Appeals Court Orders Consideration of DNA Evidence in Jeffrey MacDonald "Fatal Vision " Case

In 1979, Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a captain in the Medical Corps, was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and their two young daughters in the family’s Fort Bragg home. He was sentenced to three life terms and has steadfastly maintained his innocence. He lost his direct appeal and many post-conviction motions for relief. His case was the subject of the book and movie, Fatal Vision.

A year ago, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in his latest request for relief. Today, the Court ordered the trial court to consider DNA evidence casting doubt on his guilt in conjunction with the other submitted innocence evidence. The court said the innocence evidence must be considered together as a whole, rather than piecemeal. The opinion is here.

Via e-mail from the Innocence Project, which filed an amicus brief along with the New England Innocence Project and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence in the case: [more...]

Since MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979, considerable evidence of his innocence has come to light. Most recently, retired US Marshall Jimmy Britt came forward with information that another suspect in the case, Helena Stoeckley, admitted to the prosecutor that she was in the house on the night of MacDonald’s murder and that he treated to indict her for first degree murder if she admitted that in court.

In addition, DNA testing on evidence that was recovered from the fingernails scrapings of one of the victims and a hair found under another victim did not match MacDonald. Earlier, evidence came to light that a FBI forensic examiner mislead the jury about synthetic hair evidence. MacDonald claimed the hairs were from the wig of one of the murders, but the forensic examiner incorrectly claimed they were from one of the children’s dolls.

The Innocence Project says:

“Far too often the people who have been wrongly convicted uncover evidence of their innocence bit by bit, slowly over time. Courts reject this evidence claiming it wouldn’t have made a difference in their cases and then refuse to look at it again when more evidence is discovered,” added Scheck. “With this decision, courts will have to look at all the evidence as a whole when considering innocence claims, which will open up a whole new avenue defense for many people who can’t get the courts to take their claims seriously.”

The court's ruling denying relief in 2008 is here.

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  • Joe McGinnis's book was quite (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by oculus on Tue Apr 19, 2011 at 06:03:59 PM EST
    convincing.  Perhaps he'll need a Vol. II.

    I will keep saying it to the day I die (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by NYShooter on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 01:23:29 PM EST
    Those who society has entrusted to maintain Law & Order, and who have been granted the authority to arrest, detain, and incarcerate fellow human beings, have a sacred obligation, an irrefutable duty, to carry out their functions in a fair, open minded, and honest manner. I can think of very few things as horrible as being unjustly stripped of your freedom and caged like an animal.

    I am emotionally unable to suggest what punishment would be appropriate for violators of that trust other than it should be of a magnitude many times that of an ordinary citizen.

    Britt (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by AlansAunt on Mon May 09, 2011 at 05:01:25 AM EST
    Britt stated in his affidavit that Helena had confessed to him during the trip from Greenville County jail to Raleigh, NC. The problem with that is:

    (1) Helena was in Pickens County jail not Greenville
    (2) DUSM Kennedy signed for Helena at Pickens County jail
    (3) Kennedy and a female deputy then drove Helena to the Charlotte NC vicinity where they met DUSM Dennis Meehan and his then wife
    (4) DUSM Meehan accepted custody of Helena and with his then wife transported Helena to Wake County jail where she was incarcerated until the next day trial appearance.

    Kathryn also does not mention that Britt filed for bankruptcy shortly before signing the affidavit but was able to keep his house after signing it. Kathryn's statement about Britt's affidavit does not match what Britt said was his reason for waiting so long to come forth with his "information".  Britt said he did not come forth sooner out of respect for Judge Dupree. Excuse me? Judge Dupree had been deceased for a decade when Britt came forth. Britt had alcohol problems and was disciplined more than once for his conduct.

    Britt filed for bankruptcy shortly before he signed his affidavit and was able to keep his house after signing.  That should raise a few eyebrows.

    I would love for Kathryn to explain which documents support that Helena Stocekley or Greg Mitchell was ever in the MacDonald apartment. She can not because that is not true. When the DNA results came back, they proved that the "Suspects" were never there.

    I personally have no objections to Jeffrey MacDonald getting a new trial and the evidence as a whole considered. It is my personal opinion, that if that were to happen, the jury would find MacDonald guilty in less time than it would take to drink a cup of coffee.

    Jeffrey MacDonald said shortly after the murders that he felt a sense of relief that his family was gone. What innocent party would make such a statement? Who would feel a sense a relief that his whole family had been slaughtered?

