Ex-prosecutor denies coercing witness in 1979 Jeffrey MacDonald trial

ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 19, 2012 

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A 1979 file photo shows then U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt (background) escorting Helena Stoeckley (right) into the U.S. District Courthouse in Raleigh 8/16 after her arrest as a material witness in the triple murder trial of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.

1979 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO — 1979 News & Observer file photo

  • Standing by her husband Kathryn MacDonald stands at the edge of the courtroom each time marshals escort her husband, Jeffrey MacDonald, in and out. She pushes as close as she can get, trains her eyes on him, purses her lips and mouths: “I love you.” Kathryn MacDonald, 51, married her husband in federal prison in August 2002, five years after sending him a letter. The two celebrated their 10th anniversary apart. He was in transit from the medium-security prison in Cumberland, Md., where he was being held, to North Carolina, where he is fighting once again for freedom. Kathryn MacDonald visited her husband Tuesday night at the New Hanover County jail, where he’s being held during the proceedings at the federal courthouse in Wilmington. He had dropped 20 pounds over the past several weeks, she said. She said she was not worried about the prosecution’s witnesses and said that she continues to believe her husband’s case for a new trial and freedom is stronger. “I’m well aware of what of what they were going to say,” Kathryn MacDonald said. Staff writer Anne Blythe

— The lead prosecutor in the Jeffrey MacDonald trial 32 years ago acknowledged from the witness stand Wednesday that he had committed crimes and told lies – even as a lawyer.

Jim Blackburn, the former federal prosecutor who served three months in prison after pleading guilty to 12 felonies linked to creating fictitious court documents and embezzling $234,000 from his law firm, looked out over the courtroom where MacDonald is making his latest appeal for freedom. Blackburn was providing an abbreviated description of a life that led him from a seat at the federal prosecutor’s table in a high-profile court case to a much publicized “flame-out.”

“I basically shot my legal career in the head,” Blackburn said.

But Blackburn adamantly denied that he coerced a woman whom the MacDonald defense team had considered a key witness in his 1979 trial.

His testimony came the day the MacDonald defense team wrapped its side of a hearing on MacDonald’s case. The defense contends that DNA evidence and statements from key figures in the case – considered in the light of fresh hindsight – should at least win the former Army doctor a new trial.

MacDonald has maintained that he did not kill his wife, Colette, and daughters Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, on Feb. 17, 1970. He has insisted that intruders came into his apartment on the Fort Bragg base on a rainy night, awoke him from his sleep on the living room couch, chanted “acid is groovy, kill the pigs” by candle light and injured him and slaughtered his family.

A jury in 1979 found MacDonald guilty of second-degree murder in the deaths of his pregnant wife and older daughter, and first-degree murder for his younger daughter. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison.

Since then, in appeals that have landed his case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court a remarkable seven times, MacDonald has raised claims about the ethics of his prosecutors, challenged the impartiality of his judge, questioned the validity of evidence and pointed out numerous times that others have claimed responsibility for crimes he insists he did not commit.

The case is back before U.S. District Court Judge James Fox to consider DNA evidence from hairs tested in 2006, along with statements from a retired U.S. marshal and the mother of the drug-addled woman that was part of the defense team’s theory.

For two days this week, defense lawyers Gordon Widenhouse and Keith Williams have added to the bulging MacDonald case file with accounts from six witnesses about the words of Helena Stoeckley’s late mother and the late Jimmy Britt, the retired marshal who came forward in 2005 with allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

Stoeckley’s mother, also named Helena, and Britt both said in statements that Helena Stoeckley had told them she was in the MacDonald house when the murders occurred and that she saw others commit the bloodshed.

DNA evidence

The defense did not call anyone to elaborate on the DNA evidence of three hairs found at the crime scene that do not match MacDonald or his immediate family.

In its opening statement, the defense contended that had such evidence been available at the 1979 trial, it would have bolstered their arguments about intruders and led “any reasonable juror” to a different verdict.

On Wednesday, the prosecution brought forward retired marshals and FBI agents to poke holes in Britt’s claims. They presented custody logs and documents that showed that other agents, not Britt, had transported Stoeckley from South Carolina to Raleigh in August 1979 to hold her as a witness for the MacDonald trial.

Britt claimed Stoeckley told him, as she told many others, that she was in the MacDonald house and saw others carry out the attacks. But through the years, she told many different accounts of her whereabouts and involvement.

Frank Mills, a retired FBI agent, testified Wednesday that Stoeckley told him in South Carolina that she knew she had taken mescaline that night at her boyfriend’s apartment that “knocked her out.” Stoeckley told him that she did not think she was in the house, but she could not be sure because she didn’t know what happened while she was under the influence of the drug.

Mills said Stoeckley told him she first learned of the murders in newspaper accounts the next day.

Stoeckley was called at the 1979 trial and did not testify to being in the house, leaving the defense team so discouraged that it considered having her declared a hostile witness.

‘Attention seeker’

Britt came forward in 2005 with an account that he had heard Blackburn threaten to charge Stoeckley if she testified to being in the house and seeing the murders.

But on Wednesday, prosecutors called witnesses to raise doubt about the former marshal’s character.

One former supervisor called him “an attention seeker.”

Another, Bill Berryhill, said he found Britt “to be rather large on ego and rather small when it came to veracity.”

Blackburn, among the witnesses called by prosecutors Wednesday, insisted that Britt’s claims about him were not just “small on veracity.” They were not true, Blackburn said.

“I did not do what is alleged,” Blackburn said, his voice getting stronger as he continued. “I never did. It never took place.”

Widenhouse, though, asked question after question about Blackburn’s criminal past.

Blackburn’s legal woes

In 1993, 14 years after the MacDonald trial, Blackburn pleaded guilty to faking a lawsuit, writing phony court orders and forging judges’ names on them. As part of his attempt to persuade clients that he was working on cases he had not filed, Blackburn embezzled $234,000 from his law firm.

“I got into a lot of trouble,” Blackburn said.

He said a psychiatrist told him he suffered from a personality disorder and depression. He was sentenced to three years in prison and was released after serving three and a half months.

Blackburn sought work after that and landed a job as a host at the 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh, where he was paid $6 an hour and got into a bit more trouble, he related in one of the lighter moments of testimony Wednesday.

While seating a woman he thought was pregnant, Blackburn said, he asked when the baby was due. The woman told him she wasn’t pregnant. Blackburn then made a comment that got him moved from his host post to a job as a waiter.

“I said, ‘Well no more hushpuppies for you,’ ” he testified Wednesday.

Blackburn now works as a motivational speaker. He said he knows he has been untruthful in the past, but that he was telling the truth on the stand Wednesday. He knows too well the consequences of being dishonest, he said.

“I would never in a million years say something that was untrue to keep Dr. MacDonald or anyone (in prison), because it just is not worth it,” Blackburn said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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