Local News

Bragg doctor's former lawyer takes stand in 'Fatal Vision' hearing

Posted September 17, 2012
Updated September 19, 2012

— More than three decades after he was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters at their Fort Bragg home, Jeffrey MacDonald was in a Wilmington federal courtroom Monday trying to get a new trial.

The hearing, which is expected to last 10 days, hinges on DNA evidence that wasn't available during the 1979 trial and witness testimony that MacDonald's defense team says proves his innocence.

Prosecutors say MacDonald – now 68, remarried and still in prison – brutally stabbed his family to death with two paring knives and an icepick and beat them with a piece of wood in their apartment at 544 Castle Drive on Feb. 17, 1970.

During the trial, the state was never able to pinpoint a motive as to why a Princeton-educated doctor without a violent past would snap, kill his family, stage the crime scene and then inflict wounds on himself, making it appear that someone else had committed the murders.

MacDonald murders MacDonald murder case photos

The crime garnered national attention after the release of a best-selling book, "Fatal Vision," and a made-for-TV drama.

Wade Smith, a Raleigh defense attorney who represented MacDonald at his 1979 trial, was the first defense witness to take the stand Monday. He testified about a 2005 phone call he received from retired U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt, who wanted to "unload his soul" about an admission witness Helena Stoeckley told him as he transported her from South Carolina to Raleigh in 1979.

"Britt told me something had worried him. It was heavy on his heart and mind," Smith said. "He said he had been burdened heavily, morally."

Britt said Stoeckley, a known drug addict, admitted to being inside the MacDonald household during the murders and even described the children's hobby horse, Smith testified. Britt said he later witnessed Prosecutor Jim Blackburn threaten to indict Stoeckley with first-degree murder if she made those statements on the witness stand, Smith said.

Jeffrey MacDonald Bragg doctor's former lawyer takes stand in 'Fatal Vision' hearing

“His story never happened. I never threatened Helena,” Blackburn told WRAL News in 2005. 

Blackburn, who left the U.S. Attorney's Office and went into private practice, later served jail time and lost his license for embezzling from clients.

Stoeckley, who has since died, later recanted her statements and said she had nothing to do with the murders. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology examined Stoeckley’s hair roots and found that her profile was not consistent with any other crime scene samples tested, eliminating her as a source, according to court records.

Britt died in 2008, but his ex-wife, Mary Britt, took the stand Monday and talked about her memories from the MacDonald trial. She recalled her then-husband driving to South Carolina to pick up Stoeckley. When he returned, she said, "he was very excited" because Stoeckley had talked about her involvement in the crime.

"He said she described the inside of the apartment where the MacDonalds' lived," Mary Britt said. "She described it to a T."

Mary Britt also talked about her husband's struggles throughout the trial and how he had problems sleeping, something that was unusual for him.

"I woke up during the night. He was not in bed. I went looking for him, and he was outside sitting in a lawn chair," Mary Britt said. "He was very, very emotional. He described pictures of the MacDonald children (crime scene and autopsy photos shown in court). He said, 'Mary, I can't go back in there.'"

He was also upset after learning that Stoeckley's testimony couldn't be used at trial because "her brain is fried from the use of drugs," Mary Britt recalled her husband saying.

On the last day of the trial, Mary Britt testified, her husband came home early and said MacDonald had been found guilty. Jimmy Britt's boss asked him to lock up MacDonald, but he said no, he "was not doing any more of the dirty work" and told his boss he was going home, Mary Britt testified.

Mary Britt is expected to take the stand again Tuesday. Besides witness testimony, MacDonald's defense team plans to focus on three hairs found at the crime scene that don't match the family's DNA. 

MacDonald, who is not eligible for parole until 2020, has never wavered from his claim that he didn't kill his pregnant wife, Colette, and their two daughters, 5-year-old Kimberley and 2-year-old Kristen. He has maintained that he awoke on their sofa in their home at Fort Bragg as they were being attacked by four hippies – three men and a woman, who was chanting "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs."

The word "PIG" was written in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom.

MacDonald’s attorneys want to use new technology called Touch DNA and Y-STR testing on the murder weapons, pieces of a surgical glove and fingernail scrapings. Touch DNA is so precise that it can come up with a DNA profile using just a few skin cells. Y-STR stands for "short tandem repeat" on the Y-chromosome and is often used in forensic DNA testing.

Despite new technology, the MacDonald case may still come down to the evidence that the jury weighed at the 1979 trial. Fibers from MacDonald’s pajama top were found all over the house, except where he says he struggled with intruders. Investigators say the blood patterns of his wife's blood on his pajama top were formed before he says the top was cut by a weapon-wielding intruder.

