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.
H/T “Rob” Robertson, Fairfax, VA.