October 08, 2012 12:00 PM

The former Green Beret surgeon now known as Inmate 00131-177 shuffles slowly into a federal courtroom in Wilmington, N.C., his gait hampered by the shackles hanging around his ankles. At 68, the once stunningly handsome Jeffrey MacDonald is now gaunt, his hair snow white and thinning, his subdued demeanor a stark contrast to the cocky swagger he favored as a young Ivy League- educated physician. “The years,” says defense attorney Wade Smith, who hadn’t seen his former client in two decades, “have taken a toll.”

What hasn’t changed one iota is MacDonald’s unflinching claim that he did not murder his wife and two young daughters 42 years ago at their home in Fort Bragg, N.C. In the decades since he was convicted in 1979 of the three deaths, hit with three life sentences and packed off to a medium-security federal prison, where he works in food services, MacDonald and his controversial case have remained alive in the public imagination. First came Joe McGinniss’s bestselling Fatal Vision and a TV miniseries, which nailed MacDonald for the murders. Now a new book by acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, A Wilderness of Error, is making a forceful case for MacDonald’s innocence just as he heads back to court to present new material that he hopes will overturn his conviction. “There is no evidence linking him to the crime,” Morris told People. Why, all these years later, do Americans still care? “Most of us would like to believe that a father would never do such a thing,” says psychologist Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door. “So when MacDonald continues to say he didn’t do it, it really catches us by the throat.”

Many of the primary players have died since the grim morning when military police entered MacDonald’s home to find his wife, Colette, 26, and their two children, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, slain, brutally stabbed dozens of times. Though MacDonald claimed four intruders were responsible, he was convicted in part because his wounds were minor compared with those of his family. But now MacDonald has a legion of supporters, among them the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and Kathryn MacDonald, 51, who married him behind bars in 2002. His ammunition? Intriguing DNA evidence-unidentified hairs found on Colette’s leg and under Kristen’s fingernail-and statements from witnesses who say a prosecutor intimidated a woman into not testifying truthfully at the trial in 1979. Colette’s brother Bob Stevenson, 73, furious about MacDonald’s latest bid for freedom, says, “They drag the same ‘new’ crap out of the old sewer.”

New or not, the courtroom testimony has been dramatic, most of it centered around “the woman in the floppy hat,” who MacDonald has always claimed broke into his home with three men on Feb. 17, 1970, chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” Long since identified as Helena Stoeckley (a troubled drug addict who died in 1983), she seemed to be speaking from the grave last week as witness after witness recounted snippets of conversations with her. “She was there that night,” testified Sara McMann, who befriended Stoeckley six months before her death. “She said, ‘The men that did it, they asked me to go along.'” Her voice rising to a screech, McMann said, “I know as well as I’m sitting here today that Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent!” Wendy Rouder, a defense assistant at the 1979 trial, recounted how Stoeckley had described a “rocking horse” in the MacDonald home and remembered holding a candle that she said “wasn’t dripping wax; it was dripping blood.” Other testimony charged that prosecutorial shenanigans had blocked Stoeckley from making public what she frequently, but inconsistently, stated in private: namely that her boyfriend at the time, now-deceased Greg Mitchell, and two other men committed the murders. MacDonald’s former attorney Smith testified that in 2005 he learned from U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt (since deceased) that then-prosecutor James Blackburn told Stoeckley “that if she made those statements, he would indict her for murder.” Helena’s brother Gene Stoeckley read from a 2007 affidavit signed by their now-deceased mother: “[Helena] told me she was afraid to tell the truth because she was afraid of the prosecutor.”

Blackburn, who was later convicted of 12 felonies on unrelated charges, denied threatening Stoeckley. Under oath, he recounted, “I said, ‘Helena… were you there?’ She said to me, ‘No, I was not there.'” Also testifying for the prosecution, retired FBI agent Frank Mills Jr. said, “She felt a lie would be more believable than the truth, which was simply she was so high on drugs she had no recollection.”

Long-awaited testimony from Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss didn’t disappoint observers. Calling MacDonald, his onetime friend, a “psychopath,” he said on Sept. 21, “It was a tough fight between my head and my heart.” The hearing, which may not yield a decision for months, will be MacDonald’s last chance to sway public opinion, McGinniss told reporters. “When he loses here, which he will, it will be the end of him.”

But attorney Smith says that after his Sept. 17 testimony, he was flooded with calls from potential witnesses, something he’s never experienced during a high-profile case. Whether it was MacDonald or somebody else who butchered his family, Smith says, “this is a case of absolute darkness, the ultimate darkness you can imagine.” As a result, he predicts, it will continue to be “endlessly fascinating and mesmerizing.”

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