Ex-military doctor, serving life sentence for family murders, awaiting judge's decision on new trial
By PAUL WOOLVERTON AND MICHAEL FUTCH | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: March 23, 2014
It's been 18 months since former Fort Bragg doctor Jeffrey MacDonald had his new day in court to try to win a new trial for the murders of his wife and children.
It's been six months since the latest court filing was made in the 44-year-old murder case. U.S. District Judge James C. Fox has not yet issued a decision, and there is no indication when it will come.
Fox's office rebuffs queries from the media on when he will issue a ruling. His staff advises reporters to monitor PACER, the federal court system website where documents are filed and stored.
"He gives out the timeline. It's totally his discretion when he makes the decision," said Kathryn MacDonald, who has been married to Jeffrey MacDonald for more than 11 years. "I find it hard to believe that over all this time he wasn't looking at the information that's already been there for 44 years.
"We're hoping it's soon. As far as taking so long," she said, "I think this has been a reasonable period of time. It's a pretty straightforward decision if you look at what he has to decide. It's not straightforward from a broader perspective. What he's deciding is based on the totality of the evidence - would any reasonable juror have voted to convict? That's the question."
Since MacDonald's September 2012 hearing before Fox in Wilmington, true-crime author Joe McGinniss has died. McGinniss, who died March 10, testified at the hearing. In 1979, he embedded with MacDonald's legal team and then wrote "Fatal Vision," a best-selling true-crime novel that portrayed MacDonald as guilty.
MacDonald has always maintained his innocence in the February 1970 stabbing deaths of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. They died in their home on Fort Bragg, where MacDonald was a doctor for a Green Beret unit.
MacDonald said a group of intruders injured him and killed his family.
Now 70, MacDonald is serving a life sentence in the federal prison in Cumberland, Md.
"Every day gone by is another day lost for Jeff," his wife said in an interview Thursday.
Prosecutors concluded he killed his wife and children and stabbed himself with an ice pick to lend credence to his story.
Two things gave MacDonald his new hearing: DNA testing showed that some hairs from the crime scene can't be matched to MacDonald or his family, and allegations surfaced that a prosecutor coerced a witness to lie on the stand at his murder trial.
"The hairs don't match Jeff or anyone the government tried to match it to," Kathryn MacDonald said. "This becomes very, very relevant."
Although to a layman it may seem that Fox is taking an undue amount of time to decide whether MacDonald deserves a new trial, MacDonald defense lawyer Chris Mumma said people should be aware that Fox has a monumental task: He is required to consider all of the evidence from the 1979 murder trial plus all of the new evidence.
"We are hoping, of course, that Jeff's actual innocence becomes self-evident to him. That he rules in that manner, of course," Kathryn MacDonald said. "The judge is very seasoned. This exact scenario has never happened in the history of the United States. I'm not sure what the ruling is here because it's never happened. The totality of evidence over 44 years and the evidence disproved - to evaluate all that."
Prosecutors and defense lawyers have filed hundreds of pages of arguments and materials since the September 2012 hearing. The latest, 112 pages from the prosecutors, was entered Sept.23, 2013.
"It actually hasn't been a year and a half" since the judge could fully evaluate the case, Mumma said. "Each party has had a portion of that year and a half, and the judge has only had everything he needed for the last six months."
Mumma said she, too, has no sense of when he will rule.
The prosecutors, who could not be reached for comment, have no reason to want Fox to rule quickly, said Fayetteville lawyer Coy Brewer. Brewer practices in federal court and worked with Fox in the early 1970s.
"It is their position that he should be in prison and should remain in prison. So there isn't a great urgency from the government's standpoint," Brewer said.
While MacDonald would want a decision sooner because he hopes to get out of prison, "the defendant has to wait patiently," Brewer said.
Even if MacDonald gets a favorable ruling from Fox, the government would likely appeal, Brewer said.
"I heard the prosecutors say that at the hearing," his wife said. "I think it's hard to understand why they would. They've continually stated the defense has continually dragged out this whole case. That's not true. You can't be a defendant and drag it out. You get back in court if you have good reason. We have eight or 10 good reasons built up over time."
If MacDonald fails to win a new trial from Fox based on the hairs and coercion allegations, he will then seek to get blood samples from the crime scene tested for DNA, Mumma said.
Fox decided DNA testing of the blood should wait until the issue of a new trial is resolved, Mumma said.
Investigators believe the blood came from MacDonald and his wife and children. DNA testing could ascertain whether it came from a third party.
Law enforcement didn't begin using DNA testing until the late 1980s.
"We're trying to keep focused on where we are and what we have submitted," Kathryn MacDonald said. "And I'm sure Judge Fox is reviewing everything the best he can."