Former Green Beret surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald got his last chance to convince an appellate court to overturn his 1979 murder convictions in the deaths of his wife and two daughters, filing a 59-page brief Tuesday evening detailing evidence he says proves his innocence.
“After more than 30 years of exculpatory evidence steadily coming to light, our hope is that the court will agree Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald deserves the relief he has sought for so long: exoneration,” Hart Miles, one of his attorneys, tells PEOPLE.
“The confessions of two individuals who admitted involvement in the murders of the MacDonald family, DNA that indicates intruders were in the MacDonald home,” he says, “and the threat by a prosecutor against a key defense witness, all show that Jeffrey MacDonald was wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned.”
He echoed points made by Joseph E. Zeszotarski, Jr., another MacDonald attorney, in the reply brief.
“MacDonald submits there is only one logical reason that strong exculpatory evidence continues to come to light – because he is innocent,” Zeszotarski wrote to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case of MacDonald, 72, is currently before the appellate court 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.
To get this far his attorneys had to overcome nearly insurmountable legal barriers established in the mid-1990s to limit frivolous appeals, experts say.
In their August 2 filing, prosecutors said the case against MacDonald remains “strong” and his conviction should stand. The U.S. Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the brief.
Evidence of Intruders?
MacDonald was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison in 1979 for the Feb. 17, 1970 murders of his pregnant wife, Colette, 26, and daughters Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. 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 has always maintained his innocence. He told investigators 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 Colette and Kimberley.
He says he saw at least four intruders and was attacked before passing out. Three of the alleged 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 allegedly 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.)
Through the years, though, MacDonald’s defense team says it has found evidence of intruders, including: 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.
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Books About the Case Come to Different Conclusions
The case was the basis of Fatal Vision, a best-selling book and mini-series of the same name by now-deceased author Joe McGinniss, who argued MacDonald was guilty. (MacDonald sued him for fraud and settled out of court for $350,000).
Two other books – Fatal Justice, written by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost, and A Wilderness of Error, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris – argued his innocence. Their arguments were based on the evidence that’s come to light since his trial, much of which was withheld from the defense and accumulated through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests through the years.
McGinniss was a key witness for the government at evidentiary hearings on the case ordered by the 4th Circuit in Wilmington, North Carolina in September 2012, despite his own checkered past.
In 1993, McGinniss came under fire for allegedly plagiarizing and making up portions of The Last Brother, his biography of Ted Kennedy. One of his sons, Joe McGinniss, Jr., author of the recently published novel, Carousel Court, recently wrote a piece about his late father for The New Yorker, and touched upon the impact the case had on him.
“A few years after [he settled the lawsuit with MacDonald], a famous piece in The New Yorker, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” by Janet Malcolm, took the case as emblematic of the moral compromises made by writers,” McGinniss, Jr. wrote.
“Few in the publishing world came to my father’s defense,” he wrote. “His reputation was in tatters, and he wondered aloud whether he’d ever write another book. If he’d ever crawl out of the dark black pit of depression. If he’d see fifty-five, sixty? His freezer was filled with bottles of gin and vodka.”
McGinnis, Jr. tells PEOPLE, “I think my father was 100 percent correct and anyone else who has written about it since understands there’s definitely a readership because the book was definitely a landmark.”
“Anything MacDonald has been doing since is because he’s got nothing but time on his hands and what else is he going to do but file appeals? He’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison, which is a just outcome for him,” he adds.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals can now issue either a decision or ask for oral arguments on the briefs.