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Behind the Confession That ‘Haunted’ Jeffrey MacDonald’s Murder Trial — and Why the Jury Never Heard It

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Jeffrey MacDonald’s defense team is preparing to go to court, again, to argue for his innocence in the  murder of his family nearly 47 years ago.

His case was featured on Monday night’s season finale of People Magazine Investigates, on Investigation Discovery. As MacDonald’s lawyers explained on the People Magazine Investigates After Show following the episode, some evidence has stuck with them for years.

“Helena Stoeckley has haunted this case ever since she was discovered as a potential suspect,” defense attorney Hart Miles said on the after show, which is available to stream, along with the full episode, on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN).

Miles referred to Stoeckley’s multiple confessions that she and three male intruders were at the MacDonald home the night his wife and two young children were killed. But prosecutors have long maintained MacDonald, a former Green Beret surgeon, killed his family members in a rage and made up the story about the intruders as a cover-up.

He was convicted in a federal trial in 1979, having been previously cleared by the U.S. Army. The federal jury never heard Stoeckley’s confession.

“It really is the thing that has haunted this case,” Miles said on the after-show, adding, “[Stoeckley’s] confession certainly … has been really, really not given the weight it should have.”

• Watch the full episode of People Magazine Investigates After Show, streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices.

Several people say Stoeckley, a troubled drug addict and narcotics informant for Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, police who died in the ’80s, admitted before her death that she was at the MacDonald house the night of the killings. (Her then-boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, also  repeatedly confessed and has also since died.)

“The government fought very vigorously to keep that evidence [Stoeckley’s statements] out of the trial. They did not want the jury to hear that,” Miles explained.

Stoeckley testified but said she could not remember where she was the night of the murders. In 2005, a federal marshal came forward to say former prosecutor Jim Blackburn threatened to charge her with murder if she testified she was there that night. Blackburn denies the charge, which is part of MacDonald’s appeal.

Judge Dupree also would not allow the testimony of six other people — including two police officers for whom Stoeckley was an informant — about the confessions she made to them.

“They made their legal arguments, Jeff’s lawyers made their legal arguments, and ultimately Judge Dupree decided that Helena was not a credible witness and that he was not going to allow the jury to hear those confessions,” Miles said. “And that was an incredibly damaging blow to the defense because of the power of that evidence.”

On January 26, MacDonald will go before an appellate court — citing  confessions Stoeckley continued to make after the trial as well as Mitchell’s and several pieces of forensic evidence – in pushing to have his convictions overturned. But the prosecutors remains adamant he’s guilty.

U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying in a statement to PEOPLE: “When cases are pending court proceedings, it is the practice of our office to litigate the case in court — through evidence and argument in hearings and in written filings with the court — rather than through the news media.”