25 years later, MacDonald fights verdicts (08/28/2004)

It was North Carolina's "Helter Skelter" case: the sensational triple-murder trial of a brilliant, handsome Army surgeon few believed could have killed his pregnant wife and two young daughters.

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald said four drug-crazed hippies broke into his family's Fayetteville apartment one night in 1970 and then stabbed and clubbed them while one chanted, "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs."

The Army said it didn't have enough evidence to try MacDonald, and he went free for years.

But after the U.S. Justice Department reopened the case, a federal court jury in Raleigh convicted MacDonald of the killings. The convictions, which occurred 25 years ago Sunday, came nine years after the deaths of MacDonald's wife Colette, 26; daughter Kimberley, 6; and daughter Kristen, 2. He was sentenced later to three life terms in prison.

A quarter-century later, MacDonald, 60, is in federal prison in Cumberland, Md., where he is eligible for parole. But even now, the former Fort Bragg Green Beret doctor says he won't seek parole because he would have to apologize for crimes he didn't commit.

Meanwhile, he has waited seven years for results from DNA tests his attorneys think might help get him a new trial.

"All our hopes lie with the DNA tests," his wife, drama teacher Kathryn MacDonald of Columbia, Md., said Friday. "He is determined to prove his innocence. I believe it will happen."

Mrs. MacDonald, 43, said she and her husband will spend several hours together this weekend at the prison, holding hands and talking quietly. Their second wedding anniversary is Monday. She said they met in the mid-1970s at a Baltimore medical conference and became friends in 1996. They don't get private visits.

While the couple celebrate their young marriage, some people in North Carolina will recall the anniversary of MacDonald's conviction with less enthusiasm.

Brian Murtagh, a federal prosecutor who helped investigate the murders and convict MacDonald, recently told Newsweek magazine that he will keep opposing MacDonald's quest for freedom.

"I'll stop as he stops," Newsweek quoted Murtagh. A federal court spokeswoman said Murtagh was unavailable this week for comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Evenson of Raleigh, who also is working on MacDonald's case on behalf of the government, refused Friday to discuss its local significance -- or why it's taking so long to test the crime-scene DNA evidence at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

MacDonald's case led to books, a movie and the rise and fall of co-prosecutor Jim Blackburn of Raleigh, later convicted of fraud and imprisoned for stealing money from his law firm.

Blackburn couldn't be reached Friday for comment.

Although MacDonald was convicted, his case also helped establish the reputation of prominent Raleigh criminal defense lawyer Wade Smith, one of MacDonald's trial attorneys.

Mrs. MacDonald was in Raleigh this week to discuss with the attorney her husband's situation, Smith said.

"That case is an enduring mystery," he said.

Smith said he finds MacDonald's resilience remarkable.

"That anyone could be in prison for 25 years and maintain hope is amazing," he said. "Jeff is as optimistic and hopeful as anyone I know. Anybody else would have shriveled up and died."

Kathryn MacDonald and several friends run an extensive Web site,, promoting MacDonald's cause and soliciting donations for his defense.

The Web site is headlined, "A wrongfully convicted man -- an egregious miscarriage of justice."

"To lose everything worth having in life -- your family, your profession, your good name, and ultimately, your freedom -- and yet keep fighting to prove your innocence against tremendous odds, takes enormous strength and courage," it says. "But Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent, and believes the truth will win out."

MacDonald's Web site says he spends his days working on his legal case, studying medical books, teaching health classes to inmates and exercising.

"His health is good," his wife said. "All he hopes for is a chance to clear his name."