Jeffrey MacDonald Gets New Hearing 42 Years After Crime

A hearing is underway in federal court in North Carolina to determine whether new evidence, when considered collectively rather than piecemeal, is sufficient to overturn the murder convictions of former Army surgeon and Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald, imprisoned since 1982 for the 1970 Charles Manson-style attack on his wife and daughters.

Here is the 2008 order denying relief. In 2011, the Appeals court reversed and ordered a new hearing. [More...]

Kathryn MacDonald, who married MacDonald in prison in 2002, and who has commented on the case here at TalkLeft, has been MacDonald's staunchest supporter.

Will the DNA evidence and evidence of witness intimidation be enough? I hope so. MacDonald has steadfastly denied committing the murders, declining to apply for parole which would require an admission of guilt. A new book by Earl Morris, "A Wilderness of Error," which was glowingly reviewed by the New York Times a few weeks ago, concludes he is factually innocent.

“A Wilderness of Error” upends nearly everything you think you know about these killings and their aftermath. Watching Mr. Morris wade into this thicket of material is like watching an aggrieved parent walk into a teenager’s fetid, clothes- and Doritos-strewed bedroom and neatly sort and disinfect until the place shines.

He will leave you 85 percent certain that Mr. MacDonald is innocent. He will leave you 100 percent certain he did not get a fair trial. Along the way he bops the poor Mr. McGinniss on the head several more times, the way a fisherman puts a flopping brook trout out of its misery before excising its innards.

According to today's News and Observer article, Joe McGunnis' publishers paid a $325,000 settlement after being sued by MacDonald for his Fatal Vision book concluding he is guilty.

Morris joined others in questioning whether McGinniss pretended to believe MacDonald was innocent to gain continued cooperation for a book that ultimately concluded guilt. MacDonald sued the author, and though a trial on the matter resulted in a hung jury, the publisher's insurance company reached an out-of-court $325,000 settlement that was distributed to the inmate's mother and mother-in-law.

More from the New York Times review of Morris's book:

Mr. Morris dilates on the confessions of two people who could be among the hippies Mr. MacDonald said were there the night of the murders. He pores over grievous evidence-collection errors. He walks us through a trial that was demonstrably rigged for the prosecution.

Reading this book made me physically ill, as the author surely intended. “I am repulsed by the fabrication of a case from incomplete knowledge, faulty analysis and the suppression of evidence,” Mr. Morris writes. “Repulsed and disgusted.”

More on the hearing that begins today here and here. The hearing could take two weeks. In a nutshell:

A military inquiry into the murders recommended that MacDonald not be court-martialed, but a federal jury found him guilty in 1979. He was sentenced to life in prison and has been behind bars since 1982.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last year ruled that MacDonald is entitled to an evidentiary hearing. He and his attorneys will argue that new DNA tests show that hair samples found underneath the fingernail of one of the victims did not come from a member of the MacDonald family and presumably were from one of the killers.

The defense team will also try to prove that the prosecutor in the criminal trial threatened Helena Stoeckley, a witness who had earlier confessed to being in the MacDonald home the night of the murders.

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    I Am 42... (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 11:36:13 AM EST
    ...and I feel like I have been on the planet for a longtime, a lifetime if you will.  I can't imagine even guilty man spending that much time in prison.  If innocent, well, that would just be more horrible than words.

    For cases with DNA evidence, they should be tested as soon as humanly possible, why they need hearing on testing conclusive evidence to someone's possible innocence is not right.  

    If the evidence points to another person, then the hearing process should begin and done quickly.  Why people drag their feet with this stuff, who claim to care about justice, is mind boggling.

    If nothing else, (5.00 / 2) (#16)
    by NYShooter on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:54:40 PM EST
    I hope this case sheds some way overdue light on the appeals process here in the USA. Be prepared to be shocked out of your socks.

    Even anecdotally, most of us are aware of the injustice perpetrated by overzealous prosecutors, "hanging" judges, and biased, often racist, juries. And, that's only in the original trial phase.

