UPDATE: Jeffrey MacDonald's Last Chance? Jan 20, 2017 15:22:19 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Jan 20, 2017 15:22:19 GMT -5
Jeffrey MacDonald: Guilty? Or a Man Wrongly Convicted?
The details of the night his family was murdered are seared into Jeffrey MacDonald’s memory. He remembers falling asleep on the livingroom sofa of his three-bedroom apartment in Fort Bragg, North Carolina., sometime after 2 a.m., Tuesday, February 17, 1970, and awakening to the screams of his pregnant wife, Colette, and eldest daughter, Kimberley. He says he saw two men and a woman standing at the end of the sofa – and another man, wearing an Army jacket, standing beside him. The woman was holding what he thought was a candle and chanting, “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.” The man in the Army jacket slammed a baseball bat into MacDonald’s left arm and head. The other two began pummeling and stabbing him as he attempted to rise from the sofa. Then everything went dark. By the time he regained consciousness and tried in vain to revive his wife, she was dead from more than 37 stab wounds to her face, neck, chest and head. So was 5-year-old Kimberley, who had been clubbed in the head and stabbed in the throat between eight and 10 times. Also dead was his 2-year-old daughter, Kristen, who had more than 40 knife and icepick wounds all over her tiny body. “‘What on God’s earth just happened?’ I thought,” he says, chocking back tears. “It was a full-on, live nightmare.”
It’s a nightmare that has continued for decades – with MacDonald at its center. In August 1979, he was convicted of the murders of Colette, 26, and his daughters and sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison. Thousands of news stories as well as multiple books and movies have recounted the events of the case, casting the former Green Beret surgeon as everything from a narcissistic philander and master manipulator to an innocent victim of a botched investigation and unfair prosecution. Through the years, MacDonald’s hair has whitened and receded and wrinkles have lined his once-smooth face – but his story has not wavered. “I am innocent,” insists MacDonald, now 73, speaking from the medium-security federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, where he has spent 13 of the past 35 years of his incarceration. “I did not murder my family. I have always told the truth about what happened that night.”
Now he believes his defense team has accumulate enough evidence to finally prove it. On January 26, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, will hear oral arguments on MacDonald’s claim that he is innocent. The new evidence that is part of the appeal was never seen or heard by the jury that convicted him. It includes DNA test results on hairs found beneath Colette’s body and under one of Kristen’s fingernails that do not match MacDonald’s; black wool fibers found on one of the murder weapons (a club) that do not match anything in the apartment; two long, blonde wig hairs; and multiple confessions made over the years by Helena Stockley, a drug addict and narcotics informant for local police and her then-boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, that they were involved in the crime. “How could it be possible that Jeff described two intruders, one male and one female, that ultimately matched the descriptions of the two people who confessed to the murders?” asks Hart Miles, one of MacDonald’s attorneys.
Though US Attorney John Bruce declined to comment specifically on the MacDonald defense team’s claims, citing the ongoing nature of the court proceedings, he did reference a lower court’s rejections of these same claims in 2014 and 2015. “It is our practice to litigate the case in court ... rather than through the news media,” Bruce advised.
This was not how Macdonald’s life was supposed to go. A star athlete and student who was voted most popular and most likely to succeed at Patchogue High School on Long Island, he first met and fell in love with Colette Stevenson in the seventh grade. “She was like a member of the family,” recalls MacDonald’s cousin Ricki Franklin, 70. “They were very affectionate and there was a lot of laughter and gentle teasing between them.”
When Colette became pregnant after their sophomore year in college – MacDonald graduated from Princeton, she attended Skidmore – they got married, tying the knot September 14, 1963, in New York City. “We were deeply in love,” asserts MacDonald. The family landed in Fort Bragg in August 1969, where MacDonald, an Army medical officer and Green Beret, settled in at the base while Colette cared for their two girls and began night classes in child psychology. “To Colette and I, it was heaven,” he remembers. “We were happy.” Rick Thoesen, now 72, a medical-supply officer when he met and became friends with MacDonald, adds: “They both explained to me this was the first time they were able to relax and enjoy things.” Colette was soon expecting another child – the couple’s first son. For Christmas, MacDonald surprised his kids with a Shetland pony, which they named Trooper and kept at a small farm not far from their home.” Everyone was crying and hugging,” MacDonald recalls, smiling at the memory. “Kris was a firebrand. She loved him immediately. Kim was softer. It took her a while to enjoy being on Trooper.” On the afternoon of February 17, 1970, he took the girls to feed the pony after work. It wasd the last evening they would have together.
