Monday, November 30, 2015

United States of America v. Jeffrey R. MacDonald

Silverglate & Good (and now Good & Cormier) have represented Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald pro bono since 1989. Dr. MacDonald's case is widely considered one of the most contentious cases in recent legal history. For more than 30 years now it has provoked passionate advocacy, both in court and out, from rival camps. It has produced one best-selling but largely fictional account by Joe McGinnis, entitled "Fatal Vision," as well as a counter-version, written and published after a large volume of trial documents and evidence exhibits came to light years after the trial, Jerry Potter's and Fred Bost's "Fatal Justice."

To those who have studied the MacDonald case closely, it has come to be a prime example of the miscarriages of justice that are not only possible, but likely, when government officials undertake to "spin" a case by hiding important evidence. It is likewise an example of the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, which has allowed Dr. MacDonald, his supporters and Defense Committee, and his lawyers to gradually, albeit slowly and painfully, extract from a reluctant government more and more evidence demonstrating Dr. MacDonald's innocence of the heinous murders of his wife and children for which he stands convicted. Finally, it is a paradigmatic case demonstrating how recently enacted procedural limitations on the ancient right of the Writ of Habeas Corpus have managed to thwart justice even in a case, like the MacDonald case, where it can be demonstrated with powerful evidence out of the government's own files and archives, that an innocent person was convicted and sits in prison under a life sentence.

In 1979, Dr. MacDonald was convicted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina of the murders of his wife and two young daughters, which occurred in February 1970 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where MacDonald was stationed as an Army physician who had served in the elite special forces known as the Green Berets. From the very beginning and to this day, MacDonald has steadfastly maintained that a group of intruders invaded his home and attacked him and his family as they slept. At his trial, however, the government was able to convince the jury that MacDonald's account was a lie, claiming that forensic evidence (hairs, blood, fibers, etc.) found at the crime scene disproved MacDonald's account of events and that MacDonald had to be lying because the government's crime scene investigators purported to have found no evidence of intruders inside the MacDonald home.

The MacDonald case has had a long and tortured history, and it is still being litigated today. Following his conviction and direct appeal, the defense unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") numerous government files and handwritten reports compiled by the government's laboratory personnel which were never disclosed to the defense pre-trial. These documents revealed that government laboratory personnel from the Army Criminal Investigation Division ("CID") Laboratory and the FBI Crime Laboratory had conducted forensic examinations of hairs, fibers and other items of physical evidence which they could not source to any known person or any known item (e.g., to a piece of clothing from the MacDonald home). The government never disclosed to the defense, prior to trial, the existence of these unsourced items, and had they been disclosed and brought to the attention of the jury, the defense believes that MacDonald would surely have been acquitted. Many other knowledgeable observers who have carefully studied the case agree with this conclusion.

In 1984 and 1990, MacDonald filed petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, asserting that the government had secured his conviction unlawfully by (1) failing to disclose the existence of various items of physical evidence which overwhelmingly demonstrated the presence of intruders and (2) arguing to the jury that there was no evidence to support MacDonald's account. The government defended itself in part by claiming that these unsourced items were all irrelevant household debris. The government made this blatantly illogical argument notwithstanding that (1) this was a case in which MacDonald had reported being attacked by intruders, and hence any unsourced items of evidence were crucial to his ability to defend himself at trial since such items would be probative of the presence of non-family members at the crime scene, and (2) many of these items of physical evidence were found in critical locations such as on a murder weapon, under the fingernails of the victims, on their bodies, or in their bedding; hence they could logically be viewed as virtual "signatures" left by the murderers.

MacDonald was denied relief on both petitions by the U.S. District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the latter of which noted that even though it still had some "unease" about the case, the new evidence did not raise this unease to a level sufficient to vacate MacDonald's convictions. Hence, despite admitting to being uneasy, these judges decided not only to leave Dr. MacDonald's conviction and life sentences intact, but to not even allow a hearing at which the trial evidence would be reviewed in the light of the accumulated discoveries of new evidence plus newly-discovered evidence which had been suppressed by the prosecution).

