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Author Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning documentarian whose 'A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald' was published this month by Penguin Press, leaves the federal courthouse in Wilmington, N.C.
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
WILMINGTON, N.C.--Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Green Beret captain and Princeton-educated doctor convicted of slaughtering his family 42 years ago, shuffled into a federal courtroom in this historic port city hoping to gain a brighter future by revisiting the past.
Dressed in the drab garb of his prison life--tan pants, a tan shirt and tan shower shoes, with leg shackles confining his gait--the man described as debonair and handsome at his 1979 trial was gray-haired and frail.
In a hearing projected to last as long as two weeks, MacDonald's defense team is seeking to win relief for the federal inmate--No. 0131-177--by bringing fresh hindsight to old evidence.
The hearing comes in the wake of a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in April 2011 that sent the case back to the trial court level.
Judge James Fox in North Carolina's federal Eastern District is to consider new claims about DNA evidence that was tested in 2006. MacDonald's latest defense team contends that three hairs--one from a bedspread, another from the fingernail of the 2-year-old daughter and a third from under the stabbed and bludgeoned body of Colette MacDonald--bolster their theory that intruders were responsible for the bloody crimes.
The judge also will consider statements made by a former marshal and the mother of a drug-addled woman spotted by law enforcement officers near the murder scene.
Though the hearing is not a retrial of the decades-old case, the first three hours have echoes of a trial that created strong camps of opinion.
On Monday morning, Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith, a member of the MacDonald defense team 32 years ago, was in the unusual position of being called to testify about the case.
Through the years, key figures have died. Smith testified on Monday about two of those people: Deputy U.S. Marshal Jimmy Britt and Helena Stoeckley.
Britt came forward in 2005 to say that he saw prosecutor James Blackburn threaten Stoeckley, often referred to as the "woman in the floppy hat," who claimed she was inside the MacDonald home when the murders occurred. Smith also testified about meeting with Stoeckley before she was called to the witness stand.
Though Stoeckley, a woman known to police who struggled with drug abuse, died in 1983, her mother came forward when she was 86, three years before her death, to talk with the MacDonald defense team. She said her daughter confided in her several times that she and several of her friends had gone to the MacDonald house on the night of the murders to intimidate the doctor because they believed he was being too hard on drug users.
The mother continued that her daughter told her that one of the men went "out of his mind" and that when she became aware that her boyfriend at the time and another man began killing the family, she fled.
The mother said her daughter tried to tell the truth that she was in the MacDonald house and her then-boyfriend, a man who committed suicide in 1982, and another man were responsible for the deaths, but the FBI and other law enforcement officials told her to keep quiet.
Helena Stoeckley did not testify about that at trial. Her mother said her daughter confided in her that she lied at the trial and was afraid to come forward with the truth because she was afraid of the prosecutor.
Britt said in two sworn statements recorded by Smith that he heard Blackburn, the lead prosecutor at the 1979 trial, tell Stoeckley, who provided many accounts of her whereabouts, that if she testified at the trial that she was in the MacDonald house that he would charge her with first-degree murder.
Though Helena Stoeckley's mother, also named Helena, died in 2009, she told MacDonald's defense team that she had told her son what her daughter said. That son, Gene Stoeckley, could be called as a witness in the hearing.
MacDonald's case has generated several books, a TV miniseries, countless articles and a bulging docket that includes seven reviews by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Testimony and scenarios have been questioned multiple times. Memories have faded. Evidence has been lost.
The crime dates to the era of Nixon, draft dodgers and the Beatles, but it is being seen in the new light of crime-scene science and technology developed since. DNA testing and other analytical tools and crime-scene protocols were not available on Feb. 17, 1970, when police found MacDonald wounded near the bludgeoned and stabbed bodies of his wife and their daughters Kristen, 2, and Kimberly, 5.