    Once a defendant is deemed guilty there is virtually nothing that the, now "convicted" person can do that would result in him/her getting a new trial. No rabid, carnivorous, beast is a match for a prosecutor whose conviction is questioned. Not new evidence, recanted testimony, incompetent representation, or sleeping jurors, almost nothing stands a chance against the system's unshakeable belief that a defendant only gets "one bite at the apple."

    Like I said, if MacDonald's case gets some traction, and if (don't laugh now) the media does its job, you will hear of cases that will tear your heart apart. I'm certainly no expert here, but I have done quite a bit of reading regarding cases where any normal, decent person would be aghast at the reasons, really pretexts, for not granting new trials. Whether the prisoner didn't file within an arbitrary time limit, or new science rendered the old science unreliable, rules are rules, and justice be damned.

    Please don't be fooled by exceptional cases, like the ones made famous by the wonderful, tireless attorneys of "The Innocence Project." Yes, they do fantastic work, and some prisoners do sometimes get exonerated. But the numbers are so tiny compared to our total prisoner population that I fear our "law and order" society gets a false sense of the infallibility of our judicial system.

    If the MacDonald case gets the publicity I'm hoping for, prepare yourself for a world that goes beyond "A Clock World Orange." Even Kafka would feel slighted.


    I gave you five stars (5.00 / 1) (#33)
    by Slayersrezo on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 01:54:27 AM EST
    Because not only do I agree with every word you said, but you said it more elegantly than I usually manage. I've followed TL and sites like Grits for Breakfast for years not to mention places like the Community of the Wrongly Accused. None of this surprises me, but the average person would be totally shocked. And your points about appeals are well-spoken. The only thing you didn't add is that appeals are often over technical legal issues BECAUSE often appeals based on evidence not presented at trial are precluded. How messed up is that? Meanwhile, so many people feel that inmates get too many appeals, that the vast majority of appeals are frivolous, and have no clue just how messed up the appeal system is. It literally often is playing legal games rather than worrying about any new exculpatory or potentially exculpatory evidence.

    Copycat Manson (3.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Dadler on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 12:41:29 PM EST
    This always seemed a possibility to me, for what it's worth. I remember being in high school in the 80s and reading about the case. All I could think was it was within a year of Manson, and something always bothered me about it for that reason.

    Sadly (none / 0) (#3)
    by Chuck0 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 12:51:06 PM EST
    should anything come of this and MacDonald is exonerated (I read the McGinniss book a long time ago and I'm not sure if he's guilty or not), no one involved in his prosecution or conviction will be held accountable. They were just "doing their job."

    Let's not miss any opportunity to (none / 0) (#4)
    by oculus on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:01:22 PM EST
    pile on prosecutors.  

    So you think they should be held (none / 0) (#5)
    by sj on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:02:07 PM EST
    unaccountable then?

    I think they are. By judges, juries, (none / 0) (#6)
    by oculus on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:04:06 PM EST
    State Bar Associations, supervisors, elected DAs, peers, civil lawsuits (infrequently) and appellate courts.  

    Not seeing it, frankly (none / 0) (#8)
    by sj on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:15:36 PM EST
    Conviction success rate is (typically) rewarded.

    Judicial review based on new technologies is a struggle and not a given and is (typically) fought tooth and nail by the DA's office.

    And it shouldn't be so hard to obtain accountability for bad faith from

    State Bar Associations, supervisors, elected DAs, peers, civil lawsuits (infrequently) and appellate courts.
    I have no problem at all with "piling on the prosecutors". If they don't want the pile-on then, as a group, don't behave as if they are Judge Dredd.

    The DA's office where I was formerly (none / 0) (#10)
    by oculus on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:18:44 PM EST
    employed has its own team of highly skilled and professional prosecutors reviewing all past convictions in which DNA testing technology was not available or not as precise as now.  

    And Yet Nearly Every Person... (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:45:24 PM EST
    ...who's been exonerated after a wrongful conviction years later, has a DA who played fast and lose with the law.  Often created a path to conviction that probably wouldn't have occurred without their bending and ofter breaking of rules.

