WILMINGTON, N.C. — His ankles are shackled as he shuffles into the courtroom, looking older than his 68 years after half a lifetime in prison.
He wears white socks and shower sandals, baggy pants, and a drab tan pullover stamped with the words “Inmate New Hanover County,” the temporary home for federal prisoner number 0131-177. His thinning silver hair is worn in a choppy prison-barber cut.
Jeffrey MacDonald, the Army doctor imprisoned for life for killing his family, is back in federal court to seek exoneration 42 years after the crime.
In 1970, MacDonald was a captain assigned to the legendary Green Berets at Ft. Bragg, N.C. His marriage to his high school sweetheart, Collette, ended in horror when the pregnant Army wife and the couple’s two young daughters were stabbed and bludgeoned to death inside military housing late one night in February of that year.
A federal jury convicted MacDonald of the murders nine years later. He’s serving three life sentences, still insisting that his family was slaughtered by intruders, including a woman in a floppy hat chanting “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.”
MacDonald has now achieved a rare legal feat. His lawyers have persuaded a federal appeals court to grant him a hearing based on new evidence.
For the last three days, MacDonald has sat at the defense table, listening in silence at a hearing to consider his claims that new DNA analysis and a belated revelation by a U.S. deputy marshal could prove his innocence.
The DNA evidence consists of a 2006 analysis of three human hairs found in MacDonald’s house at 544 Castle Drive at Ft. Bragg. The defense says the DNA does not match MacDonald nor any member of his family, but could belong instead to the intruders.
In 2005, former U.S. Deputy Marshal Jimmy Britt, now dead, gave sworn depositions saying a key witness — a heroin addict the defense says is the woman in the floppy hat — was threatened by the lead prosecutor in MacDonald’s 1979 trial. Britt told the defense team that prosecutor James Blackburn warned Helena Stoeckley that he would charge her with murder if she testified that she was at the MacDonald house the night of the murders.
Stoeckley is dead too — of post-hepatitis cirrhosis in 1983 — and the hearing has become an echo chamber of disembodied voices from a dim past. Richard Nixon was president and J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI when the murders took place.
U.S. District Judge John C. Fox has allowed the defense considerable leeway, saying Monday, “We don’t want to come back 42 years later and do it again.” Fox can reject the defense’s case and leave MacDonald to serve his three life sentences (his release date is 2071). He can vacate the convictions, or order a new trial.
Whatever his ruling, this is probably MacDonald’s last shot at freedom.
As the old stories played out inside the darkened courtroom in this former Confederate port city, the compelling narrative arc of the case took shape once again, two decades after a best-selling book and hit TV miniseries imprinted the murders on the public consciousness.
MacDonald, glib and handsome in 1970, managed to convince his wife’s parents that intruders had stabbed him and beat him unconscious as they murdered his family. The Army ultimately sided with him too, exonerating MacDonald in October 1970.
But soon the in-laws turned on him, and so did his erstwhile partner in championing his innocence, journalist Joe McGinniss, author of the damning 1983 best-seller “Fatal Vision,” which portrayed MacDonald as a scheming psychopath.
It was a horrific crime. Collette was stabbed 16 times with a knife and 21 times with an ice pick. Kimberley, 5, was bludgeoned in the head several times, and repeatedly stabbed in the neck. Kristen, 2, was stabbed 48 times and her finger nearly severed as she tried to defend herself.
Someone wrote “pig” in blood on a headboard. Prosecutors suggested it was MacDonald, concocting a phony murder scene to cover up his crimes.
This week, prosecutors poked holes in Britt’s claim that Stoeckley had confessed to him as he drove her to court in 1979. They
introduced documents showing that two other marshals, not Britt, drove Stoeckley. Britt’s fellow marshals testified that he was a fabulist and attention-seeker.
Further, Blackburn denied on the stand Wednesday that he had ever threatened Stoeckley, and said Britt was not even in the room where he purportedly overheard Blackburn’s threats. And Wade Smith, 75, MacDonald’s co-counsel in 1979, conceded that while Stoeckley may have told Britt she was at the murder scene, she refused to repeat that to defense lawyers.
Stoeckley told numerous people that she was at the murder scene or that her boyfriend and another man killed MacDonald’s family. But on the stand at MacDonald’s trial, Stoeckley denied that she was ever in the house and said she was so debilitated by heroin and mescaline that she had no memory of that February night.
This week, a parade of witnesses came forth to testify about Stoeckley’s claims. Sara McMann, who raised Stoeckley’s son David, said Stoeckley told her she had accompanied men from a cult determined to “rough up” MacDonald that night.
Wendy Rouder, a legal assistant for the defense at the 1979 trial, told of being dispatched to rescue Stoeckley at a cheap motel after Stoeckley’s boyfriend had bloodied her nose. She said Stoeckley told her that she wanted to testify that she had been at the murder scene, but was terrified of retaliation from prosecutors.
Stoeckley described a memory of being inside MacDonald’s house, “standing at the couch holding a candle … it was dripping blood,” Rouder testified.
Stoeckley’s younger brother, Gene Stoeckley, testified that his sister confessed to their mother in 1982 that she was in the house when the murders occurred — and that she knew MacDonald was innocent.
The DNA testimony is yet to come. In court filings, prosecutors have dismissed the evidence as inconclusive at best, saying it cannot possibly prove that intruders were in the MacDonald home.
At the same time, a literary duel is playing out over the true MacDonald narrative. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who has attended all three days of the hearing, has written the antidote to McGinniss’ accusatory account. His exquisitely timed “A Wilderness of Error,” published on the eve of the hearing, portrays MacDonald as a victim of investigative incompetence and legal injustice. MacDonald is innocent, Morris insists.
Morris wrote that McGinniss, who began his reporting in concert with MacDonald, betrayed his project partner, and plummeted down “a slippery slope of tergiversation, opportunism, and self-interest.”
McGinniss, who is on the witness list by virtue of what prosecutors called his “embedded” status as a de facto member of the 1979 defense team, is in Wilmington. He said in an email that he was sequestered and not free to discuss the case until after his testimony.
In court, MacDonald breaks his focus only to look over his shoulder to flash a slight smile at his wife, Kathryn, 51, in the gallery. She married him in a prison ceremony in 2002 in Cumberland, Md., where he is serving his sentence. She has spent the last several years rounding up new statements from witnesses, some of whom are testifying this week.
On the other side of the courtroom are the prosecutors, determined to cement forever the government’s conviction from three decades ago. And there too is Robert C. Stevenson, Collette’s brother, still seething over the murders.
“He butchered her,” Stevenson says of his former brother-in-law.
Stevenson, 73, a pastor’s assistant who wears a silver ponytail and a necklace of bear and fox teeth, says there is no new evidence — only an attempt to trample over “the broken and bloodied bodies of my family.”
MacDonald doesn’t often glance toward the prosecution side, where Stevenson sits in rigid silence. MacDonald’s focus is forward, except when the past embraces him.
After Smith finished his testimony Monday, the lawyer patted his former client on his arm and whispered encouragement in his ear. MacDonald smiled and bid his old friend goodbye, then turned his gaze back, ready for the next witness.