The scene in the MacDonald apartment on the morning of February 17 revealed a murderous rampage: Both Kimberley and Krisren were lying in their beds with blood-soaked bedding. Kristen still had her bottle next to her mouth. In the master bedroom, Colette was on her back on the floor with MacDonald on his stomach beside her. His pajama top was draped across her, and on the headboard of the couple’s bed, the word “Pig” was scrawled in blood – suggesting a chilling similarity to the Manson family murders that had taken place six months earlier in California.
Though MacDonald was the sole survivor of the murders, he was not unscathed: He had been hit on the head and had 17 wounds, one deep enough to puncture his lung. “When I first walked in, I thought he was dead,” says military police officer Ken Mica, who was among the first to arrive on the scene in response to MacDonald’s phone calls for help. “He went in and out of consciousness. He wanted to get up to see his kids.” MacDonald was also able to gasp out a description of his attackers, one of whom sounded like a woman Mica said he had seen standing on a corner on the way to the MacDonald apartment.
But as the investigation got under way, military police focused their attention on a different suspect: MacDonald himself. Three months later he was arrested and charged with the murders. “I could not believe it,” he says. “I kept thinking, ‘Do they really know anything about our family, the love we shared so openly, and the way we cared for each other?’ I was in shock.”
MacDonald thought he had gotten his life back when the Army dismissed the murder charges against him in October 1970. He relocated to Los Angeles and began a career as an emergency room physician. But as the years passed, Colette’s family began to doubt MacDonald’s story, raising questions about the state of his and Colette’s marriage. “It was bumpy,” claims Bud Stevenson, 77, Colette’s brother. “He was demanding.”
In 1975, a federal grand jury charged MacDonald with the murders of his family. At his 1979 trial, it was alleged that MacDonald had flown into a murderous rage after arguing with Colette and then staged the crime scene and his own injuries to make it appear as though intruders had done it. Prosecution experts used the fact that each of the MacDonald family members had a different blood type to map out how they believed the crime must have occurred. Because of where they said his blood was found in connection to each victim, no one except MacDonald could have been the killer. Central to the case was MacDonald’s pajama top, which he said he had used to fight off the attackers. Prosecutors argued the puncture holes in the top were actually made when MacDonald stabbed his wife through it.
But MacDonald’s defense team argued that the case was botched from the beginning with a contaminated crime scene and evidence that was withheld from the defense. “I’ve never feared the evidence in this case,” insists MacDonald. “I’m fearful of the government’s manipulation of the case.” Richard Fox, a crime-scene expert who examined the case post-trial, had this to say in a video prepared for MacDonald’s defense team: “The crime scene investigation was ... a travesty.”
Members of the defense team also contend they weren’t allowed adequate time to test the evidence themselves – or even notification that some of it existed. “I would have had all the bloodstain evidence retested,” says Dr. John Thornton, MacDonald’s forensic expert at trial. And he indicates he had no idea about the existence of long blonde wig hairs found in the apartment that night. “I wasn’t able to say, ‘I want to look at that blonde wig hair,” because we didn’t know there were any blonde wig hairs,” he continues. MacDonald claims he discovered additional evidence through Freedom of Information Act requests that he believes bolsters his version of events. “I found a witness statement no one had ever seen before,” MacDonald explains. “It says that morning, somewhere around 5:30 a.m., a neighbor walks into the crime scene and ... notices a sheet on Colette. I didn’t put the sheet on her.”
Also among the items the defense is presenting at the hearing are candle wax found at the crime scene that didn’t match any of the candles in the house, as well as a bloody palm print on the footboard of the bed that was not MacDonald’s. C. Ronald Huff, a criminologist who has been studying wrongful convictions for 30 years, says, “I believe this will ultimately be regarded as one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in the modern era.”
