Ex-Army captain Jeffrey MacDonald to go back to court
The Fayetteville Observer
More than 30 years after going to prison, former Army Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald will try once again to convince a judge that he was wrongly convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters at Fort Bragg in 1970.
A federal judge in Wilmington on Monday will begin hearing his claims that he has DNA evidence suggesting that someone else was involved, plus an affidavit that a woman implicated herself in the crime then lied on the witness stand during his trial to protect herself from being charged with the murders.
MacDonald, now 68, is serving three life sentences in federal prison. Since his conviction in 1979, the courts have rebuffed his repeated efforts to reopen his case and have the charges dismissed.
The triple homicide, sometimes known as the "Fatal Vision" case after a best-selling book and popular television miniseries about it, ranks among the most widely known and controversial crimes to arise from the Fort Bragg community. It gripped a generation of Americans in the 1970s and 1980s.
Federal prosecutors convinced a jury in 1979 that MacDonald killed his family. The "Fatal Vision" book and miniseries solidified that opinion in the minds of millions of people over the next several years.
But MacDonald and a loyal following of supporters have always contended he is innocent. They have tried repeatedly over the years to get the courts to overturn his conviction.
The case started Feb. 17, 1970, when someone in the MacDonald family's apartment on Castle Street at Fort Bragg beat and stabbed to death 26-year-old Colette MacDonald, who was pregnant, and Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2.
Jeffrey MacDonald was stabbed several times, too. One of his wounds punctured his lung, collapsing it. An overturned table and potted plant on the floor suggested a struggle. Someone wrote "PIG" in blood on the headboard of the couple's bed.
MacDonald told Army investigators that his family was the victim of a home invasion.
He had been sleeping on the couch in the living room, he said, when he awoke in the early hours to the sounds of screaming. He said he saw a black man, two white men and a white woman he described as hippies high on drugs.
The woman, with blond hair and a floppy hat, was chanting, "Acid is groovy; kill the pigs," MacDonald told authorities. The black man wore an Army jacket with sergeant's stripes on the shoulder, he said.
MacDonald said he fought the intruders and saw a knife. He was hit several times, then was unconscious.
When he awoke, he said, he found the bodies of his wife and children in their bedrooms and called for help.
In 1970, Fort Bragg was an open post that did not have security checkpoints and gates, so it was conceivable that civilians could have committed the crimes.
But as the search for the killers wore on over the next few months, investigators began to doubt MacDonald's story.
The circumstances that MacDonald described echoed those of the Charles Manson murders six months before, when members of a cult killed seven people. Some details in MacDonald's statement about the intruders appeared to have been copied from descriptions of the Manson case published in a magazine article that month. Authorities found a copy of the magazine in his home.
And considering the violence that MacDonald described, the investigators thought that the living room looked too neat - the placement of spilled magazines on the floor, the tipped-over coffee table and potted plant.
By April 1970, the Army was pursuing a case against MacDonald. He was charged the next month.
In an Article 32 hearing over the summer, military prosecutors attempted to convince an investigating officer - essentially a judge - that they had sufficient evidence to prosecute MacDonald at a court-martial. The investigating officer concluded that MacDonald did not commit the crimes. He recommended that civilian authorities pursue a case against Helena Stoeckley of Fayetteville, allegedly the woman with the floppy hat.
There were allegations that Stoeckley had said she was in the house at the time of the murders, and that she liked to wear the hat and a blond wig.
The military dismissed the charges and MacDonald left the Army, but the investigation continued.
Colette MacDonald's parents, who originally believed their son-in-law was innocent, called for him to be charged.
He was indicted in 1975 by a federal grand jury and convicted in federal court in 1979.
At his trial, the jury was told that MacDonald attacked his wife and children with a club, two knives and an ice pick.
Colette and the children had dozens of wounds. There were broken bones, cracked skulls and multiple stab wounds.
Jeffrey MacDonald had just a few injuries - a bruise, some scratches, a few stabs.
The jury was told that MacDonald stabbed himself to cover up the crime.
MacDonald's pajama top was a factor. It had several dozen holes in it, evidently from the ice pick. These did not correspond to his injuries.
MacDonald said he used it as an impromptu shield to ward off stabbing blows during his fight with the intruders. Then, he said, he laid it on Colette's body, where investigators found it, to keep her warm.
The investigators contended MacDonald put his pajama top across Colette when he attacked her, stabbing through it.
Stoeckley testified that she had never been to the MacDonald apartment and had nothing to do with the murders.
Now, MacDonald hopes to bring in evidence that Stoeckley lied to protect herself.
A 2005 affidavit from a retired U.S. marshal, Jim Britt, says Britt was escorting witnesses during the 1979 trial. He said he overheard Stoeckley tell lead prosecutor Jim Blackburn that she and several others were in the MacDonald home on the night of the murders and that they went there to get drugs.
Britt said he heard Blackburn threaten to indict Stoeckley for murder if she testified that she was in the house that night.
The next day, Stoeckley testified that she had nothing to do with the case.
Stoeckley died in 1983, and Britt died in 2008.
Blackburn, in a new book about the MacDonald case published Sept. 4, denies Britt's statement.
"That has zero merit," he told author and filmmaker Errol Morris in "A Wilderness of Error."
Morris, who thinks MacDonald is innocent, contends that the case was tainted by error and prosecutorial bias.
In addition to the Britt affidavit, MacDonald has obtained DNA evidence.
In 1970, DNA testing was 20 years away from its first uses as a criminal forensics tool. But now, hairs collected from the crime scene have been tested.
None match Stoeckley. Most matched MacDonald and his family, as would be expected in their home.
Some have not been matched to anyone, including a single hair with blood residue found under the fingernail of 2-year-old Kristen. MacDonald's team contends that the hair could be from the person who killed her.
Another hair found under Colette MacDonald's body also was unidentified and could belong to an assailant, the MacDonald team says.
U.S. District Judge James C. Fox is to begin hearing the claims Monday morning at the federal courthouse in Wilmington.
Fox could let MacDonald's convictions stand, give him a new trial or even dismiss the charges. He has previously heard MacDonald's claim on Britt's statement and dismissed it. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Fox and sent the case back to him to be heard again, along with the DNA evidence.
Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3512.