No word yet on Jeffrey MacDonald's 2012 quest for freedom

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2014 

— Eighteen months have passed since James C. Fox, a senior judge for the U.S. Eastern District of North Carolina, told defense attorneys and prosecutors at his bench that he needed to “get it settled” in his own mind “what we’re doing and where we’re going.”

The comments came at the close of Jeffrey MacDonald’s latest quest for freedom, a seven-day hearing in Wilmington in September 2012 that was one of many stops on a tortuous legal journey.

Since then, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others drawn to the case have waited and waited and waited.

Transcripts of the hearing were prepared for the official record by early 2013. Attorneys for each side filed the last of their responses and replies to arguments by Sept. 23, 2013.

Fox has not given a public indication of when he might rule.

MacDonald, 70, has maintained for more than four decades that he did not slaughter his wife and two daughters in their Fort Bragg apartment in 1970.

The former Army captain and Princeton-educated doctor has spent half his life fighting the 1979 conviction that resulted in him becoming federal inmate No. 0131-177.

Over the years since the bloody killing, the legal file on MacDonald has grown thicker with the focus shifting from the crime itself on the North Carolina Army base to the procedural side of the investigation and trial.

The hearing in front of Fox was to consider what the defense contended were new claims about DNA evidence and statements made by a former marshal and family members of a drug-addled woman spotted by law enforcement officers near the murder scene.

The late Franklin Dupree was the judge during the 1979 trial and for many of MacDonald’s post-trial proceedings. But Dupree died in 1995, and Fox, an octogenarian who assumed semi-retirement status in 2001, found himself in an unusual position when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the MacDonald case back to his courtroom.

In April 2011, the federal appeals court reversed a Fox ruling in the MacDonald case, telling him he needed to consider claims about new DNA evidence in the context of all the evidence. The appeals court did not elaborate on the meaning of “all the evidence.”

Fox told MacDonald and the attorneys at the start of the hearing in September 2011 that he was going to allow great leeway on what evidence could be presented.

“We don’t want to be back here in 42 years doing this again,” Fox said at the time.

MacDonald’s case, the subject of several best-selling books, countless articles and one hit TV mini-series, has created strong camps of opinion over the years.

Some contend MacDonald is an exploitative psychopath who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, as the sentence handed to him specifies.

Others argue just as vehemently that MacDonald is a victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. He claimed to have been asleep on the living room couch in February 1970 when he awoke to a strange trio of intruders who not only clubbed him and stabbed him with what looked like an ice pick, but chanted “acid is groovy, kill the pigs” after repeatedly stabbing his wife and daughters inside their home.

The long-running narrative has seen the graying of many of the key figures over the years and the death of others.

The death on Monday of Joe McGinniss, the journalist provocateur who wrote “Fatal Vison,” an account of MacDonald’s case that surprised the protagonist, sparked a new round of questions about whether the legal case would outlive all those familiar with it.

McGinniss had been given almost unfettered access to MacDonald and the defense team during the trial. During the course of his research and writing, though, McGinniss concluded the jury decided correctly when convicting MacDonald.

In September 2012, McGinniss testified to as much in the hearing in Wilmington.

“He tried to con me from the first day, and it took me a long time to be aware of that,” McGinniss testified.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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