    Review is fine, but when someone does 10 years because maybe the DA 'forgot' to turn over exculpatory evidence, that is a crime.  Someone is being deprived of their freedom, and everyone else in court is subject to criminal charges should they forget something crucial.

    So one mans loses a decade, another loses their license (which is so rare it's hardly worth mentioning) ?  That's not justice.  Not to mention that pesky little thing about the real perpetrators never perused.

    I am not about dumping on DA's, but there are rules and laws that apply to everyone in the court room, not just one side and sorry, but being confined to prison because a prosecutorial misconduct is a felony IMO. And if that means a couple bad guys slide, well that's the price we pay to ensure innocent people are convicted.

    They make mistakes, like everyone, but I am talking about flagellant and intentional misconduct.  


    That is the way it should be, but it isn't in most (5.00 / 2) (#21)
    by womanwarrior on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 05:06:47 PM EST
    cases.  I have a friend who uncovered evidence that a prosecutor got witnesses to lie in a death penalty case for two men.  He succeeded in having them exonerated after several years, including winning a retrial, and he filed a bar complaint against the prosecutor, because he was a very brave lawyer.  It came out in the disciplinary proceedings that the prosecutor was taped teaching a class to other prosecutors saying, "It isn't hard to get the death penalty for the guilty defendant.  The challenge is to get a death penalty for an innocent one."  (I am paraphrasing from memory.)  

    Seven years after the filing of the bar complaint, the prosecutor was disbarred by the Supreme Court of the state.  During that seven years, the prosecutor's office implemented a policy that there would be no plea bargaining with my friend.  He did a lot of trials and won more than he expected.  The whole office should have been disbarred for such a policy, imho.  It takes a long time for "justice" to be done, and sometimes it isn't.


    See the Yale Law Journal (5.00 / 1) (#30)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 07:45:04 PM EST
    2011, The Myth of Prosecutorial Accountability After Connick v. Thompson: Why Existing Professional Responsibility Measures Cannot Protect Against Prosecutorial Misconduct

    In a 50 state study, the conclusion was "professional responsibility measures as they are currently composed do a poor job of policing prosecutorial misconduct."


    That is an exception, (none / 0) (#12)
    by Chuck0 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:39:45 PM EST
    not a rule.

    Coincidentally, there's a good post today at The Agitator that bears out my sentiments.
    http://www.theagitator.com/2012/09/16/where-does-she-go-to-regain-her-reputation-will-the-prosecutio n-be-punished/


    Heck even Judge Dredd has an excuse compared (none / 0) (#34)
    by Slayersrezo on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 02:03:27 AM EST
    to our present-day crooked (not all of them of course but too many) prosecutors.
    After all in MegaCity 1, Dredd has had to deal with witches,aliens, madmen seizing power, robot wars, at least one major nuclear attack on his city that did tremendous damage, etc.
    In short, the Judges -even in the best of times - are tasked with stopping a nearly anarchistic situation from spiraling out of control and are constantly understaffed. Thus it makes sense to give such a highly trained person both law enforcement and judicial powers.

    Meanwhile in the real United States our Prosecutors seem to mostly be in it for political power, wealth (via book sales) , or glory , all of which convictions get them. Esp. convictions in infamous crimes where the public is whipped into a frenzy over a presumed guilty defendant.

    I think we need to do two things to prevent the current massive perversions of justice that go on day to day in this country:
    A. Find some way to shield prosecutors politically from pressure being unilaterally applied only for conviction rate
    B. Instead of Absolute Immunity, reduce the standard to Qualified Immunity. Prosecutors would have to think more about which cases they wanted to "throw the dice on" and whether it was worth withholding or otherwise tampering with evidence, resisting appeals, etc.


    hardly (none / 0) (#29)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 07:37:20 PM EST
    prosecutors are rarely held to account. Via The Innocence Project:

    bq. Recent studies of these and other cases have shown that prosecutors are rarely found at fault, and even when they are, they are very rarely disciplined for it. A USA Today investigation found that only one federal prosecutor has been disbarred, even temporarily, for misconduct in the past 12 years despite 201 documented cases of violated laws or ethics rules. The federal prosecutor in that one case was suspended from practicing law for just one year. A study conducted by the Northern California Innocence Project supports these findings. In that study, over 700 California prosecutors engaged in misconduct from 1997 to 2009 and only seven of them were disciplined.

