanding constitutional claim of actual innocence hasn’t been closed, it also hasn’t been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Innocence Plus. Just two years after Herrera, in Schulp v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995), the Court considered a claim of actual innocence brought in the context of other constitutional errors in a successive petition. The defendant in Schlup asserted new Brady discovery violations and Strickland ineffective assistance claims, which (if proven) would undermine confidence in the trial, along with a claim of actual innocence. The court distinguished this situation from that of Herrera, treating the innocence claim as procedural. In the Court’s words:

Schlup’s claim of innocence is thus ‘not itself a constitutional claim, but instead a gateway through which a habeas petition must pass to have his otherwise barred constitutional claim considered on the merits.’ Id. at 315.

The holding in Schulp was later effectively codified in 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h)’s new evidence exception. So, it appears that a claim of actual innocence can proceed in federal habeas so long as it’s accompanied by a related constitutional claim. The standard in § 2255 operates as a “gateway” to merits review of the constitutional claims. Assuming a petitioner makes it through that gateway, it’s unclear how the innocence claim would then be treated on the merits, but the Fourth Circuit in MacDonald operated on the assumption that such review was possible in the right case. If so, the claim would be judged under a standard “at least as high as that required by § 2255(h)(1).” U.S. v. MacDonald, 911 F.3d 723, 798 (4th Cir. 2018).

The MacDonald decision. The Fourth Circuit held that the evidence MacDonald presented was insufficient to meet the new evidence standard justifying his successive habeas petition. Further, the court found that the claims failed on the merits even if MacDonald could overcome the procedural bar. Without wanting to minimize the complexity of the facts at issue, I just don’t have the space here to recount all of the specifics of the court’s reasoning—the unanimous decision was 154 pages—but you can read it here if you’re interested. At the end of the day, the court found MacDonald’s explanations had shifted over time to conform to new evidence, he failed to rebut the government’s evidence of his involvement, and his new evidence wasn’t reliable. He therefore could not meet the rigorous standards for review, much less relief on the merits. In the words of the court:

Simply put, we cannot say that the newly discovered evidence underlying MacDonald’s . . . claims, considered with all the other evidence, would be sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty of the murders of his wife and daughters. Id. at 796.

The End of the Road? MacDonald has a pending petition for rehearing en banc in the Fourth Circuit. If that is denied, his next step will be to seek U.S. Supreme Court review of the Fourth Circuit’s decision. What are his chances? On one hand, the odds of getting a petition for certiorari granted in the U.S. Supreme Court are low—around 2.8% in 2010 (although that number rises a little if pro se petitions are excluded). Keep in mind, that’s just for review to be granted the percentage of cases where relief is granted is even lower. Further, given the fact-intensive nature of this proceeding, it might not be an ideal case for the Supreme Court (see the 154 page opinion). On the other hand, it wouldn’t be the first, or second, time that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the case of Jeffrey MacDonald—in U.S. v. MacDonald, 435 U.S. 850 (1978), the Court ruled against MacDonald on the issue of whether his speedy trial motion could be appealed pretrial in U.S. v. MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1 (1982), the Court ruled against him on the merits of that same speedy trial motion. Given the history and posture of this case, I would be surprised if MacDonald didn’t attempt further review all the way up.

Update: Coincidentally, the petition for rehearing en banc was denied today.

How I Changed My Mind About the Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

Remember the perceptual illusion where you look at a picture and you’re certain that you see the bust of a young woman? Then, if someone draws your attention to certain details, suddenly the picture transforms into the profile of an old woman. It’s a disorienting trick. You think you know what you’re seeing, but then you aren’t so sure.

The Jeffrey MacDonald murder case is one of the most disturbing in living memory. There are only two possible pictures, both nightmares.

Picture #1. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton-educated Green Beret doctor with no history of violence and a sterling record, butchered his pregnant wife and two young daughters using a knife, ice pick and club. Then he injured himself and set up the scene to make the crimes appear to be the work of intruders. He claimed they chanted, “Kill the pigs. Acid is groovy!” and scrawled the word “PIG” on the wall in his wife’s blood.

Picture #2. Jeffrey MacDonald, a bright young man with everything in life to look forward to, lost his wife and children to senseless, horrific violence. A military hearing found charges against him “untrue,” but he was convicted nine years later in a civilian trial. He has been imprisoned for three decades for a crime he did not commit.

