Fatal Vision Redux: Maybe Acid Is Groovy?

The murders happened in 1970.  The book, Fatal Vision was 1983, and the TV movie was 1984.  And the  decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals allowing Jeffrey MacDonald to pursue a new trial based on his claim of actual innocence, bolstered by  concealed exculpatory statements and DNA evidence was issued April 19, 2011.

If you live beneath a rock and don’t know the story of this more than 40 year old case, MacDonald was an army doctor who claimed that four drug-crazed hippies came into his Fort Bragg home and murdered his wife and daughters, chanting “acid is groovy.”

Even back then, his claim sounded absurd.  Nobody chanted “acid is groovy,” and it sounded like the ridiculous stuff that some green beret guy would invent about things hippies would say.  Bizarrely, it appears that MacDonald may have been right.

On January 17, 2006, after obtaining our authorization, MacDonald presented the § 2255 motion to the district court. According to MacDonald’s memorandum in support of the § 2255 motion, the Britt claim was premised on the following newly discovered evidence:

In January of 2005, counsel for Jeffrey MacDonald, Wade Smith, Esq., was first contacted by a former deputy United States Marshal, Jim Britt, with information, previously concealed, about prosecutorial misconduct during the MacDonald trial. Britt, now retired, served with distinction for twenty-two years as a deputy United States Marshal entrusted with the security of the federal courts and judges in North Carolina. Britt was working at the Raleigh courthouse during the 1979 MacDonald trial and was responsible for escorting the key defense witness, Helena Stoeckley, who was in custody on a material witness warrant. Jim Britt was present in the prosecutor’s office when the lead prosecutor, James Blackburn, interviewed Helena Stoeckley, the day before she was to be called as a witness. As reflected in his sworn affidavit . . . , Jim Britt avers that he personally witnessed Helena Stoeckley state to James Blackburn that she and others were present in the MacDonald home on the night of the MacDonald murders and that they had gone there to acquire drugs; Jim Britt further avers that he witnessed and heard James Blackburn, upon hearing this, directly threaten Helena Stoeckley, telling her that if she so testified in court he would indict her for first degree murder. This threat caused her to change her testimony, as the next day, when called to the witness stand by the defense, Stoeckley claimed to have amnesia as to her whereabouts from midnight until 5 a.m. the night of the MacDonald murders — the precise time-frame during which the crimes occurred. James Blackburn never disclosed to the court or defense counsel what Helena Stoeckley admitted to him in Jim Britt’s presence. On the contrary, Blackburn, at a critical juncture in the trial, advised the court that Stoeckley, when he interviewed her, denied having any knowledge of the MacDonald family, the MacDonald home, or involvement in the MacDonald murders. Blackburn even went so far as to elicit from Stoeckley, through leading questions before the jury, testimony that was contrary to what she had told him during his interview of her the day before in the presence of Jim Britt.

And then there’s the DNA evidence, which didn’t become available until 2006.  His petition was dismissed by the district court for his failure to obtain leave to amend it to include the DNA along with the Britt evidence.  The Circuit reversed and allowed all of it to be heard as “evidence as a whole,” meaning that McDonald isn’t precluded from using the newly discovered DNA in conjunction with the newly discovered exculpatory evidence to prove his actual innocence.

Whether he pulls it off remains to be seen, but the court’s decision certainly suggests that this isn’t one of those nasty, wasteful petitions.  It would make one hell of a movie if it turns out that Jeffrey McDonald was innocent and telling the truth the whole time.  Joe McGinniss may have been a lying scoundrel when he scammed McDonald into cooperating with him on the book, but now he may turn out to be dead wrong as well.

Stay tuned.

H/T “Rob” Robertson, Fairfax, VA.

6 comments on “Fatal Vision Redux: Maybe Acid Is Groovy?

  1. Patrick

    I’ll see your “Acid is groovy” and raise you an “Acid is groovy! Kill the pigs!”

    Which is what the McDonald assailants were supposed to have yowled as they killed his family.

    If Wade Smith can pull this off, it would be the crowning achievement what’s already a stellar career. It would almost make up for Smith’s mentoring of John Edwards.

  2. SHG

    Geez, you are such a baby. If I don’t spell out every single word, you have to rub my nose in it?

  3. Peter E. Brownback III

    Unfortunately, the vision which one has of the McDonald murders depends in large part upon one’s age and knowledge of the circumstances. I lived about five doors down from CPT McDonald. At the time (and up until 9/11) Fort Bragg was an open post – there were no gates or fences or barriers. Corregidor Courts, the housing area concerned, was adjacent to Route 87, the main drag from Fayetteville thru the post. There was no bar to entry, no ID checks, no nothing.

    Prior to the murders there had been numerous instances of burglary and vandalism – with no one apprehended or charged.

    While Fayetteville is a southern town, it was a haven for ex-servicemen (Forget PC – in 1970 there were 50K troops on post, fewer than 200 of which were female.) – many of whom were completely fed up with the Army and quite willing to delve into other activities.

    So, there was a large and active population which was ready and able to do drugs and commit various atrocities.

    Do I know whether or not CPT McDonald murdered his family? Of course not. But I believe that the Article 32 investigation was a better reflectionof what we know happened than the later grand jury activity.

    Is it hard to believe that in 1970 people stood around and chanted “Acid is groovy! Kill the pigs!” while murdering a woman and two children? No, not for me. I think you may have accidentally put your finger on the matter when you wrote “it sounded like the ridiculous stuff that some green beret guy would invent about things hippies would say.”

    That is who would have been chanting – some ex-airborne or ex-SF guy who was making up for lost time, finding his way into love and beauty and drugs and the like.

    As you may note, I find the episode still disturbing after 41 years.

    None of which, of course, has anything to do with the issue of the dead marshall’s statement about the dead woman’s statement. I’m glad someone else has to figure that out.

    Peter E. Brownback III

  4. SHG

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate, and enjoy, having someone with first hand knowledge around.  Thanks again.

  5. Murray Newman

    I’m really glad you posted this article, Scott. I read Fatal Vision when I was 12 years old, and I was so fascinated with it that I sent Capt. McDonald a letter (he was being held in Bastrop, TX at the time). My mom completely freaked out when he wrote me back. I think my fascination with that case is what helped guide me into criminal law.

    I had no idea about the new ruling. It will be fascinating to see what happens.

  6. SHG

    Mothers can get that way when their children correspond with convicted multiple murderers.  They rarely wait for decades to learn whether subsequent disclosures bear out their innocence.  Mothers!

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