Raleigh, N.C. — A Fort Bragg doctor convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters more than four decades ago is heading back to a North Carolina federal courtroom in September for a 10-day hearing that could determine whether he’ll get a new trial.
Prosecutors say Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald 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.
The Princeton-educated doctor, who was 26 at the time of the murders and is now 68, has always maintained his innocence. He says four drug-crazed hippies chanting “acid is groovy, kill the pigs” murdered his family, stabbed him and left him for dead.
The hearing begins Sept. 17 in Wilmington, and several witnesses from the original case could be called to testify, including a forensic chemist who is now in her 80s.
Even after 42 years, the case that spawned a book and television miniseries, both titled “Fatal Vision,” continues to generate interest. In 2005, CBS News interviewed MacDonald on its show, “48 Hours Mystery."
“I walked down the hallway toward the master bedroom and found my wife brutally murdered,” he told 48 Hours. “I remember after this fight with the assailant, I remember coming to on the floor in the hallway. I saw four people.”
He says four hippies killed his wife, Colette MacDonald, 26, and daughters, Kimberley, 5½, and Kristen, 2½, and wrote the word “PIG” in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom.
Investigators believe wife tried to protect daughter
Colette MacDonald, who was 5 months pregnant with a baby boy, was hit repeatedly in the head with a piece of wood and suffered 16 knife wounds – seven in her chest and nine in her neck – and 21 icepick wounds, according to the medical examiner. The brutal beating left her with two punctured lungs and two broken forearms, the latter of which the medical examiner described as defensive wounds.
At some point during the struggle, detectives theorized, Colette MacDonald went to her daughter Kristen’s room and laid over the girl to protect her from the attacker. Colette MacDonald’s blood was found spattered on the wall in that room. Detectives used blood evidence – each member of the MacDonald family had a different blood type – to develop theories on how the attack might have played out.
Both girls suffered extensive wounds as well. The oldest daughter, Kimberley, was bludgeoned in the head and suffered multiple facial fractures, according to the medical examiner. The murderer also stabbed her eight to 10 times.
Kristen, the youngest, was stabbed 10 times in the back, four times in the chest and once in the neck. She also had cuts on her hands, which the medical examiner said were signs of self-defense. At least one of the stab wounds pierced Kristen’s heart. The medical examiner determined her cause of death was blood loss from the heart.
Jeffrey MacDonald suffered a collapsed lung, blunt trauma to the left side of his forehead and a bruised right forehead. Despite his injuries, prosecutors said the physical evidence from the crime scene pointed to him from the start and not four drug-crazed intruders, as he claimed.
However, the state was never able to pinpoint a motive as to why a man 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.
In 2005, retired Deputy U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt came forward to say that he saw prosecutor Jim Blackburn threaten to charge Helena Stoeckley, who claimed she was one of the intruders who killed the MacDonald family.
“His story never happened. I never threatened Helena,” Blackburn told WRAL News in 2005.
There are parts of Britt's story that don’t add up. He said he drove Stoeckley from South Carolina to the Wake County jail for the 1979 trial and talked about conversations they had along the way. Records show he was not part of that transport.
Britt died in 2008. Stoeckley, a known drug addict who claimed off and on that she was in the MacDonald apartment that night, has died as well. 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.
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.
Expert: DNA can be clear, but also ambiguous
Jeffrey MacDonald has appealed his conviction numerous times. Every appeal has been shot down, but new issues that have ping-ponged through the courts since 2005 have earned him another hearing in federal court.
Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, is one of the attorneys working on MacDonald's fight for a new trial. The center has helped exonerate three people since its inception, including Greg Taylor, who spent 17 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and The Innocence Project have offered to pay the costs associated with any further DNA testing and for identifying an independent lab to conduct the testing in MacDonald's case. Their request is expected to be addressed by the courts after the September hearing.
“Since Jeffrey MacDonald’s initial request for DNA testing in 1997, there have been significant advancements in the field of DNA testing, which can now be used to identify DNA profiled from very small quantities of trace evidence,” according to Mumma’s affidavit.
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.
Dr. Max Noureddine, who runs his own DNA consulting business, Forensigen, and has not worked on the MacDonald case, says if someone simply touched a surface, he or she could potentially leave behind thousands of cells.
“DNA evidence can last for as long as you can store it under the proper conditions,” he said. “It is a sample being left behind on a surface or evidence of an item because of touch.”
Noureddine says Touch DNA can spark more questions than it answers and “can be as clear as daylight, but it can also be very ambiguous.”
Prosecutors slam MacDonald's 'so-called search for the truth'
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.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is asking a judge to look at several things in the MacDonald case, including unidentified hairs and blood debris at the scene.
Results from 2006 tests showed what are called "unsourced" hairs. Prosecutors argued in court papers that a hair found in a vial of evidence from Kristen MacDonald's left hand was first noticed months after the murders and might be contaminated from repeated handling. They also say the hair has no root or follicular tissue and therefore can’t reveal a DNA profile.
Prosecutors argued another hair on a rug underneath Colette MacDonald’s body and on Kristen's bedspread could just be household debris.
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.”
“Jeffrey MacDonald’s only reply to the detailed assertions in the government’s response about the unreasonableness of the scope of the proposed testing is to state that ‘it is inconceivable that any amount of testing – in this specific case – could be unreasonable,’” according to the state’s court filings. “This statement has a superficial appeal until one realizes that Jeffrey MacDonald has carefully constructed his request so as to avoid testing any of the bloodstains that were key to the prosecution’s case.”
“Clearly, in this so-called ‘search for the truth,’ MacDonald wants to avoid any DNA testing which would confirm the victims as sources of the key bloodstains, because this would be an inconvenient truth,” the state continued in court filings.
Prosecutors say MacDonald and his lawyers have not asked to test the bloodstains on his pajama top or a Hilton bath mat that the murderer used to wipe off the weapons.
“This is not ‘a search for the truth,’” prosecutors said. “Rather it is a search for specious evidence resulting from spoliation.”