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MacDonald may be innocent after all

bookI always thought he was guilty. Any doubts that I might have felt vanished after I read Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision. Jeffery MacDonald had murdered his wife and two daughters, stabbing and bludgeoning them to death in their apartment at Fort Bragg. I did not believe his story about the “hippies” who broke into his house at 3:30 in the morning chanting “Acid is groovy” and “Death to the Pigs.” In essence, I guess I agreed with the military police, the FBI and the Fayetteville Police Department that it sounded like an unconvincing, “copycat” version of the Manson murders some six months before (the word “Pig” written in blood was also at the murder scene).

My convictions were further validated by the movie in which lovable, decent Karl Maulden pursued Jeff Macdonald like an avenging angel (You can watch the entire movie on Youtube now!). When Macdonald was eliminated as a suspect in 1970 and moved to California where he quickly adapted a playboy lifestyle, I, like his father-in-law was indignant. Ah, but then, 1979, the playboy doctor was arrested and returned to North Carolina where he was tried and convicted.  “Good!” I said, and I have been pleased to note that he is still in prison where he undoubtedly belongs.

Well, Errol Morris says I am wrong, and he is not a man to be dismissed lightly. His documentary film, “The Thin Blue Line,” saved Randall Adams, a death-row inmate in Texas, by proving that Adams was the victim of a corrupt judicial system (1988). Morris is not a crusader but an extremely talented filmmaker with a penchant for exhaustive research. Now, almost 25 years after “The Thin Blue Line,” Morris has announced that several decades of research strongly suggest that Jeffery MacDonald is not guilty.

This is not snap judgment either. A Wilderness of Error contains painstakingly developed research and conclusions based on the reevaluation of hundreds of details — details that reveal an investigation and a series of trials that are riddled with incompetence, prejudice and a willful withholding of evidence. I am having second thoughts. Could he be innocent?

Throughout A Wilderness of Error, Morris frequently comments on the resemblance of the “Green Beret Murders” to the classic Japanese film, “Rashomon” in which four people gave evidence about a brutal crime, but each account bears no resemblance to the other three.

Indeed, MacDonald’s “mistakes” are the reason that who father-in-law, Freddy Kassab, launched a campaign to prove Macdonald guilty. Freddy’s pursuit of Jeffery became obsessive, and at times bordered on criminal conduct. Morris quickly discovered that Freddy Kassab bore little resemblance to the character created by Karl Maulden in the film, “Fatal Vision.” His tireless campaign (enthusiastically supported by his wife) becomes a mission for revenge (he became famous for repeatedly saying, “If the legal system does not punish this man, then I will do it myself.”). Following MacDonald’s release in 1970, Kassab wet on countless talk shows and wrote hundreds of letters to anyone and everyone who might help him put MacDonald back in prison, included senators, radio and TV personalities, and an extensive network of military officers. It finally paid off.

Perhaps the greatest blow to MacDonald’s defense was Fatal Vision, the book written by Joe McGinniss. Initially designed to prove MacDonald’s innocence, the book gradually became an accusation. At first, the author was Jeffery’s staunch defender as McGinnis built a staggering file of interviews, letters and tapes — all purportedly demonstrating his “friend’s” innocence. Morris uncovers extensive proof that McGinniss — in order to assure the fact that not only would Fatal Vision prove to be a blockbuster book but would also produce a highly lucrative film contract — decided to change sides. Morris believes McGinnis decided that a book about a murderer would be more successful than a book about a man who had been “rail-roaded.” It was, said Jeffery, “an act of betrayal,” and Errol Morris agrees. Fatal Vision engendered a series of lawsuits and counter suits regarding royalties from the book and the movie.

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However, the history of legal misconduct in Jeffery MacDonald’s trials goes much deeper than I have indicated so far. Morris literally lists hundreds of instances that suggest MacDonald did not get a fair trial. Consider the following:

• The crime scene’s “integrity” was destroyed during the first few hours of investigation by the military police that moved objects and destroyed evidence such as fingerprints and footprints. MacDonald’s billfold was stolen by an ambulance driver.

• The highly publicized “witness,” Helena Stoeckley, the “hippie in the floppy hat,” was not allowed to testify for months. Although mentally unstable and a drug addict, Helena was intimidated by the prosecution and threatened repeatedly as a murder suspect.

• The presiding Judge Franklin Dupree, a well-known racist, demonstrated an obvious dislike for MacDonald and his lawyers. He repeatedly denied requests to admit testimony that would have suggested that MacDonald was innocent. He was also instrumental in suppressing evidence. Since the prosecution controlled access to “stored evidence” and repeatedly denied access to this material, the defense was never able to use the evidence effectively.

• A confession of murder by Helena Stoeckley’s boyfriend was never admitted as evidence.

• MacDonald’s apartment was kept sealed by the military from 1970 until 1984, and the military destroyed all furnishings and personal effects in 1984.

• A phone call, which was made to MacDonald’s apartment during the time that the murders were committed (Helena answered the phone, laughed hysterically and hung up) was later verified by a caller who was trying to locate “a doctor MacDonald.” The caller, who made a series of calls in an attempt to locate a Dr. MacDonald (not Jeffery), later told of the phone being answered by a woman who laughed and then hung up. This incident could prove MacDonald’s innocence, if the “laughing woman was, indeed, Helena Stoeckley.

This list goes on. Lost records. DNA evidence ignored. Witnesses who saw and heard crucial evidence (and now dead). even a strange message painted on a wall in a drug treatment center by Randy Phillips, Helena’s boyfriend. The message read “I KILLED MACDONALD’S WIFE AND CHILDREN.” A week after the event, someone painted over the wall.

Jeffery MacDonald is now 68 years old. He has been in prison since for 33 years. DNA testing, which is currently pending, could prove his innocence. The testing period is usually two to four months. The DNA samples were submitted four years ago. Most of the significant witnesses, including, Helena, her boyfriend, the Kassabs, Judge Dupree, and the key lawyers in both the defense and the prosecution, are now dead. Could it be that someone still wants Jeffery MacDonald to stay in prison for the rest of his life?

A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffery Macdonald by Earl Morris. The Penguin Press, 2012. 524 pages.

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