Two possibilities: MacDonald is a monster, or he is a victim of terrible injustice. Young woman old woman.

Until recently, most people saw Picture #1. So did I. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, about an hour from the Fort Bragg army base in Fayetteville where the murders occurred on Feb. 17, 1970, in the middle of the night. I was born in May of that year, and would thus be the same age as the child Colette MacDonald was carrying when her life was snuffed out. In the early '80s, I whipped through a dog-eared copy of Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss’ sensational true-crime novel about the killings. It was almost as scary as Helter Skelter – the story of the Charles Manson murders in Californa that are said to have inspired Jeffrey MacDonald in the coverup for his homicidal rampage.

In 1984 I was glued to the TV, like millions of other Americans, watching the popular miniseries based on McGinniss’ book. McGinniss made the murders sound like the work of a diabolical genius, a man who could transform in a moment from a loving father to a homicidal maniac, and again, in the blink of an eye, to a calculating conman. I thought of devils that lurked in human flesh, like in The Exorcist, another popular based-on-a true-story-book-turned-movie of the period that floated around our house. When the show was over, I retired to the security of my bed, safe from unpredictable evils.

A Shifting Picture

McGinniss’ stark rendering of Picture #1 stuck in my mind until recently when a friend from North Carolina told me that Errol Morris had published a book suggesting MacDonald was innocent. That got my attention: the Oscar-winning Morris, whose film The Thin Blue Line exonerated a Texas man wrongfully convicted for murder, is one of the world’s great documentary filmmakers. He is both a careful researcher and a profound investigator of the human condition.

My friend and I sat around in her backyard, tossing up what facts about the case we could recall. I even laughed at the idea of hippie murderers in North Carolina. Of all places! But then I felt uneasy. “You sure Errol Morris wrote the book?” She was sure.

Soon I was reading Morris’ A Wilderness of Error, feeling skeptical and wondering why this reputable man would involve himself in a case that everyone and their mother (including mine) knew the truth about.

But it didn’t take long to realize that something was wrong. Enough somethings to fill the long, solitary chapters of a man’s life unfolding behind prison walls.

Morris researched the MacDonald case for 20 years and knows each labyrinthine turn of its progress through the criminal justice system. Even before bureaucratic stalling and federal machinery overtook the search for truth, things were working against Jeffrey MacDonald. A crime scene was left open to bystander traffic. Inexperienced military police failed to pick up a woman near the house who fit MacDonald’s description. Many think this woman could have been Helena Stoeckley, a drug abuser and professed member of a witchcraft cult who repeatedly confessed to having been at the MacDonald house the night of the murders, but recanted her story whenever she seemed to fear prosecution. Now deceased, she remains a pivotal figure in the case.

As I read Morris’ meticulous examination the evidence, the picture in my mind became less clear. I began to see that Joe McGinniss’ creation of Picture #1 might be just that: a creation. Some of the “facts” I thought I knew began to look more like ideas conjured by eager prosecutors and a journalist who had dealt so disingenuously with Jeffrey MacDonald in writing Fatal Vision that he was sued after publication. McGinniss' publisher settled with MacDonald out of court, after the judge called the author a “conman.” (This story, in its own right, became a famous book about journalistic ethics by Janet Malcolm.)

The story many of us think we know tells that MacDonald's wounds were superficial. But he had multiple bruises and puncture wounds, and two stab wounds, including one that collapsed his lung -- a serious injury that left him falling in and out of consciouness. The popular story says there was no evidence of intruders. But there was, including wax drippings (MacDonald insisted that one of the intruders carried a candle), fibers, and hairs that did not belong to the household or family members.

McGinniss drew on pop-sociology to render an image of a psychopathic killer in the guise of the friendly doctor-next-door the kind we know from endless horror movies. He theorized that diet pills caused MacDonald to fly into a fit of rage. McGinniss had to be creative, because the man’s character never fit the crime. MacDonald had no history of violence or temper. When the initial military hearing was conducted in 1970, no one in his life could be found who had a bad thing to say about him. Psychiatric professionals on both sides pronounced him incapable of having committed the crimes. On the evening of the murders, Jeffrey MacDonald had taken his kids to ride the pony he had bought them, fed them dinner while their mother took a night class, and put them to bed. It didn’t make sense.