    Jeffrey MacDonald always said that when they sourced the hair found clutched in his wife's hand they would have the murderer. He was right.
    DNA sourced that hair to Jeffrey MacDonald.

    Jeffrey MacDonald (5.00 / 1) (#27)
    by Tina on Mon May 09, 2011 at 01:32:31 PM EST
    I am a family member of Colette, Kimberley and Kristen, who were the victims. I respectfully disagree with Kathryn MacDonald.
    Our family's position can be found at


    Jeffrey MacDonald (5.00 / 1) (#29)
    by Tina on Mon May 09, 2011 at 01:36:11 PM EST
    Wasn't whatever Helena (none / 0) (#1)
    by Ga6thDem on Tue Apr 19, 2011 at 06:00:41 PM EST
    Stoeckly said a problem because of her history of drug abuse and the fact that she changed her story a number of times?

    Anyway, whatever comes of this will certainly hopefully clear up any of the mysteries surrounding the death of McDonald's family.

    I saw a similar case on Investigation ID the other night where a guy named Marty spent 19 years in jail because he was the only one home when his parents were murdered. By gosh, the police really botched that case and the family had to fight for 19 long years to get him out.

    Interesting (none / 0) (#4)
    by Zorba on Tue Apr 19, 2011 at 07:00:34 PM EST
    I remember the case as it was playing out, and I subsequently read the McGinnis book.  I was never happy about the whole trial or the results thereof.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

    I didn't know the Innocence Project was involved (none / 0) (#5)
    by mjames on Tue Apr 19, 2011 at 07:02:09 PM EST
    Scheck was a law professor of mine back in the day, and a good one, and he does admirable work now, but I (a former public defender) have a lot of questions, among them:

    1. Was the US Marshall actually present, as he says, when the prosecutor allegedly "threatened" Stoeckley with criminal charges and when Stoeckley admitted she was in the house? If so, why did he stay silent for so long about that misconduct? Or wasn't it really misconduct?

    2. Why wasn't Stoeckley charged with the murders? What was she doing in the house? Who was with her? Is there physical evidence that she was in the house?

    3. Were these other people the alleged murderers? Aside from being "drug-crazed hippies." What was their motive? Where are they now?

    The book and TV movie were so damning of McDonald. His wound was so slight (allegedly). And Stoeckley was portrayed repeatedly as an unreliable druggie. Why? Are those facts true or not?

    I know these questions do not have to be answered for the conviction to be overturned, and I'm certainly OK with that, but they do have to be answered for us to understand what really happened. McGinness started on the book, according to him, believing in McDonald's innocence, and then changed his mind as the case unfolded.

    Finally, if this goes back to the Supreme Court (for the umpteenth time), the Court may reverse the Fourth Circuit. And we'll still never know. I wish I knew the truth.

    Hello, I'd like to answer your questions MJames (5.00 / 2) (#8)
    by kathryn macdonald on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 12:14:40 AM EST
    Dear Sir or Maam;
    I'd respectfully like to answer your questions- Jeff MacDonald is my husband, but I can assure you that what I state is backed up by documents/the record- this is not my "opinion"....
    Yes, the U.S. Marshal (Jimmy B. Britt) was present when prosecutor James Blackburn (since disbarred after pleading guilty to 11 felony counts of dishonesty- the 12th count (forging the signature of a judge) was dismissed b/c the judge in question (who presided over my husband's trial (Dupree)declined to press charges....) threatened key defense witness Helena Stoeckley.  His recollection of this event is corroborated by attorney Wendy Rouder (in 1979 she was a legal ass't) to whom H.S. confided and by H.S's own mother (also named Helena Stoeckley) whose sworn affidavit recounts how her daughter told her she lied on the stand b/c she was "afraid of the prosecutor".......Marshal Britt was a career law enforcement official and a very good and respected man....the reason he waited so long to come forward had to do with his allegiance to the government, to which he had devoted his entire career to, but he felt a duty to set the record straight, knowing he was ill.  I understand this and told Mr. Britt so.  Yes, what Blackburn did was misconduct- it was an abberation of the most heinous kind- a prosecutor trained to do anything to "win" a big case- I had a unique opportunity to sit and talk with Mr. Blackburn (in the fall of .....2006?) for many hours and he admitted as much... Interestingly, the government has never submitted any affidavits refuting Mr. Britt's statement (there were 3 prosecutors- Blackburn, Brian Murtagh and the US Attorney, George Anderson)- none of them submitted anything to contradict Mr. Britt's accusations.

