Jeffrey MacDonald’s decades-old murder case has generated several books, a TV miniseries and the cover story in this week’s People magazine as well as a 42-minute documentary produced by the People/Entertainment Weekly Network.
This week, the former Army doctor continues his fight to overturn a 1979 jury verdict that he murdered his pregnant wife and two daughters in their apartment at Fort Bragg on Feb. 17, 1970.
On Thursday, a panel of judges from the 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals will hear arguments from the 73-year-old inmate who has maintained his innocence from the day the bodies of his wife, Colette, and their daughters Kristen, 2, and Kimberly, 5, were found bludgeoned and stabbed. MacDonald, a Princeton-educated physician, was found wounded near his bloodied family.
An Army review of the case found insufficient evidence to charge MacDonald in the killings, but a crusade by Colette’s stepfather, Alfred G. “Freddy” Kassab, led to an indictment and civilian trial.
In the decades since, the case has taken a tortuous legal path through the court system as the focus in the numerous appeals and requests for freedom or a new trial has shifted from the crime itself to the more procedural side of the law.
Lawyers and skeptics of MacDonald’s guilt highlight flaws of the crime-scene investigation and follow-up, as well as with the trial, evidence and key figures associated with the case.
Some have died. New witnesses have stepped forward to speak for those who are no longer here to offer first-hand accounts.
Throughout it all, MacDonald has been alternately described as an impenitent psychopath who is right where he should be, or a victim whose devastating loss has been compounded by a gross miscarriage of justice.
The case has two very different narratives, one provided by MacDonald and the other by prosecutors.
MacDonald’s is this: He went to sleep on the living room couch several hours after midnight. His youngest daughter, Kristen, had wet his side of the bed he shared with his wife. Instead of waking her to change the sheets, he carried his daughter back to her room and grabbed a blanket to settle down in the living room. He awoke to shouting and screaming, his pregnant wife and older daughter, Kimberly, appealing for his help.
MacDonald told authorities he opened his eyes to find four figures standing over him: two white men, a black man in a military fatigue jacket with sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve and a woman wearing a floppy hat over stringy blond hair. He contended the woman chanted “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” reminiscent of the drug-crazed Charles Manson murders that had happened one year earlier.
MacDonald claims the intruders clubbed him and stabbed him with what looked to be an ice pick. He lost consciousness.
He awoke and found his wife dead in the master bedroom, pulled a knife out of her chest, lay beside her and attempted to give her mouth-to-mouth. The word “pig” was written in blood on the bed headboard. He then found his girls, lying bloody in their bedrooms, and called for help at 3:33 a.m.
Prosecutors argued that despite MacDonald’s injuries – blunt-force trauma to the left side of his forehead, a bruised right forehead, stab wounds and a collapsed lung – he had snapped and killed his family in a rage.
Prosecutors never presented a clear motive for why a man with no signs of a violent past would snap, bludgeon his family, stage a crime scene and inflict wounds on himself. His case exposed extramarital affairs, but there was no testimony or evidence of one going on at the time of the murders.
At the hearing this week in the federal appeals court, MacDonald’s attorneys are questioning a 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge James C. Fox, who spent 23 months reviewing the case and evidence presented to him in 2012 that the defense team argued was new and reason for a new trial.
The 2012 hearing in front of Fox was to consider what the defense contended were new claims about DNA evidence. They also presented statements made by a former marshal and by family members of a drug-addled woman spotted by law enforcement officers near the murder scene.
Fox stated that MacDonald “failed to establish, by clear and convincing evidence” that a reasonable juror wouldn’t come to the same verdict.
Raleigh lawyer Joseph Zeszotarski will have 20 minutes before the appellate judges on Thursday to argue why MacDonald contends they should reverse Fox’s ruling. John Bruce, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, where the trial was held, will have 20 minutes to argue why he opposes a new trial.
In the meantime, people who are interested in the case can read about and watch “People Magazine Investigates – Jeffrey MacDonald: The Accused“ or read about it in the magazine cover story. Or they can wait for “Final Vision,” a TV film set to premiere later this year about MacDonald’s relationship with the late Joe McGinniss, whose true crime best-seller “Fatal Vision” was made into a 1984 TV miniseries. Scott Foley, the 44-year-old actor on “Scandal,” has been tapped to play MacDonald.