But did hippie intruders make sense? Maybe more than I would have thought as a teen. Vietnam-era Fayetteville was not sleepy Raleigh in the 1980s. There was violence. Soldiers’ corpses arrived at Fort Bragg stuffed with heroin. In 1970 America was gripped by the horror of the Manson murders – a fact used against MacDonald because he subscribed to Esquire magazine, which had run a story about the dark side of hippie culture. The Esquire story, for all its salaciousness, touched upon real issues that plagued many communities outside of California. In Fayetteville, an army town, strong tensions existed between army types like Jeffrey MacDonald on one side of the war, and hippies and protesters on the other. Helena Stoeckley confessed many times that MacDonald’s willingness to turn heroin addicts in to the police infuriated local drug dealers. She knew this world, and was herself a police informant. According to her, they wanted to teach MacDonald a lesson and rough up his family the night of the killings. But things got out of hand.

In October 1970, following an investigation and hearing, the military dropped its case against MacDonald, and he was honorably discharged from the army. He moved to California to become the director of emergency medicine at St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach. But an unfortunate thing happened in the following years. MacDonald’s relationship with his father-in-law, who had been a staunch supporter, became strained. Freddy Kassab had inserted himself into the 1970 military hearing and made himself the center of a media circus, holding news conferences and firing off letters to members of Congress. He wanted his son-in-law to stay on the east coast and pursue the killers. Eventually, he turned on the man he had once so ardently defended. Through his aggressive pursuit of the case, MacDonald was indicted.

MacDonald was tried in a civilian court in 1979. Many felt that his acquittal would be a cinch, but much more was to go wrong. The nine-year lag between the murders and the trial is extremely unusual experts consider such a lag to pose a great danger of wrongful conviction. Appearances didn’t help MacDonald, either. He looked angry on the stand. Worse still, Judge Franklin Dupree seemed to have his mind made up before the trial began. Some said he should never have taken the case because his former son-in-law was the prosecutor in the original army hearing. Dupree would not admit overwhelming psychiatric testimony in MacDonald’s favor, nor the testminony of witnesses to whom Helena Stoeckley had confessed her involvement. Bernie Segal, a long-haired Jewish lawyer from Philadelphia, took the lead in the case and managed to alienate the entire courtroom. Segal took up nearly all the time in the critical period for closing remarks and left only a few minutes for co-counsel Wade Smith, an eloquent native North Carolinian who understood the jury.

One thing about this case is never in doubt no matter who’s talking: If Wade Smith had been able to lead and give his closing remarks, MacDonald would be a free man today.

The list of misfortunes goes on: exculpatory evidence withheld possible prosecutorial misconduct and fallible humans who twisted the MacDonald story to fit their own agendas. MacDonald was convicted twice, both in the courtroom and in the all-important court of public opinion, which was sealed by McGinniss’ book and miniseries.

Since 1979, the MacDonald case has continued to trouble those who delve beneath the surface of the media narrative. The social justice movement is now involved the Innocence Project, a prestigious nationwide network dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, has worked strenuously to overturn MacDonald’s conviction. In a 2011 press release, the Innocence Project stated:.

Since MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979, considerable evidence of his innocence has come to light. Most recently, retired US Marshall Jimmy Britt came forward with information that another suspect in the case, Helena Stoeckley, admitted to the prosecutor that she was in the house on the night of MacDonald’s murder and that he threatened to indict her for first-degree murder if she admitted that in court. In addition, DNA testing on evidence that was recovered from the fingernails scrapings of one of the victims and a hair found under another victim did not match MacDonald. Earlier, evidence came to light that a FBI forensic examiner mislead the jury about synthetic hair evidence. MacDonald claimed the hairs were from the wig of one of the murders, but the forensic examiner incorrectly claimed they were from one of the children’s dolls.

None of this has set MacDonald free. By now, many members of the original hearing and 1979 trial are dead, including Judge Dupree. Judge James Fox, a close friend of Dupree's and quite elderly himself, has taken over and has dismissed appeals. Recently, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ordered Fox to consider new evidence, and to examine all the evidence as a whole. On Sept. 17, 2012, in Wilmington, N.C., a crowd of familiar faces assembled for a new hearing. Jeffrey MacDonald, Joe McGinnis, prosecutor James Blackburn (who went to prison himself for defrauding his clients), Wade Smith and others newer to the case gathered once again to testify.

MacDonald now waits to see if the federal judge will vacate his 33-year-old conviction. He could get an answer by the end of this year.