    Helena Stoeckley, I'm sure, WOULD have been charged with the murders if she had told the truth on the stand or told that she had been threatened by the prosecutor and/or the 6 witnesses the defense had ready to swear H.S. had confessed her involvement to them (3 of whom were also law enforcement officials) had been allowed to testify (all were denied by the judge).

    H.S. pleaded with the prosecution for immunity, and said she would state who was with her/committed the murders in exchange, but was denied, and then threatened into changing her testimony.....and even then- any reading of the trial transcript shows she was trying not to perjure herself (stating she "couldn't remember" where she was from 12 PM to 4 AM (the timeframe the murders took place) she never said she was NOT there, nor did she supply an alibi.

    She stated to numerous people, including her own mother, that she went to the house to teach Jeff a "lesson" (because one of his duties as an Army was to report enlisted men who used drugs) and to look for drugs in the apartment (the post at Ft. Bragg was "open" at the time, so anyone could gain access)- she and her 3 male friends were strung out on 4-5 drugs and she did not participate in the murders but watched 2 of the men hit Jeff with a club or baseball bat and stab him.  She told her mother (and others) that "things got out of hand" b/c the group was so high on drugs.

    There was ample physical evidence of Stoeckley's presence in the apt. as well as others, but it was suppressed at trial b/c it did not fit the gov't's "theory" of the case......unsourced blonde wig fibers 22" in length (Jeff said he saw a woman with long stringy blonde hair and a hat and a flickering light, like a candle) unsourced candle wax in the living room where Jeff saw the woman and on the bedspread of one of his little daughters....unsourced black wool fibers on the club used to kill Jeff's wife Colette (Helena admitted to consistently wearing black clothing)- and I should note that said club, nor any other murder weapon had Jeff's fingerprints on it....

    The murderers were Helena's boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, who admitted his crimes to his boss, his pastor and many friends (including 3 people who came forward after 2002) and 2 other males who remain unidentified (although referenced by both Stoeckley and Mitchell).  

    Jeff never said the intruders were "drug-crazed hippies"...that is a description made and perpetuated by the media.....he described the people he saw in his house - it turns out they existed and were questioned by the Army and FBI- and they were all drug users.....but that phrase was not something Jeff ever said...it has been used to somehow make his account sound "fake"- when in truth it turns out to be accurate.....

    Greg Mitchell is dead as is Helena Stoeckley.  Mitchell died at 33 from drinking too much "because of his guilt" and Helena died at 33 from drug use for the same reason....the other 2 males may be dead or imprisoned or in the community, we don't know.

    I cannot recall what your last questions were- I believe they had to do with Helena Stoeckley's "believability"?  Not having your questions in front of me, I would just say that she was believable when she worked as a police informant (turning in other drug users) and she only told the judge she "couldn't remember" not that she was NOT THERE and did not say WHERE SHE WAS during the murders....the judge chose to take those words as proof that she was not there and therefore Jeff must be lying but a known drug user was telling the truth- in other words, when it suited the government, her statements were believable, but when they didn't, she was deemed unreliable.....I hope this information helps....people find it hard to believe our government puts innocent people in prison but the Innocence Project has proven this is so time and time again.....our government needs to find a way to reward prosecutors without requiring them to "win at any cost" and the public needs to be aware that juries are swayed by the way the attitude of the judge.  The jury also cannot make the right decision when crucial information that would help the defendant is kept from them.  Unfortunately, our system holds that the government has custody of all of the "evidence" and so the defense must rely on the gov't to be honest.......need I say more....thank you for your time, Sincerely, Kathryn MacDonald


    A sincere thank you (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by mjames on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 09:40:12 AM EST
    for your answers.

    Even for me, an old-time criminal defense atty, this is shocking. Ever since the Central Park wilding case, in which everyone was convinced of the young boys' guilt - based on the media reports - only for them to be exonerated years later, I have been wary of passing judgment on anyone without actually hearing the evidence.

    A new trial seems the only just avenue here. (Not that this country does justice very well.)  I wish you the best in this endeavor.



    I'm glad I could offer some useful facts (none / 0) (#15)
    by kathryn macdonald on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 04:25:47 PM EST
    It's hard to see how my husband's case could be retried after 40 years, given that Mr. Britt and Mrs. Stoeckley, Sr., (as well as Helena (Jr) and Greg Mitchell) and most of the investigators/experts are now deceased.  Additionally, the prosecutor (Blackburn) who was promoted to Asst US Attorney in NC after "winning" the MacDonald case has been disbarred as I wrote previously- and no affidavit disputing Marshal Britt's sworn statement was ever filed...i.e. who will be put on the stand? For the government:  Blackburn, a convicted felon?  Michael Malone- the hair and fiber "expert" who fabricated evidence in numerous cases (including Jeff's) and left the FBI in disgrace? Or Brian Murtagh, the prosecutor who was originally an Army lawyer and left the Armed Forces to join the DOJ and pursue my husband for the past 38 years?  He would have to be a witness at any trial rather than the prosecutor...

