‘Fatal Vision’ author McGinniss testifies that Jeffrey MacDonald conned him
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
WILMINGTON, N.C.— “Fatal Vision,” the Joe McGinniss account of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, was released in 1983 to much success, climbing as far as the No. 6 spot on The New York Times best-seller list.
Twenty-nine years later, McGinniss was in the same courtroom as the subject of his book, reading sections aloud Friday for a prosecution team that in the early days of the case had declined to talk with him.
McGinniss, like MacDonald, has gotten grayer since the 1979 trial in Raleigh. The former Army doctor was found guilty of murdering his family in a Fort Bragg apartment in 1970.
And while MacDonald maintains that he did not kill his pregnant wife, Colette, and their daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, McGinniss said he thinks the jury verdict was correct.
“He tried to con me from the first day, and it took me a long time to be aware of that,” McGinniss testified Friday in a hearing related to MacDonald’s latest attempt at winning freedom.
McGinniss became acquainted with MacDonald while working as a newspaper columnist in Los Angeles. He noticed a newspaper blurb about Long Beach firefighters holding a fundraiser for MacDonald’s defense fund.
MacDonald was living in California at the time, charged with murder but not in custody before the 1979 trial. McGinniss called MacDonald, thinking he might write a column about the case. He ended up being persuaded to write a book instead.
The men entered into a contract in which McGinniss would get unfettered access to the defense team during the trial. MacDonald would get a percentage of the royalties from “Fatal Vision,” but have no editorial control over McGinniss.
“His concern was more he wanted money at the time,” said McGinniss, who spent summer 1979 engrossed in the case that has taken a tortuous path through the decades.
McGinniss was on the witness stand for a couple of hours Friday and is to return to Wilmington on Monday as the hearing continues.
DNA from three hairs found at the crime scene—one on a bedspread, another under the body of Colette MacDonald and another under a fingernail of Kristen—does not match any of the MacDonald family, the defense team and prosecutors agree.
The defense contends that such a revelation, along with a 2005 claim of prosecutorial misconduct from a retired U.S. marshal, should warrant at least a new trial.
Prosecutors argue otherwise. Thomas Walker, chief prosecutor of the Eastern District of North Carolina—which encompasses Fort Bragg and Raleigh—released a prepared statement Friday.
“Time has not diminished in the least the brutality that Dr. MacDonald imposed on his family,” Walker said. “We will not grow weary in our commitment to bring final justice in this case. At the end of the day, in spite of MacDonald’s best efforts to change the past, the evidence showed he viciously killed his wife and precious children. We don’t intend to let him get away with triple murder.”
McGinniss testified Friday about a defense-team interview in August 1979 with Helena Stoeckley, a known Fayetteville drug user they hoped to use to bolster their theory that intruders committed the violence inside the Fort Bragg apartment. Stoeckley did not acknowledge any involvement in the MacDonald murders, nor did she admit recognizing anything from crime scene photos showed to her, McGinniss testified.
His testimony matched a similar account provided by Wade Smith, the Raleigh defense attorney also at that interview.
McGinniss said Friday that he was surprised to read an account of that interview that Bernie Segal, a noted civil rights lawyer and the lead defense attorney in 1979, provided to the judge in the jury’s absence. According to the transcript, Segal told the judge that Stoeckley had provided the defense team with comments in an out-of-court interview that would allow them to link her to the crime scene.
Segal died last year.
“He was lying,” McGinniss said Friday. “I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but he’s standing right there in front of a federal judge making stuff up.”
Defense attorneys tried Friday to portray McGinniss as an author who had been less than truthful in his interactions with MacDonald.
McGinniss said he began his work on “Fatal Vision” under the theory that MacDonald had perhaps been a victim of a miscarriage of justice. But after the trial, McGinniss said his opinion began to shift. He never told MacDonald of his change of heart.
“Psychopaths are very charming people,” McGinniss said. “I felt great affection for him.”
That affection, though, dissipated, and McGinniss began to worry about the safety of his own family, expressing such thoughts in letters to his colleagues on the book.
McGinniss acknowledged Friday that he most likely was the person who had benefitted the most financially from the case of Jeffrey MacDonald. His book has been reprinted many times in paperback and with added epilogues. An e-book edition was released late last month, and a revised print edition — 951 pages now with all the epilogues—is just out in bookstores.
After leaving the hearing Friday, McGinniss declined to discuss the case until after he is out from under the rules of a subpoena. He said it is odd to become a part of a long-running story he once had reported.
The hearing is expected to end early next week, but Judge James Fox is unlikely to rule immediately. He told lawyers at the beginning of the hearing that he will give them 30 days after the conclusion of the hearing to submit written arguments that he will consider as he mulls a decision .
Throughout the hearing, MacDonald has listened intently, often writing notes or whispering to his lawyers.
At the close of each day, he exchanges words with his wife of 10 years, Kathryn, before marshals escort him back to jail.
On Friday, he looked toward Kathryn MacDonald and motioned with his hands. The two would get a visit in at the New Hanover County jail. “Seven o’clock,” MacDonald said with a wave.