Wade Smith rarely grants interviews. I contacted his office, and to my surprise, he was willing to talk to me. What follows is the transcript of our conversation.

Interview: The Spookiest Case Wade Smith Ever Encountered

Lynn Parramore: In all your years as a lawyer, what makes this case stand out?

Wade Smith: It’s a very spooky case. It’s a case that if you were telling scary stories around the dining room table and you had all your family gathered, people could hardly believe it. It’s a scary, spooky story that sounds made up. It has witchcraft in it. It has Helena Stoeckley, the dominant person who continues to play a remarkable role. She’s haunting this case. In the hearing we just had in Wilmington she played an important role, decades after her death. It is also a Manson-like killing. It has Charles Manson written all over it. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the late 1960s and early '70s there were spooky, weird people on acid—back then it was believable.

LP: Then why did MacDonald, the emblem of law-and-order, the Green Beret, become a suspect? Why did people in the community believe he did it?

WS: In every murder of a spouse, the remaining spouse is the number-one suspect and is almost always charged. Often, the spouse turns out to have committed the murder, so it’s not surprising that the case turned to McDonald. The crime scene was so messed up that you couldn’t depend on it. So MacDonald was the logical choice. And yet there are thousands of people in North Carolina who do not believe he did it.

Even back then, if you polled Fayetteville folks, you might have found that a lot of people did not believe that he did it. The military hearing found that the charges against MacDonald were not true. He was given an honorable discharge. He could have gone on with his life, and he should have. But he taunted the police. He made fun of them. He did interviews. When Victor Worheide, who was a federal prosecutor, later became interested in the case at the urging of the parents of Colette MacDonald, the case was gone.

LP: In Joe McGinnis’ book, Fatal Vision, Freddy Kassab, MacDonald’s father-in-law, was presented as the protagonist. What do you recall of the in-laws in the trial?

WS: They were a very normal-looking mama and daddy. Nothing unique in any way. I think that one of the problems MacDonald had was that they expected him to undertake to find these killers, to go on a mission to find them. He didn’t do that. He continued to work as a doctor and moved to California. Some people would say that was the wrong thing to do. Others would say that that was a healthy thing to do. But his mother and father-in-law did not want him to do that.

LP: Did anything new come out in the Wilmington hearing in September?

Oh, yes. Back in the 1979 trial, a lawyer named Jerry Leonard represented Helena Stoeckley. No one ever knew what it was Helena told him because of attorney-client privilege. He was the lawyer she was talking to one-on-one who had been appointed to advise her of her rights. I used to joke with him when I saw him around – “Hey Jerry, isn’t there something you want to tell us?” But he couldn’t, and he likely would have gone to his grave carrying the secret of what Helena told him had it not been for that hearing. Finally, in Wilmington, Jerry Leonard was ordered to tell what she had said to him 30 years ago. And she told him she had been there, at the MacDonald home, the night of the murders.

LP: She said that to her lawyer at the time of the 1979 trial? Thinking that he could never reveal it?

LP: One of the things that struck me in reading Errol Morris’ book was the use of the “psychopath” diagnosis in court and how problematic that is. Wherever you see the label “psychopath," you could almost substitute “monster” or “vampire” – you’re talking about an unnatural person who does not behave according to normal human rules, and with that label, you can believe anything of them. What’s your sense of this?

WS: It’s an enormous problem. Take a guy like MacDonald. He’s the guy that lives next door. The loving husband and father. You trust him. If he could have a psychotic episode and destroy his family – stab them with an ice pick and a knife 100 times, beat them with a stick, then Billy Graham could. Anybody could. That was my closing argument.

LP: The one you never got to make?

WS: Yes. I would have told the jury that it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that this man, with no history of violence, went crazy like that. It all was intruders. I would have said to the jury: they were not there, and neither was I. They don’t know the truth any more than I do. The idea that people that were so certain who don’t know any more than I do -- I don’t believe I’ll ever understand how they could be so sure.

LP: What has this case revealed about the flaws in our judicial system?

WS: We all depend on excellent, honest detective work. And police officers knowing how to take care of a crime scene and preserve it. The walls will tell you what happened if you keep it pristine. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. That didn’t happen here. And so there are going to be cases where there is a reasonable doubt as to what actually happened. That is the way our legal system is set up. The defendant has no obligation to prove anything whatsoever. That huge standard protects us from miscarriages of justice.

