Jeffrey Robert MacDonald Trial: 1979

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Jeffrey Robert MacDonald Trial: 1979

Defendant: Jeffrey Robert MacDonald
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Bernard L. Segal and Wade Smith
Chief Prosecutors: James L. Blackburn and Brian Murtagh
Judge: Franklin T. Dupree
Place: Raleigh, N.C.
Dates of Trial: July 16-August 29, 1979
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The horror of the triple murder and the long delay between the crime and the trial alone were sufficient to make this one of the most notorious trials in recent history. The subsequent best-selling book Fatal Vision by Joe McGinnis, written with the cooperation of the murderer, seared the case into the memories of many Americans. Jeffrey MacDonald's suit against McGinnis for betraying his trust in writing a book that portrayed him as guilty, raised ethical and legal issues about "checkbook" investigative journalism.

Few murder defendants have so assiduously courted the media as Jeffrey MacDonald. Through books, television, newsprint, and even civil litigation, he made his name a household word. For more than two decades, America watched and read about this enigmatic ex-Green Beret. Most remained convinced he was guilty as charged, and yet doubts persisted.

The crime was horrible: a young pregnant mother, Colette MacDonald, and her two young daughters, hacked and battered to death at their home on Fort Bragg Army Base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on February 17, 1970. Immediately suspicion fell on the woman's husband, Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, a 26-year-old medical doctor. He told of being attacked by four hippie-type intruders: two white men, one black, and a white woman with long blonde hair who wore a large floppy hat, high boots, and carried a candle. Throughout the ordeal she chanted, "acid is groovy kill the pigs." To ward off blows from an ice pick, MacDonald wrapped a blue pajama jacket around his hands. Even so, he sustained multiple stab wounds.

The superficial nature of MacDonald's injuriesnone required stitchingand the remarkably tidy condition of the room in which he claimed to have fought for his life, convinced military detectives that his story was false. Also, they wanted to know how fibers from his blue pajama jacket came to be found beneath Colette MacDonald's body?

On May 1 the army announced that MacDonald was being charged with three counts of murder. The preliminary hearing began July 6 and soon revealed a seriously flawed investigation into the death of Colette MacDonald and her two daughters. So embarrassing were the disclosures of official negligence that, in October 1970, the army dismissed all charges against MacDonald.

Shortly afterwards, in a remarkable display of nerve, MacDonald appeared on a national TV talk show and lambasted the army for its ineptitude. He came across as indignant about his own mistreatment and indifferent towards the fate of his family. Galvanized by the criticism, detectives resumed their inquiries. The upshot was a mammoth report in 1972, which again concluded that MacDonald was guilty of murder. In July 1974, a grand jury was impaneled and returned three murder indictments against him.

The Trial, at Last

Bringing the case to court was a laborious process, but in July 1979, 9Vz years after the murders, MacDonald finally faced his accusers in a North Carolina courtroom. He came bearing defense fund contributions from many influential supporters who believed in his innocence.

Defense attorney Bernard Segal was confident when the trial opened, but right from day one things went badly. Judge Franklin Dupree refused to admit into evidence a psychiatric evaluation of MacDonald which suggested that someone of his personality type was most unlikely to have committed violent crimes. Dupree did this for the soundest,, of reasons. If the defense were allowed to present their side of the psychiatric argument, then the prosecution would doubtless counter with experts of their own. Because no plea of insanity had been entered, Dupree didn't want the trial bogged down by a mass of what was likely to be contradictory testimony.

Then Dupree admitted into testimony something that the MacDonald camp very much wanted left out: a copy of Esquire magazine, found in the MacDonald household, containing a lengthy article about the Charles Manson murders. (In 1969, Manson, a commune leader, had ordered his "disciples" on a killing binge that left seven dead in southern California.) This was a big plus for the prosecution. They intended to suggest that reading this article had implanted in MacDonald's mind the idea of blaming a hippie gang for his own murderous activities.

In a sedate North Carolina courtroom, Segal's wide-open style of combative advocacy did not sit well with Judge Dupree. The two locked horns repeatedly, mostly to MacDonald's detriment. But it wasn't just a clash of personalities that hurt the defendant; there was the evidence as well.