    If you want to discuss prosecutorial misconduct in this case, that's fine. If you want to make sweeping generalizations in favor of prosecutors, this is not the place or thread.


    If he's found not guilty, (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by sj on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:16:38 PM EST
    will you and your ilk accept it?

    I will without question. (none / 0) (#11)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:31:49 PM EST

    What ? (5.00 / 2) (#14)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:49:45 PM EST
    He's already been found guilty, like so many.

    It's about physical evidence that proves someone committed the crime he was found guilty of.  If it exists and can be proven, with science, there won't be another trial.

    Not sure why you tried to make this a us/them issue.  No one benefits from a wrongful conviction.


    Fair enough, (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 02:20:43 PM EST
    it is a hearing to overturn the conviction based on new evidence, not a new trial.

    And, upon re-reading J's post, the new hearing will examine new DNA evidence and claims of witness intimidation, and those intimidation claims would appear to be the source of ChuckO's comment regarding the people involved in the prosecution and conviction.

    I didn't make that connection in my reply to ChuckO's comment, and I apologize for that.


    Off Topic a Bit (none / 0) (#15)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 01:53:40 PM EST
    Florida ready to try 13 year old as an adult for murder.  The kid lived an almost unspeakable life and the product of rape; his mother when 12 when she was raped.

    So, what do we do (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by Zorba on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:00:35 PM EST
    for a child like this?  This kid is most likely irreparably ruined.  And I speak as a way left-of-the-left liberal, who has worked with emotionally disturbed kids.  But he has so many strikes against him, I really don't think that he can be "fixed." Yet the thought of locking up a child for the rest of his life causes me to shudder.  I sure as he!! don't know the answer to this one.  He had three strikes against him from the day he was born.  Yet I don't think that he can ever be let loose upon society.  
    Is there not another place that he could be kept, away from society, yet a humane place where he could live the rest of his life, where he could maybe learn some skills and be treated well?  Not a prison, but under extreme supervision.
    Well, no, as far as I know, there are no such places.  Sadly, and unfortunately.

    please take this to an open thread (none / 0) (#28)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 07:33:53 PM EST
    BTW, I wrote about the case you are talking about here. The cases are completely dissimilar.

    I remember reading "Fatal Vision" years (none / 0) (#19)
    by Anne on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 03:04:59 PM EST
    ago, when it was first published; it really did kind of piggyback on the horror of the Manson killings - and on the tendency of the public to be as attracted to that kind of horror as they are repulsed and frightened by it.

    I always had my doubts that McDonald was responsible, and over the years, that doubt has grown.  So, you know what this means: I'm going to have to read Morris' book...

    I guess what this case - and so many more that we never hear about - tells us is that for too many on the prosecutorial side, "justice" isn't the focus, convictions are, and you get them however you can - even if it means rigging the process to come out that way.

    Is there greater harm in digging a little deeper and re-examining evidence that could set someone free, than there is in unjustly keeping someone in prison?  I think not.  It's all well and good to declare that someone had his or her chance, lost, and can't keep coming back to the system for do-overs, but I don't think we fix an increasingly broken system by allowing it to stay broken - we fix it by insisting that the system has to get it right.  That won't always be a win for the accused, but even if it isn't, it's a win for the process, for the system and the presumption of innocence.  That the burden is on the prosecution doesn't - or shouldn't - mean that it gets more latitude in reaching its goal of conviction.

    Oh, well - enough philosophical musings for a Monday...

    Sure that wasn't Sunday's N&O? (none / 0) (#20)
    by unitron on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 03:54:55 PM EST
    'Cause that sounds like what I read in yesterday's edition, not yet having gone down to the store for today's.

