In 1979, before his murder trial, Jeffrey MacDonald agreed to be hypnotized, hoping it would enable him to come up with more detailed descriptions of the intruders he has always said killed his family.
The defense had hoped to use the four hours of tapes of him under hypnosis at trial, but U.S. District Judge Franklin Dupree ruled against the admission of any psychiatric testimony in the case.
In the hypnosis session, Richard Doucet, a former FBI agent and expert hypnotist, “regressed” MacDonald, according to Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost’s book Fatal Justice.
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“MacDonald wept for his wife and children, cursed his assailants and described them for police artist F.G. Ponce,” Potter and Bost wrote. “At one point, MacDonald remembered a cross around the neck of one of his assailants.”
After MacDonald’s hypnosis, authorities were able to develop a second set of sketches of the alleged assailants that were more detailed than the initial ones.
Supporters of MacDonald believe the hypnosis was genuine: They cite the fact that MacDonald’s arm “remained suspended and unmoving” during the session, a result of instruction given by the hypnotist to ensure that it was not faked. “It is fact that a person under hypnosis can ignore muscle fatigue far longer than would normally be endurable,” Potter and Bost wrote.
However, not everyone was convinced. MacDonald’s detractors “decried the hypnosis as an act, a consummate MacDonald performance,” the authors wrote.
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MacDonald says he believes the hypnosis enhanced his memory.
“I was also told days afterwards, when I remarked to Bernie [Segal, his defense attorney at the time] that my forearm and arm really hurt, and I wondered why,” says MacDonald, 73. “He started laughing,and said, ‘Didn’t the hypnotist tell you to expect that?’ ”
Segal told MacDonald the hypnotist instructed him to keep his arm motionless during the four-hour session.
“Bernie told me it was remarkable to watch my arm never move in any direction at all for those hours, although I was holding it in a certain position in the air from the couch,” MacDonald says.
He adds he had a “painful cramp-type pain” in his arm for days afterward, which legitimized the session to the hypnotist, who according to MacDonald, told Segal afterward that “No one can hold an extremity motionless for that time unless under hypnosis.’ ”
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MacDonald was convicted in 1979 for the murder of his family and has been in prison since.
He has always said he is innocent while authorities are just as adamant that he is guilty. On January 26, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on his “actual innocence” claim.
US 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.”