Also essential to MacDonald’s claim of innocence was the multiple alleged confessions of Stoeckley and her boyfriend Mitchell. When Fayetteville Police Detective Prince Beasley heard a description of the intruders MacDonald claimed attacked him and his family, he says he immediately suspected the female was Stoeckley, who was one of his informants. He had seen her hours before the murders wearing an outfit similar to the one MacDonald described and in the company of a man wearing an Army jacket. According to a statement he made to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) in March 1971, Stoeckley told him she was at the MacDonald home that night and asked, “Do you want to see my ice pick?”
The CID finally interviewed Stoeckley in April 1971 with mixed results. She said she was at the MacDonald house , but denied participating in the murders. She also claimed the “hippie element” was angry at MacDonald because “he would not treat them by providing methadone for their drug addiction.” But CID polygraph expert Robert Brisentine concluded that while Stoeckley was “convinced in her mind” that she was there, “her admittedly confused state of mind and her excessive drug use” made it impossible to tell whether she was telling the truth. At MacDonald’s trial, she said she could not recall her whereabouts at the time of the murders.
But others still steadfastly believe she was involved in the murders. Stoeckley’s mother gave a statement to MacDonald’s lawyers in 2007 in which she admitted her daughter had confessed to the murders shortly before dying of cirrhosis in 1983. “My sister knew her time was short,” adds Stockely’s brother Gene, 57. “She told my mom, ‘Jeffrey MacDonald is not guilty of the crimes.’” (Prosecutors indicate Stoeckley’s mother later told an FBI investigator that her daughter “loved children and could never hurt one.”)
MacDonald’s defense tem also points to a 2005 statement by retired U.S. Marshall Jimmy Britt, who alleged that former prosecutor Jim Blackburn threatened to charge Stoeckley with murder if she testified to involvement in the MacDonald killings. (Blackburn, who pleaded guilty to fraud, embezzlement and other felonies in an unrelated case in 1993, denies this, and prosecutors maintain that Britt gave conflicting statements about Stoeckley.) Stoeckley’s boyfriend Mitchell, who matched the description MacDonald provided of one of the intruders, also allegedly confessed many times before his death in June 1982. “Greg just started crying and said to me, ‘Jeff is not the one that killed his family. We did it,’” says Donald Buffkin, 58, a friend of Mitchell’s who came forward in may 2003. “I think he was sick and didn’t want to carry it with him.” (Mitchell denied his involvement in the murders to the CID in 1971.)
But even MacDonald’s lawyers admit the outcome of their appeal is far from certain. The defense team has to prove that in light of new evidence, no “reasonable fact finder” looking at the “evidence as a whole,” would have found him guilty. Those who helped convict MacDonald (including two of the original jurors) say none of what they have heard changes their minds about his guilt. “I won’t tell you that Jeffrey MacDonald committed the murders,” says former prosecutor Blackburn. “I can only tell you that someone in that house wearing his pajama top, with his blood type, with his footprints, killed those people. Everything that’s come out since then hasn’t really contradicted the physical evidence of the case.” Bob Stevenson adds: “Someone once asked me when this will be over. The answer is very simple. When he’s dead and I’m dead. He’s never going to say that he’s guilty.”
For much of the 37 years of his incarceration, MacDonald has followed the same routine. He rises at 5:30 a.m., eats breakfast at 6, teaches GED classes from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (with a lunch break in between), has dinner around 5 p.m. and then, most evenings, pores over the latest batch of legal documents from his case. He is usually asleep by 11 p.m., he says, unless he is working on something for his case. In 2002, he married longtime family friend Kathryn Kurichh, 56, who now runs a website (themacdonaldcase.org) dedicated to proving MacDonald’s innocence. He could be out of prison on parole right now if had admitted his guilt – something he will never do. “I believe it is ending,” he says. “I believe the critical mass of evidence of actual innocence has been accrued now. And then I will be going home.”
On the inside of the front door of her home in Columbia, Maryland, that Kurichh hopes to share with her husband one day, is a sign that reads: “Never, never, never give up.” It is a mantra MacDonald says he believes. “My goal is to walk out of prison a free and vindicated man – not just a free man,” he insists. “I won’t go any other way.”
Source: Nicole Weisensee Egan, People Magazine, January 30, 2017.