    Thank you Kathryn (none / 0) (#9)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 01:43:52 AM EST
    And to those of you wondering if Kathryn really is Mrs. McDonald, the answer is yes. We've corresponded before. She has dedicated herself to helping Jeffrey establish his innocence.

    Thanks for posting, Kathryn, and please keep us advised of any news. I was really glad to read the news about today's opinion, and am hoping for the best for Jeffrey.


    Thank you Jeralyn (none / 0) (#16)
    by kathryn macdonald on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 04:26:28 PM EST
    I really appreciate the opportunity to provide more information via your forum.

    Shocking, horrible (none / 0) (#10)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 07:35:04 AM EST
    I can't imagine what this man has been through, I can't even begin to.

    How Jeff survives (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by kathryn macdonald on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 04:30:52 PM EST
    My husband is not perfect, as none of us are, but he has such outstanding qualities- the same qualities that helped him succeed in life prior to the horrific loss of his family and for a decade afterward.....he is incredibly strong mentally, able to compartmentalize and work toward a goal with laser focus, and he inspires me with the grace and dignity he has always displayed in the face of the nightmare (understatement) of being wrongly convicted.  He has never wavered from his original account of events, he has always believed his innocence would some day be recognized, and I admire his courage more than I can express.

    An amazing person (none / 0) (#21)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 07:07:38 PM EST
    There are a few out there but it is hard to know that some are challenged like this.  Many of us wouldn't make it through it.  I hope with all my heart that he is soon free.  The fact that the base was open and some people out there don't understand that and what that means haunts me.  When I first began dating my husband, prior to 9/11, most bases and posts were open, anyone could drive on at any time.  It never occurred to me that some people did not fully understand this.

    Hello to MilitaryTracy (none / 0) (#22)
    by kathryn macdonald on Thu Apr 21, 2011 at 08:57:29 PM EST
    Yes, it is very hard for people to conceive of a post being "open" as Bragg was in 1970- but when people do know that fact, they then (mostly) become more accepting of the fact that anyone could gain access to the apartments/quarters, that people didn't lock their doors back then, that "hippies" were not abberrations in 1970, but actually rampant in the community, and drug use was also rampant.  I find that people who are younger understand the absurdity of my husband's conviction as well as the people who were young adults in late 60's/early 70's and understand what the country was like then....

    I really appreciate your empathy (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by kathryn macdonald on Thu Apr 21, 2011 at 09:08:46 PM EST
    Dear MilitaryTracy:
    I truly appreciate your kindness, esp. b/c your family is in the military- I am sure you are aware of the turf wars and people standing behind each other out of "loyalty" at any cost....but nonetheless, my husband volunteered to go to Vietnam at a time when people were being drafted via a lottery....he served proudly in the Special Forces (Green Berets) although I should also state that his special training was as a paratrooper- whenever people read that Jeff was a Green Beret, they think "he was a man-made killing machine with martial arts skills" CLEARLY NOT TRUE.  He was a doctor, assigned to work at Ft. Bragg, and drug abuse among military personnel was rampant.  He was obliged to report to his superiors re: anyone coming in re: drug use....thus, Greg Mitchell (Helena Stoeckley's boyfriend- who confessed to numerous people) who was in the service, and his friends, decided Jeff was a "narc"...I truly believe the tragedy that befell Jeff and Colette and the girls would not have happened if Jeff had not been pinpointed as an officer (Capt) "hard on drug users" and if, on the murder night, even ONE of the intruders had not been on 4-5 heavy drugs (leading to such senseless violence).  It is really hard for (some)people to understand the culture at Ft. Bragg and beyond in 1970 (the druge culture), the post being open, and so forth.  Thank you for listening.

    thank you (none / 0) (#12)
    by sj on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 12:08:32 PM EST
    Thx Kathryn for stopping (none / 0) (#14)
    by brodie on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 02:27:20 PM EST
    by and helpfully answering some questions about this very unfortunate case.  And now the Innocence Project getting involved makes me more optimistic that justice might well prevail in what looks like a case of injustice due to prosecutorial misconduct.