FBI analyst Paul Stombaugh led the jury through a clear exposition of the blue pajama jacket and its relevance. He showed how all 48 holes made by the ice pick were smooth and cylindrical. In order for this to have happened the jacket would need to remain stationary, an unlikely occurrence if MacDonald had indeed wrapped the jacket around his hands to defend himself and was dodging a torrent of blows. Also, by folding the jacket in one particular way, Stombaugh demonstrated how all 48 tears could have been made by 21 thrusts of the ice pick, coincidentally the same number of wounds that Colette MacDonald had suffered. By implication, Stombaugh was saying that MacDonald's story was a tissue of lies; what really happened was that Colette MacDonald had been repeatedly stabbed through the pajama jacket by her enraged husband, who then concocted the story of four intruders to mask his actions.

Drama in Court

A moment of high drama occurred when prosecutors Brian Murtagh and James Blackburn abruptly staged an impromptu re-enactment of the alleged attack on MacDonald. Murtagh wrapped a pajama top around his hands and tried to fend off a series of ice pick blows from Blackburn. For his troubles Murtagh received a small wound to the arm, but two telling points had been made. First, all of the holes in the pajama top were rough and jagged, not smoothly cylindrical as the holes in MacDonald's pajama jacket had been; second, Murtagh was stabbed, albeit not seriously. When MacDonald had been examined at Womack Hospital he did not have a single wound on his arms. The inference was obvious and highly damaging to MacDonald.

The strongest defense witness was supposed to be Helena Stoeckley, 18 years old at the time of the murders, a known liar with a long record of drug abuse and alcoholism. Over the years, she had yielded several confessions to involvement in the slaughter and an equal number of retractions. Segal was at least hoping to establish some kind of link to a "hippie gang," but Stoeckley let him down. On this occasion she denied ever having been inside the MacDonald home. Furthermore, she denied ever having seen MacDonald before that very morning in court.

Segal was furious. He fought for the introduction of evidence from other witnesses to whom Stoeckley had confessed. But Judge Dupree, in the absence of any evidence to connect Stoeckley to the house and unimpressed by her performance on the stand, refused. When Segal persisted in arguing the point he got his comeuppance. Dupree revealed that, over the weekend, he had received two phone calls from Helena Stoeckley. She had talked about hiring a lawyer because she felt herself to be in mortal danger from none other than Bernard Segal. Upon hearing this Segal sank back into his chair and let the matter drop.

Perhaps the most decisive evidence against MacDonald was a tape made during his original 1970 interview with military investigators. Jury members got to hear a man who sounded evasive and indifferent. Worse than that, he sounded arrogant. Describing himself, MacDonald said: "I'm bright, aggressive, I work hard. Christ, I was a doctor!" Later: "I had a beautiful wife who loved me and two kids who were great. What could I have gained by doing this?" By way of an answer, a detective showed MacDonald the photograph of a young woman, just one of MacDonald's many sexual conquests, a side of his nature that he had desperately tried to conceal. MacDonald, rattled by this surprise revelation, said quietly, "You guys are more thorough than I thought." One juror later remarked, "Until I heard that, [tape] there was no doubt in my mind about his innocence. but hearing him turned the whole thing around."

Under Segal's gentle probing, MacDonald performed well on the stand, but as soon as he was subjected to cross-examination that old cockiness began to reassert itself. Whenever asked to explain an awkward fact or statement, he would shrug indifference. In the end, his performance failed to convince those who mattered most: the jury. On August 29, 1979, they found MacDonald guilty. Judge Dupree sentenced him to the maximum allowable under federal law, three consecutive life terms.

After several appeals, in January 1983 the Supreme Court upheld all three convictions. But Jeffrey MacDonald wasn't finished yet.

