For the past 46 years, former Green Beret Surgeon Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald has steadfastly maintained he did not murder his pregnant wife and two young children on Feb. 17, 1970 – despite being convicted of the crime in 1979.
Now, in a new 64-page court filing as part of his appeal, MacDonald’s lawyers are asking the court to vacate his conviction based on evidence they say they uncovered after his conviction. Some of the evidence, his lawyers say, was discovered through DNA technology. But some of it, they allege, was withheld from them during the trial by prosecutors, and was obtained by MacDonald’s lawyers through Freedom of Information Act requests.
MacDonald’s attorneys are seeking to overturn a July 2014 decision by U.S. District Judge James Fox denying MacDonald’s bid for a new trial.
“We believe the District Court erred in its evaluation of the totality of the evidence,” Hart Miles, one of MacDonald’s attorneys, tells PEOPLE. “Our position is – and we believe it’s a powerful and compelling position – that the totality of the evidence shows no reasonable juror would have found Jeff guilty. The brief details all the reasons why.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is handling the case, declined to comment on the filing.
In August 1979 MacDonald, now 72 and incarcerated at a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, was convicted of three counts of murder after a 29-day trial in Raleigh. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison. Prosecutors said he murdered his family after becoming enraged when his youngest daughter, Kristen, 2, wet the bed he shared with his wife, Colette, 26. They said he wounded himself to make it look as if he was a victim as well and added there were no signs of intruders.
MacDonald says he fell asleep on the living room couch after discovering the bed-wetting and put Kristen back in her own bed. He says he then woke to screams from his wife and daughter Kimberley, 5.
He says he saw at least four intruders and was attacked before passing out. Three of the intruders he saw were men, but one was a woman he described as having long blonde hair, a floppy hat and knee-high vinyl boots. He said the woman was carrying a candle and chanting “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.” (The woman he was describing was allegedly named Helena Stoeckley. Greg Mitchell, Stoeckley’s boyfriend at the time, confessed to the murders to multiple people.)
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MacDonald’s attorneys argue there was ample evidence of intruders: wax drippings of three different types of candles found at the home that did not belong to any candles the MacDonald’s owned; long, blonde synthetic wig hairs found in a hairbrush next to the phone in their apartment; black wool fibers found on the mouth and bicep area of Colette and one of the murder weapons that were not matched to any fabric in the home; numerous unidentified fingerprints, palm prints and footprints at the crime scene that did not match MacDonald’s or his family’s and other evidence they say was lost or destroyed due to what they say was the government’s “inept handling” of the crime scene. (Among this other evidence, they say, was skin recovered from underneath Colette’s fingernail and Jeff’s pajama bottoms.)
“The government’s case at trial was entirely circumstantial, offering no direct proof of MacDonald’s alleged involvement in the murders,” Zeszotarski writes in his brief. “In fact the trial judge wrote a letter to one of the lawyers involved in the trial shortly after the verdict, noting that he had ‘confidently expected that the jury would return a not guilty verdict in the case.'”
According to the brief, the new evidence warranting the overturning of MacDonald’s conviction includes: DNA testing of unidentified hairs found beneath Colette’s body, under Kristen’s fingernail and on her bedspread on the bed where she was murdered that do not match MacDonald; Stoeckley’s confessions to her lawyer and to her mom (shortly before she died in 1983) and the statements of seven other people that she was there that night; statements from now-deceased federal marshal Jimmy Britt, who says he heard then-prosecutor Jim Blackburn threaten to arrest Stoeckley if she testified at MacDonald’s trial that she was at the scene of the killings and affidavits from three people who say Mitchell, Stoeckley’s boyfriend at the time, confessed to his involvement in the murders prior to his death.
“Had all of this newly discovered evidence been available at trial … it would have established beyond all question that reasonable doubt existed, and in fact that MacDonald is innocent,” Zeszotarski wrote.
In rejecting MacDonald’s bid for a new trial, Fox ruled MacDonald had “failed to establish, by clear and convincing evidence” that no “reasonable factfinder” would have found him guilty of the murders of his family even with the new evidence.
In response, the FBI released a statement from the U.S. attorneys office in Charlotte saying, “Today our thoughts turn toward Colette, Kimberley and Kristen MacDonald whose lives were taken tragically by the defendant in this case. We have and will continue to seek justice on their behalf.”
The government has 30 days to respond to this latest brief from MacDonald’s team then they will have an opportunity to respond to that filing as well.