WILMINGTON, N.C. — 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.
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 a heroin addict’s mother.
"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.
U.S. District Judge James 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, on 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 later 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 in undermining the prosecution’s 1979 case.
"He sort of unloaded his soul," Smith testified.
But prosecutor John Bruce focused on many inconsistencies in Britt’s statements. The retired marshal contended in one statement that he picked Stoeckley up in Charleston, S.C., to transport her to the trial; in another, he said he’d 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 compared to the Charles Manson cult killings in California six months earlier.
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.
(Contact reporter Anne Blythe at anne.blithenewsobserver.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)