    Also in yesterday's edition, another story about the case by former N&O columnist Dennis Rogers, who was stationed there at the time and reported on the case later as a civilian.

    I've always been troubled by the seeming lack of clear cut jurisdiction.  Either it happened within the borders of Ft. Bragg, and it's entirely the Army's case to handle, or it happened outside of the base and only NC has jurisdiction.

    What happened smells like venue shopping, and I wonder if he hadn't been convicted would he have wound up with the non-military part of the federal government going after him.

    illogical killers (none / 0) (#25)
    by diogenes on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:31:26 PM EST
    They barely strike the green beret man in the house but most thoroughly make sure that the others are dead.

    "His wife had been stabbed with a knife 16 times in the chest and neck. An ice pick was driven into her chest 21 more times. She'd also been hit at least six times in the head with a club, and had broken arms.
    Kimberly had been clubbed in the head at least six times, with one blow shattering her skull and another splintering her nose and cheek. She also was stabbed in the neck repeatedly as she was close to death.
    Kristen had 33 stab wounds from a knife - in the chest, in the back and one to her neck. An ice pick had been plunged into her chest 15 times and her finger was cut to the bone, with prosecutors suggesting that showed she had tried to protect herself.

    Don't you think the "real killers" would have clubbed and stabbed Jeffrey MacDonald much more thoroughly?

    The most logical explanation is that MacDonald hired killers to injure him (rendering him innocent) and kill the others.  Why he would do that is beyond me.

    please don't bother responding to this (5.00 / 2) (#26)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 07:30:46 PM EST
    only a guilt-monger would suggest people overlook the DNA and go with his baseless speculation instead.

    I won't respond to his post (none / 0) (#35)
    by Slayersrezo on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 02:17:04 AM EST
    After all, these "hired killers" managed to collapse one of MacDonald's lungs. That alone renders the thought ridiculous.

    I also don't see why "copycat" murder by people on drugs is such a tough idea for the "guilty" crowd to swallow, or why anyone with any sense would imagine that killers on drugs always react in a rational manner in victim selection - or anything else,for that matter.

    Thanks for the write-up and the links, Jeralyn.


    The hired killers (none / 0) (#37)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 07:25:28 AM EST

    The "hired killers" assertion struck me as the most preposterous aspect of the whole thing.  

    I Could Believe (none / 0) (#27)
    by daring grace on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 07:33:18 PM EST
    from what I've read of the case that the investigation was flawed and the trial unfair.

    But two circumstances that always rang false for me are how the woman and children suffered intense overkill wounds and the strapping Green Beret, by comparison, relatively minor ones.

    And the image of the "hippie killers" chanting "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs."? As a former hippie in a pretty hick part of the country, I agree with a commenter on another blog: Who were these "hippies"? Greg Brady and Keith Partridge?

    Want some speculation? (5.00 / 1) (#32)
    by womanwarrior on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 08:52:23 PM EST
    The killers were radical misogynists or woman haters.  Remember witches being burned at the stake?  Would that explain it to you? Guilt should be determined by proof of facts at a trial, not trying to figure out what was in the mind of an as yet unidentifed killer, who was probably insane or out of control based on the viciousness of the wounds. But this issue at hand now is whether the trial was fair and whether the prosecutors covered up evidence that pointed to the innocence of this defendant and whether the prosecutors induced a witness not to tell the whole truth.

    More speculation (none / 0) (#36)
    by Slayersrezo on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 02:20:35 AM EST
    If they really hated "pigs" (the military in this case) so much they might have wanted him to live and know his family had died.

    But in reality I don't think there was any misogyny or much of a plan besides killing. I think the drugs took over and when that happens rationality is often out the window.

    Of course all this assumes that MacDonald is really innocent. But if the DNA holds up the "small chance" of his guilt will get significantly smaller.


    he was of average size (none / 0) (#31)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 08:14:39 PM EST
    according to this doctor's report in 1970.