WILMINGTON, N.C. — The author of the best-selling book "Fatal Vision" testified Friday at a hearing for Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters at their Fort Bragg home in 1970 and is asking a judge for a new trial.
Joe McGinniss, who was embedded with MacDonald's defense team during the 1979 trial, read excerpts from his book about the case and called MacDonald a "psychopath."
The author testified that he was present for the entire defense interview with Helena Stoeckley, a known drug addict who claimed off and on that she was in the MacDonald home the night of the murders.
McGinniss says he watched defense attorneys try for three hours to coax Stoeckley into saying that she was involved in the murders. Instead, she told them no, "I can't help you," McGinniss recalled.
That contradicts what MacDonald's then-attorney, Bernie Segal, told the judge during a bench conference at the 1979 trial – that Stoeckley had confessed to being inside the house.
McGinniss appeared shocked by that revelation Friday and said if he had known that Segal "stood there before the judge and lied," that he would have included that in his book.
"I don't mean to speak ill of the dead, but to stand before the judge and make up stuff, this is ridiculous," he said.
McGinniss was given special access to MacDonald and his defense team in order to write the book, which MacDonald had hoped would show his innocence. McGinniss, who originally thought MacDonald was innocent, changed his mind and wrote that he thought MacDonald had committed the crimes.
"Psychopaths are very charming people, but it was a tough fight between my head and my heart," McGinniss said Friday.
MacDonald eventually sued him for breach of contract, and the two reached a $325,000 settlement.
On cross-examination, defense lawyers questioned McGinniss about why he wrote letters to MacDonald and said "total strangers could see that you did not get a fair trial."
"I knew he would break off contact if he knew what the book was really for," McGinniss testified. "My commitment was to the book and the truth."
The defense hammered on how much money McGinniss made writing about the MacDonald case and asked if anyone else has profited more. No, McGinniss said, because no one has done as much work as he has covering the case.
McGinniss also testified Friday about a letter he received from MacDonald, which he included in his book, saying that MacDonald had been taking a drug called Eskatrol to lose weight, as required by his boxing coach.
The author said he researched the drug and found that it was an "upper and a downer" that had dangerous side effects, including "uncontrollable bursts of anger," that could lead to psychosis if large amounts were taken.
In his letter to the author, MacDonald said he had possibly taken the drug the night of the murders. Defense attorneys pointed out that McGinniss omitted MacDonald's words, "I do not think I had one," in the book and instead put ellipsis in its place.
The author's testimony came on the fifth day of the hearing, which could last up to 10 days, and hinges on DNA evidence that wasn't available in 1979 and witness testimony that MacDonald's defense team says proves his innocence.
U.S. District Judge James Fox will determine if he gets a new trial.
MacDonald – now 68, remarried and still in prison – has never wavered from his claim that he didn't kill his wife, Colette, and their two daughters, 5-year-old Kimberley and 2-year-old Kristen.
He has maintained that he awoke on the sofa in their home as they were being attacked by four hippies – three men and a woman, who was wearing a blond wig and floppy hat, chanting "acid is groovy, kill the pigs."