Wilmington, N.C. — The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, which has worked to free inmates believed to be wrongfully convicted, has offered to help pay for DNA testing in a high-profile triple murder on Fort Bragg 41 years ago.
But federal prosecutors say there's no reason to test items, even though defense attorneys say DNA evidence found at the crime scene doesn't match their client or anyone else involved in the case.
Jeffrey MacDonald, 67, a former Army doctor, is serving three life terms for the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters that spawned the book and television miniseries "Fatal Vision." He has maintained that he and his family were attacked by three men and a woman.
In June, a federal appeals court ordered U.S. District Judge James Fox to consider DNA and other evidence that raise questions about MacDonald's guilt. The court ordered DNA testing in the case in 1997, but Fox had refused to review the test results on procedural grounds.
They were the matters addressed before Fox in a Wilmington courtroom Wednesday. The matter could be decided later on this year.
"It's bittersweet, because it's been a very long haul, and it's way overdue," Kathryn MacDonald, MacDonald's wife since 2002, said Wednesday. "When you take it in the light of the evidence as a whole, there's no doubt you have an innocent man in prison."
Defense attorneys say a hair was found under the fingernail of one of Jeffrey MacDonald's daughters and contend that DNA helps prove the theory of intruders.
Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, said advances in DNA testing in recent years could produce more evidence in the case.
The center agreed to help pay for more tests in the case, partly because MacDonald agreed that all the evidence at the crime scene should be tested again.
"It's not just about the legal issues. It's about shining light on all the evidence," Mumma said.
Defense lawyers also argued Wednesday that a sworn statement by former deputy U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt also casts doubt on MacDonald's guilt.
Britt, who is now dead, said James Blackburn, the original prosecutor during MacDonald's trial threatened a witness who said she was at the MacDonald home with other people when the murders occurred.
That witness, Helena Stoeckley, died in 1983, but affidavits from her mother and other witnesses also support the marshal's claim.
Fox set a hearing for Oct. 31 regarding the affidavits. He could decide that the case should be retried or vacate the conviction.
Mumma has two weeks to file with the court a list of evidence that she wants to be tested. Prosecutors, who said they plan to challenge Mumma's request, have until Dec. 1 to file a brief on the matter.
"I believe that the truth is there, whether you want to look at it or you don't, and the government's strategy from Day 1 has been to keep all the evidence apart, suppress the evidence that they didn't want the jury to hear," Kathryn MacDonald said.
"Things that we've uncovered have been through the Freedom of Information Act or people coming to us with the information," she added.