WILMINGTON — Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain and doctor convicted 32 years ago of slaughtering his family, shuffled into a federal courtroom in this historic port city on Monday, hoping to win a brighter future by revisiting a notorious past.
The 68-year-old federal inmate, described alternately as an exploitive psychopath and a hapless victim of a gross injustice, has maintained for four decades that intruders bludgeoned his pregnant wife and two young daughters to death on Feb. 17, 1970.
His contentions have taken him on a tortuous legal journey that brought him back to North Carolina this week to a grand courtroom overlooking the Cape Fear River.
MacDonald, dressed in a drab tan uniform from the New Hanover County jail, settled into a chair at the defense table, his movement confined by the shackles on his legs and the tan shower shoes on his feet. Over the years, his hair has grayed and thinned, and the frailty of age has begun to show on the man who was described as handsome and alluring at the 1979 trial that has generated several best-sellers, a top-rated TV miniseries and strong camps of opinion.
Though the hearing in Wilmington is not a retrial, it ultimately could conclude with U.S. District Judge James Fox ordering a new trial, vacating the conviction or ruling that all the evidence would not have led a reasonable jury to a different conclusion from the one that has been unsuccessfully challenged many times in the ensuing 32 years.
The hearing was scheduled after the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals kicked the matter back to the trial court, ordering that new DNA evidence be considered in the broader context of statements made since the trial from a retired U.S. marshal and the mother of a heroin addict.
“The evidence supporting these claims, in light of the evidence as a whole, will compellingly demonstrate reasonable doubt as to MacDonald’s guilt,” said Gordon Widenhouse, a new member of MacDonald’s defense team. “No reasonable juror,” he said, would find MacDonald guilty.
Prosecutor John Bruce, though, contended otherwise.
Fox told the defense team and prosecutors that he planned to allow broad leeway on what evidence could be presented.
“We don’t want to be back here in 42 years doing this again,” he said.
Wade Smith, a Raleigh lawyer, was on the witness stand much of Monday, offering details from conversations of which he is the only survivor.
Smith, who was a member of the MacDonald defense team at his 1979 trial in Raleigh, recounted conversations with Jimmy Britt, who came to him in 2005 as a retired U.S. marshal, wanting to get something off his chest.
Britt, in a series of statements that Bruce picked apart in cross-examination, claimed Helena Stoeckley, a known drug-abuser seen near the MacDonald home near the time of the murders, told him during a car ride from South Carolina in 1979 that she had been inside the home when the killings happened.
Britt also told Smith that he heard Stoeckley offer the same details to the lead prosecutor shortly before she was to testify.
Britt claimed Jim Blackburn, the federal prosecutor who later was disbarred after his own criminal troubles, threatened to charge Stoeckley with first-degree murder if she testified to such an account.
Though Britt came forward more than 25 years after the trial’s conclusion, Smith said the retired marshal’s words were significant.
The defense theory throughout the trial was that intruders repeatedly stabbed and bludgeoned a pregnant Colette MacDonald and the two daughters, Kimberly 5, and Kristen, 2, that she had with the defendant.
Smith said Britt told him he waited a quarter-century to tell his story because he did not want to appear disloyal to law enforcement by undermining the prosecution’s 1979 case.
“He sort of unloaded his soul,” Smith testified.
But Bruce went over Britt’s many statements, showing many inconsistencies. One example, Bruce said, was when the retired marshal contended in one statement that he picked Stoeckley up in Charleston, S.C., to transport her to the trial; while in another statement he said he had picked her up in Greenville, S.C.
The defense contends that Stoeckley, who died in 1983, was the mysterious “woman in a floppy hat” who MacDonald said was with three other intruders who burst into his house, stabbed and beat him unconscious, then killed his family.
Stoeckley provided many accounts of her whereabouts that rainy February night when emergency workers rushed to the MacDonald house.
Her mother provided a sworn statement to the defense team several years before her death, saying her daughter told her on several occasions that she was inside the Fort Bragg apartment when her boyfriend and another man committed the murders.
MacDonald told investigators that one intruder chanted “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” details that brought comparisons to the Charles Manson cult killings in California which had occurred six months earlier.
Police found the word “pig’’ scrawled in blood on a headboard in MacDonald’s home; the same word was written in blood at a murder site in the Manson case.
Prosecutors contend that MacDonald concocted the scenario after reading an account of the Manson murders in an Esquire magazine recovered from the crime scene.
Mary Wood Britt, a former wife of the now-deceased U.S. marshal, took the stand late in the afternoon and described her husband’s unease with the MacDonald case at the time of the trial.
She also recounted a conversation she had with Britt after seeing the TV miniseries “Fatal Vision,” based on the Joe McGinniss book of the same name.
According to his ex-wife, Britt said McGinniss’ account, which ultimately concluded that MacDonald committed the murders, contained inaccuracies.
A reunion of sorts
The courtroom on the second floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Wilmington offered a reunion of sorts for many followers of MacDonald’s life and predicament.
Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning documentarian whose newly published book on the matter has renewed old debate, filled a notebook with observations as he watched from the courtroom gallery.
Kathryn MacDonald, who married McDonald in federal prison in 2002, watched the morning proceedings, exchanging glances and short comments with her husband as he was ushered into and out of the courtroom.
Mary Britt is expected to return to the witness stand Tuesday morning.