One problem, according to prosecutors, is that evidence in the MacDonald case went through the hands of numerous evidence custodians over the past 42 years, including the Army Criminal Investigative Command, the FBI, the clerk of court and the U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The state also contends that Jeffrey MacDonald “has failed to demonstrate that the proposed testing is reasonable in scope, uses scientifically sound methods and is consistent with accepted forensic practices.”

U.S. District Court Judge James Fox will determine if MacDonald gets a new trial.


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  • mamananagramps Sep 18, 2012

    I lived in the area when the first trial was held..I never thought that Jeffrey McDonald was guilty in any way. To me, this is an innocent Dr that has tried every way to prove his innocence, It is time that he receives a fair trial...or better yet..freed from prison...

  • sunneyone2 Sep 18, 2012

    Oh let's not forget that there were MPs and EMTs all over that house contaminating that crime scene before CID got there and started documenting. Someone even stole Dr MacDonald's wallet during the processing. I'm sure there were a LOT of unidentified footprints and fingerprints. I'm not knocking CID here, I'm just saying there were people all over that house into everything.
    Again, how can you say that he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt based on such contaminated evidence????

  • anne53ozzy Sep 18, 2012

    Bottom line Hard to believe this carnage would occur and he only has superficicial injuries that he, as a doctor, would know how and where to administer... Someone must have screamed at some point in this horrific crime and would have awakened him to act in defense of this family of his. He is a classic sociopath

  • wildpig777 Sep 18, 2012

    wouldn't thier footprints be found also?


    well of course thier footprints would be all over the house-- every one else's was.. 3 intruders not knowing the lay out of the house 3 brutal murders, a beat down of mcdonald going back and forth in the house during the murders--IT DEFYS LOGIC THAT THE INTRUDERS FOOTPRINTS AND FINGER PRINTS ARE'NT EVERY WHERE. do you wonder why there are no fingerprints and foot prints? why there is such an overwhelming lack of evidence? CAUSE THEY WERE NEVER THERE. CAUSE THERE WERE NO INTRUDERS, cause this is so obvivously is a crime of passion and emotion-- the murderer is in front of you his name is jEFFERY MCDONALD-- he should in fact be immediately executed.

  • jackcdneh1017 Sep 18, 2012

    I recognize that being found guilty without a doubt is difficult to achieve and tough choices have to be made. I can live with the verdict made many years ago on JM. But if there is exonerating evidence in a case that was certainly not an overwhelming slam dunk (there are many doubts in the actual facts and forensics) I am certain that any reasonable person would want these brought to light. The fact is, I believe that there are very few repercussions for prosecutorial misconduct. DA's and ADA's and judges enjoy immunity from prosecution for wrongful acts that may even be completely illegal. For example the subornation of perjury via witness manipulation is very widespread. To my mind this is nothing short of "witness tampering" and is clearly illegal for you and I, but not them. I also believe that the standard "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" is no longer being applied by jurors.

  • jackcdneh1017 Sep 18, 2012

    @ workinghuman33 I fully support what you have said. Your opinion is your own and is valid and would have been valid were you on MacDonald's jury and is valid if you are on his next one. Even when you believe someone is guilty (the "universal you") you want them found guilty by due process of law, you want them to be actually guilty, not just an opinion, but as fact.

  • workinghuman33 Sep 18, 2012

    tampered with evidence they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law pulling no less time than the person they convicted.
    Yeeeeah.....I'm sure they all do that, and no Defense Attorney or Public Defender would every consider doing that! And every Judge goes by the letter of the law..right! I am being sarcastic. What you speak of are far less than the general rule and people that are in any way an officer of the court that commit illegal acts in order to covict should go to jail themselves. Just as a doctor that takes the Hippocratic oath and is more concerned about his cash or a malpractice suit than saving a life should got to jail as well...in my opinion.

  • cwmllc1952 Sep 18, 2012

    Fact is Law enforcement people will withhold evidence,lie, threaten and make deals with witnesses to get a conviction. Not saying Mcdonald is innocent but for all wrongly convicted people that DA's and LEO tampered with evidence they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law pulling no less time than the person they convicted.

  • HardTimes Sep 18, 2012

    wouldn't thier footprints be found also?


    When I clicked through the crime photos posted in the article, there was an unidentified bloody footprint. Couldn't that have been an intruders?

  • workinghuman33 Sep 18, 2012

    By the way, since I am a human being which means that I am fallible and beautifully flawed, I would never have the arrogance to state as fact that I know "he's guilty" or I know "he's not guilty".....I have just been stating my opinion...just wanted to add that as a footnote.