Murderer Sues Writer

In 1984 one of the most extraordinary civil actions in American legal history began. The plaintiff, MacDonald, a thrice-convicted murderer, claimed breach of contract and fraud against Joe McGinnis, author of Fatal Vision, the definitive account of the murders. McGinnis had been contacted prior to MacDonald's trial. The intention, as MacDonald saw it, was for McGinnis to write an account that painted him in the most favorable light. The two had signed a contract in which MacDonald agreed to provide material in return for a handsome percentage of the book profits. As is customary, MacDonald signed a release, the third paragraph of which read:

I realize, of course, that you do not propose to libel me. Nevertheless, in order that you may feel free to write the book in any manner that you deem best, I agree that I will not make or assert against you, the publisher, or its licensees or anyone else involved in the production or distribution of the book, any claim or demand whatsoever based on the ground that anything contained in the book defames me.

As an afterthought Bernard Segal added the following, " provided that the essential integrity of my life story is maintained."

It was this addendum that proved so controversial. No one reading Fatal Vision could have been in any doubt that McGinnis thought Jeffrey MacDonald had slaughtered his wife and children. The book, which later became a TV movie, portrayed MacDonald not as an innocent victim but as a heartless murderer. For this perceived betrayal MacDonald cried foul, claiming that McGinnis had taken advantage of his privileged position, and filed suit.

The action was heard in Los Angeles, California in 1987 before Judge William J. Rea. At the heart of the plaintiff's case was a series of letters that passed between MacDonald and McGinnis, in which the writer, right up to the publication of the book, continued to impress on MacDonald a purported belief in his innocence. Attorney Gary Bostwick, appearing for MacDonald, asked McGinnis: "Did you consider yourself [MacDonald's] friend at the end of the trial?"

"I considered myself the author," said McGinnis, "I don't know how you would define 'friend'. It was a professional relationship."

Bostwick tightened the noose.

"Would you look at Exhibit 36A [a letter] again. It says, 'Goddamn it, Jeff, one of the worst things about all this is how suddenly and totally all of your friendsself includedhave been deprived of the pleasure of your company.'"

"Well, that was eight years ago," McGinnis replied lamely, "And my recollections were a lot fresher." It only got worse.

You said yesterday, looking at the letters of the first six to nine months after the trial, that you never intended to deceive him. After the first six or nine months, did you intend to deceive him?

"Well, there certainly came a time when I was willing to let him continue to believe whatever he wanted to believe, so he wouldn't try to prevent me from finishing my book."

"Is the answer yes?"

"The answer could be interpreted that way, I suppose."

Such candor did not sit well with the six-person jury. And neither did the testimony of noted authors Joseph Wambaugh and William F. Buckley, both of whom stated that McGinnis' only obligation was to the truth as he saw it. Defense attorney Daniel Kornstein steered them through a high-minded rationale of the journalist's craft. Their testimony, given with the best of intentions, provided Bostwick with just the weapons he needed to portray MacDonald as the injured party. He extracted a painful admission from Wambaugh that duplicity and deception were everyday currency for the investigative writer, wholly acceptable so long as the ends justified the means. Bostwick, in his charge to the jury, concluded simply, "We cannot do whatever is necessary. We have to do what is right."

Undistracted by any of the murder evidence, the jury heard only Bostwick's tale of a gullible subject, duped by an unscrupulous writer. Five members of the jury agreed with his reasoning; one did not. On August 21, 1987, a mistrial was declared. Later, the parties agreed to settle for $325,000, the sum originally requested. Interestingly, afterward, each jury member revealed his or her belief that MacDonald had murdered his family. That they were able to divorce personal bias from their deliberations on a purely civil matter speaks highly of the essential integrity and impartiality of the jury system.

In July 1991, Judge Franklin T. Dupree, after hearing arguments that MacDonald should be granted a new murder trial on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, denied the petition.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Garbus, Martin. "McGinnis: A Travesty Of Libel." Publishers Weekly (April 21, 1989): 69.

Malcolm, Janet. The Journalist And The Murderer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

McGinnis, Joe. Fatal Vision. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.

Taylor, John. "Holier Than Thou." New York Times (March 27, 1989): 32-35.

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Jeffrey Robert MacDonald Trial: 1979

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