More recently, in April 1997, MacDonald filed a motion to reopen his 1990 habeas petition on the grounds that, during the litigation of that petition, an FBI agent had committed fraud on the court by submitting affidavits which included deliberately false statements on the issue of whether certain items of physical evidence found at the crime scene could have originated from an individual named Helena Stoeckley, who, within days of the murders had confessed to numerous persons that she and others had committed these horrendous crimes. From the beginning, MacDonald described one of the intruders as a woman with blond shoulder-length hair and a floppy hat. At the time, Stoeckley, the daughter of an Army colonel, regularly wore a blond shoulder-length wig and floppy hat. One of the issues raised in the 1990 petition was whether certain blond synthetic fibers found at the crime scene -- 22" and 24" in length - could have come from a wig worn by Stoeckley, thereby corroborating her presence at the crime scene. The government's FBI expert maintained that these particular fibers were never used in the production of wigs, and came from a doll, even though textile reference books from the FBI Laboratory Library affirmatively stated that these fibers had in fact been used in the manufacture of wigs prior to 1970, and the government's investigation also revealed that they were too long to have originated from a doll.

While MacDonald's claim of fraud was rejected by both the District Court and the Fourth Circuit, MacDonald also had included, in his motion to reopen the case, a request that he be given access to the biological evidence gathered from the crime scene for the purpose of conducting DNA tests to determine whether previously unsourced items such as hairs, blood and tissue found in critical locations, such as under the fingernails of the victims, came from persons outside the MacDonald home, i.e., intruders. While the District Court denied MacDonald's request, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that MacDonald be permitted to conduct DNA testing, and remanded the DNA testing issue to the District Court.

In issuing this DNA testing order, the Fourth Circuit obviously recognized that DNA technology has of late become an extremely powerful forensic tool, that it could be used in this case to identify previously unsourced items (hairs, blood and tissue) found at the crime scene. The Court also recognized that the results of such DNA tests might very well demonstrate MacDonald's innocence if the tests determined that such items did not originate from MacDonald himself nor from any other MacDonald family member.

The Fourth Circuit's order that the defense be given access to evidence for DNA testing has resulted not in prompt compliance, but rather in a continuation of the long pattern of government foot-dragging in this case. At present, the government has refused to give MacDonald full access to the biological evidence for DNA testing, which has necessitated the filing by the defense of a motion to compel production of the biological evidence. This motion is currently pending in the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, and, once it is ruled on, DNA testing will begin.

If you seek additional information on the MacDonald case, the following are useful links and resource materials:
Fatal Justice - Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders. Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost, W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. ISBN 0-393-03000-8.

Fatal Justice is the most accurate and best documented account of the MacDonald case. For those who want to understand just how the government thwarted justice in this case, they should definitely read this book.


Jeffrey MacDonald Case Web site.

This Web site has been established by friends and supporters of Jeffrey MacDonald. This site contains valuable additional information about the present status of the case, as well as links to other related Web sites.

Court Opinions (listed chronologically)
United States v. MacDonald, 531 F.2d 196 (4th Cir. 1976), rev'd, 435 U.S. 850 (1978)
United States v. MacDonald, 585 F.2d 1211 (4th Cir. 1978), cert. den., 440 U.S. 961 (1979)
United States v. MacDonald, 632 F.2d 258 (4th Cir. 1980)
United States v. MacDonald, 635 F.2d 1115 (4th Cir. 1980)
United States v MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1 (1982)
United States v. MacDonald, 688 F.2d 224 (4th Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1103 (1983)
United States v. MacDonald, 640 F.Supp. 286 (E.D.N.C. 1985)
United States v. MacDonald, 779 F.2d 962 (4th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 813 (1986)
United States v. MacDonald, 778 F.Supp. 1342 (1991), aff'd 966 F.2d 854 (1992)
United States v. MacDonald, 966 F.2d 854 (1992)
United States v. MacDonald, 979 F.Supp. 1057 (E.D.N.C. 1997), aff'd, unpublished opinion, Docket No. 97-7297, (4th Cir. Sept. 8, 1998) (1998 WL 637184) (addressing MacDonald's fraud on the court claims)
United States v. MacDonald, unpublished order, Docket No. 97-713, (4th Cir. Oct.17, 1997) (DNA testing order)
United States v. MacDonald, unpublished, Docket No. 97-7297, (4th Cir. Sept. 8, 1998) (1998 WL 637184) (addressing MacDonald's fraud on the court claims).

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