RALEIGH, N.C. — Jeffrey MacDonald, a clean-cut Green Beret and doctor convicted of killing of his pregnant wife and their two daughters, is getting another chance at trying to prove his innocence — more than four decades after the slayings terrified a nation gripped by his tales of Charles Manson-like hippies doped up on acid slaughtering his family in their own home.
The case now hinges on something that wasn't available when he was first put on trial: DNA evidence. A federal judge will convene a hearing on Monday to consider new DNA evidence and witness testimony that MacDonald and his supporters say will finally clear him of a crime that became the basis of Joe McGinniss' best-selling book Fatal Vision and a made-for-TV drama.
It's just the latest twist in a case that has been the subject of military and civilian courts, intense legal wrangling and shifting alliances.
“This is Jeff's opportunity to be back in court almost 33 years to the day of his conviction,” said Kathryn MacDonald, who married him a decade ago while he's been in prison.
MacDonald, now 68 and not eligible for parole until 2020, has never wavered from his claim that he didn't kill his pregnant wife, Colette, and their two daughters, 5-year-old Kimberley and 2-year-old Kristen. He has maintained that he awoke from a slumber on their sofa in their home on the base of Fort Bragg in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1970, as they were being attacked by intruders — three men and a woman.
In an October 2000 letter MacDonald wrote to Kathryn MacDonald, provided by her to The Associated Press, he wrote: “It would be a dishonor to their memory to compromise the truth and 'admit' to something I didn't do — no matter how long it takes.”
In 1979, MacDonald was charged, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence he now serves at the federal prison in Cumberland, Md.
U.S. District Court Judge James Fox will consider two types of evidence: three hairs that don't match the family's DNA and a statement from Jimmy Britt, a deputy U.S. marshal when the case was tried. Britt, who has since died, gave a statement to defense attorneys in 2005 that he heard prosecutor Jim Blackburn threaten Helena Stoeckley, a troubled local woman whom MacDonald had identified as one of the attackers.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted MacDonald's request for the hearing. It's expected to last up to two weeks, and Fox will determine whether to order a new trial.
“This is the first time the judge is having to consider all the evidence in the case as a whole,” said Chris Mumma, head of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, which has a pending request for DNA testing on other items found in the home. “Pieces of evidence were considered in the past. Now the 4th Circuit has told the judge to consider the evidence as a whole, whether admitted at trial or not.”
A lab was able to get DNA testing from the roots of hair, so Mumma is optimistic that other evidence can be tested if the judge agreed. The center has asked that 40 items be tested, but hundreds of bloodstains were collected, along with the weapons, the eyeglasses the children wore and pieces of the gloves used to write the word “pig.”
In 1979, only blood typing existed, not DNA testing. Jeffrey, Colette and their daughters all had different blood types, so prosecutors could recreate which people were in which rooms together.
But, Mumma asks, what if the blood types belonged to people outside the MacDonald home?
“There's evidence that I think would be worth testing to determine if there's DNA evidence not tied to family members — or that does,” she said. “The DNA testing may completely confirm the government's theory.”
Fox will consider the statement of Britt, who accused former prosecutor Jim Blackburn of threatening Stoeckley. Blackburn later went into private practice and was found guilty of several ethical violations. He was disbarred and served a prison sentence. Because he's a likely witness, Blackburn can't talk about the case. He does, however, support the trial verdict. “We prosecuted the case to the best of our ability,” he said. “We still believe the verdict was correct.”