LP: Judge Fox is a close friend of Judge Dupree, who presided over the 1979 trial. Is it possible that Jeffrey MacDonald will get justice under these circumstances?

I thought the world of Judge Dupree. He was a true gentleman, even though there were things in the trial and there were decisions he made that I disagree with. Judge Fox is also a good man. I’ve had many cases in court. I don’t know what the odds are. But I’m an optimist generally about our system of justice, and I hope that MacDonald gets a break.

LP: Is Jeffrey MacDonald innocent?

WS: For me to say that he is innocent would require magic. I don’t have that magic. I wasn’t there that night. But there is a reasonable doubt, and because there is a reasonable doubt it is absolutely clear that he should be set free.

Why the MacDonald Case Matters to Everyone

I have read transcripts, articles, books, opinions, blogs, and bizarre rantings about psychopaths on Joe McGinniss’ Web site to help me more clearly see the picture of the MacDonald case. Like Wade Smith, I’ve been struck by how many people speak of absolute certainty about what happened that February night over 40 years ago. As if they had seen it with their own eyes. Such is the power of a good story.

Or maybe there’s something else at work: Picture #2 is even more awful to see than Picture #1. When a terrible crime is committed, society comes together to find someone to blame and to pay for the collective sense of violation. When you accept Picture #1, you’re deciding that Jeffrey MacDonald is the Person Who Must Pay. To dislodge an idea reinforced by a popular book and TV phenomenon would be hard enough, but to add the sickening sense that the wrong man has been paying is nearly unthinkable. It implicates us all.

Harvey Silverglate, a renowned civil liberties advocate, has been an appellate attorney for MacDonald. He is outspoken about MacDonald’s innocence, and when I called him, I could hear the years of outrage in his voice over the way the case has proceeded. Silverglate believes that Jeffrey MacDonald has been railroaded, and that this railroading exposes disturbing trends in our federal criminal justice system. He worries that we are moving into a period in which the finality of verdicts is so zealously protected (a legacy, in part, of 9/11) that new evidence offers little hope of challenging them. MacDonald has had mostly good lawyers, though not always the appropriate ones. But Silverglate points out that those lawyers have been up against an increasingly perverse system in which ancient legal rights like habeas corpus have been tossed aside in the name of preserving convictions at any cost. (See Silverglate's article on the case in Forbes.)

Out of all the evidentiary and procedural twists and turns, I asked Silverglate to name the one that bothered him the most about the MacDonald case.

“The one thing that sticks in my craw above anything else is this: There were lab results. There was a re-examination of the fibers found on the bodies of Collette and the children. These fibers on the bodies didn’t match any fibers found in the MacDonald house. There were fibers from a blonde wig that matched the description of Helena Stoeckley. The FBI lab guy turned over two copies to Brian Murtaugh, the prosecutor. There’s a note attached. This note says: 'Brian, I’m giving you this lab report. I’m giving you an extra copy for Bernie Segal [the defense counsel]. You can give it to him.' Brian Murtaugh says, ‘Sure, I’ll give it to him. I’ll be seeing him.’ Well, Bernie Segal told me that he never saw it.”

In other words, an FBI lab technician trusted exculpatory evidence to a member of the prosecution team. Evidence the defense never saw.

Silverglate predicts that even after examining the new evidence, Judge Fox will not grant Jeffrey MacDonald a new trial. But he is hopeful that the Fourth Court of Appeals, located in Richmond, Virginia, will take a careful look at the case and as a whole be more favorable to MacDonald. There may be hope that MacDonald will eventually gain his freedom and at least be able to live the last few years of his life outside of a prison cell.

After traveling a months-long journey that has led me from certainty to doubt to horror at a grave injustice, I’m going to turn in this article and then go run some errands and make myself a bite to eat. Mundane things that Jeffrey MacDonald has not been able to do for over 30 years. The simple acts of coming and going as I please and caring for my own basic needs have been denied him. His wife Colette and his children have also been forever denied these things -- but not, I have come to believe, by the man who is currently serving three consecutive life sentences.

Tonight when I retire to my bed, I will not feel as safe from unpredictable evils as I did when I was a teenager reading scary stories. Even scarier stories, I’ve found, can be true. Stories about the innocent caught in a machine that perverts every possibility of justice. That kind of story never ends. There is no finality in injustice.

Watch the video: The controversial case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald (July 2022).


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