Despite so-called “newly discovered evidence” his lawyers claimed in a June filing to have uncovered, the initial trial evidence against former Green Beret surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald remains “strong” and his 1979 conviction should stand, prosecutors argued in an 80-page response brief filed Tuesday.
MacDonald, 72, was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters on Feb. 17, 1970.
“Without any newly discovered evidence that is reliable, credible and probative of innocence, the district court properly found that ‘MacDonald has failed to establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty of the murder of his wife and two daughters,’ ” assistant U.S. attorneys Leslie Cooley and Jennifer May-Parker wrote.
MacDonald is seeking to have his conviction overturned for the alleged murders. His case is currently before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals as an “actual innocence” claim. In order to prevail, his attorneys have to prove that the “newly discovered evidence,” if proven and viewed in light of the “evidence as a whole,” would mean no “reasonable factfinder” would find him guilty of the offenses.
Hart Miles, one of MacDonald’s attorneys, tells PEOPLE he wasn’t surprised by the content of the new brief.
“The fact that the government continues to deny that any credible evidence of innocence even exists should not surprise anyone,” he tells PEOPLE.
MacDonald’s lawyers’ 64-page brief in June detailed evidence they say proves his innocence. Some was discovered through DNA technology that was not available at the time of his trial but others, they allege, was withheld from them during the trial by prosecutors and was obtained by his attorneys only through Freedom of Information Act requests.
MacDonald 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, allegedly confessed to the murders to multiple people as well. both Stoeckley and Mitchell have since died.)
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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, both of which vanished.)
According to MacDonald’s June brief, the new evidence warranting the overturning of his 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 alleged 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 allege Mitchell, Stoeckley’s boyfriend at the time, confessed to his involvement in the murders prior to his death.
But in their response brief, prosecutors say: the three unsourced hairs were “neither bloody nor forcibly removed” and didn’t amount to “exculpatory scientific evidence”; Stoeckley was allegedly a “hippie and drug addict” who told multiple stories to multiple people but never told authorities she was at his home the night of the murders, nor did her mother tell authorities after she died; some of the witnesses she told she was there that night were allowed to testify, just not to the extent the defense wanted them to; Britt was never in the same room with Blackburn and Helena, meaning that his and Leonard’s testimony was allegedly “unreliable and incredible.”
MacDonald’s attorneys have until August 30 to file a response to the latest brief. Then it’s up to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to make a decision or ask for oral arguments.