    Best wishes to you and your husband for getting the deserved new trial.


    Thank you Brodie (none / 0) (#18)
    by kathryn macdonald on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 04:33:55 PM EST
    We are so grateful that Barry Scheck made himself available to press inquiries after the opinion was issued- the fact that he and the original (NYC) Innocence Project, along with the North Carolina and New England chapters signed on to an Amicus Brief (with NACDL- The National Assoc. of Criminal Defense Lawyers) speaks volumes.  I hope you will read the Amicus briefs (at www.themacdonaldcase.org)- the government argued to keep them from being admitted to the record (for one, saying Barry Scheck was not an expert in the area of DNA) but the 4th Circuit ruled to admit both briefs to the record...

    All good questions, (none / 0) (#6)
    by brodie on Tue Apr 19, 2011 at 08:38:50 PM EST
    but as I'm sure you're aware, not every case, even those that get finally resolved in the courtroom, has every question satisfactorily answered.  Some loose ends inevitably remain, especially with the most complicated or ancient cases like this.

    But now I think justice demands that MacDonald get his new trial, where some of these matters might be resolved that you raise, but more importantly where the Doctor will finally have his chance to question and examine the evidence and witnesses that were the basis for his conviction and bring forth the exculpatory evidence wrongfully withheld.

    I'd put this case well in the back of my mind many years ago when I went from tending to believe in his guilt after the McGuinness book and movie, then to belief in his innocence after reading about the McGuinness book and movie and after wondering whether he hadn't been tried for failing to act in the normal ways that the innocent victims of crime are supposed to act.

    We may never learn the whole truth, but we can learn some of it or enough of it if he's given his day in court.


    Your comment about how Jeff may not have reacted the way people who suffer trauma are "supposed" to act is, in my opinion, SO KEY to why he was convicted in the press and in court to begin with.....because people do not know Jeff, (only who "think" they know him, based on a novel marketed as non-fiction) they don't pause to think that at the time of a the murders he was a 26 year old young man from a lower-middle class family in Patchogue, LI....he was not a priviledged, worldly person - in fact, his naivete, I believe, was very detrimental to him. He'd never been in front of a camera and (to this day) often smiles as a reflex to "hide" his discomfort with such things....he was advised by counsel "not to show emotion/not react" to the accusations and lies put forth by the prosecution, not to react when Helena Stoeckley entered the courtroom, not to react when horrid autopsy photos were shown to the jury.  He grew up during an era when boys "didn't cry" and emotions were to be suppressed.  Ironically, this case (and I dare say most everything in life) is dependent on human emotion- in this case, the jury responded to the horrific deaths of Colette, Kim and Kris and Jeff was the only person being offered up as the one responsible.  I have spent many nights wondering what they would have decided had they known what the government kept from them at trial...I know the answer, actually, and that is why our government has fought tooth and nail to keep the "evidence as a whole" from being reviewed all at once....

    Right you are (none / 0) (#7)
    by mjames on Tue Apr 19, 2011 at 09:51:08 PM EST
    and I'll settle for that. I fear, however, that Scalia et al. will never allow that to happen.  

    RE: USSC (none / 0) (#20)
    by kathryn macdonald on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 05:39:47 PM EST
    My understanding is that the DOJ can first ask the 4th Circuit to reconsider their decision "en banc" within 14 days and then ask the USSC to reverse the 4th Circuit's decision within 30 days.

    this space is for comments (none / 0) (#24)
    by Jeralyn on Sun May 08, 2011 at 04:07:57 PM EST
    not republishing material posted elsewhere. Links must be in html format or they skew the site.

    A comment reprinting material posted elsewhere has been deleted.

    The post that got deleted (5.00 / 1) (#25)
    by AlansAunt on Sun May 08, 2011 at 07:43:06 PM EST
    What is going on?  The post that got deleted was not posted anywhere else. Kathryn Madonald is not familiar with the evidence in her husband's case.

    1.  There is no evidence that Helena Stoeckley was ever in the MacDonald apartment.

    2. There is no evidence that Greg Mitchell was ever in the apartment.

    3. Why did it take Mr. Britt so long to come forth with his testimony?

    For those who are interested in the true facts of this case, please visit:


    BTW :  The DNA evidence does not support MacDonlad's story, if that's a clue for you.


    Comments on all threads (none / 0) (#30)
    by Jeralyn on Tue May 10, 2011 at 11:37:02 AM EST
    close after three weeks.  This thread is now closed.