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How I Changed My Mind About the Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

A notorious murder case has morphed into what some are calling a terrifying miscarriage of justice. (Includes rare interview with attorney Wade Smith.)

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But it didn’t take long to realize that something was wrong. Enough somethings to fill the long, solitary chapters of a man’s life unfolding behind prison walls.

Morris researched the MacDonald case for 20 years and knows each labyrinthine turn of its progress through the criminal justice system. Even before bureaucratic stalling and federal machinery overtook the search for truth, things were working against Jeffrey MacDonald. A crime scene was left open to bystander traffic. Inexperienced military police failed to pick up a woman near the house who fit MacDonald’s description. Many think this woman could have been Helena Stoeckley, a drug abuser and professed member of a witchcraft cult who repeatedly confessed to having been at the MacDonald house the night of the murders, but recanted her story whenever she seemed to fear prosecution. Now deceased, she remains a pivotal figure in the case.

As I read Morris’ meticulous examination the evidence, the picture in my mind became less clear. I began to see that Joe McGinniss’ creation of Picture #1 might be just that: a creation. Some of the “facts” I thought I knew began to look more like ideas conjured by eager prosecutors and a journalist who had dealt so disingenuously with Jeffrey MacDonald in writing Fatal Vision that he was sued after publication. McGinniss' publisher settled with MacDonald out of court, after the judge called the author a “conman.”  (This story, in its own right, became a famous book about journalistic ethics by Janet Malcolm.)

The story many of us think we know tells that MacDonald's wounds were superficial. But he had multiple bruises and puncture wounds, and two stab wounds, including one that collapsed his lung -- a serious injury that left him falling in and out of consciouness. The popular story says there was no evidence of intruders. But there was, including wax drippings (MacDonald insisted that one of the intruders carried a candle), fibers, and hairs that did not belong to the household or family members.

McGinniss drew on pop-sociology to render an image of a psychopathic killer in the guise of the friendly doctor-next-door; the kind we know from endless horror movies. He theorized that diet pills caused MacDonald to fly into a fit of rage. McGinniss had to be creative, because the man’s character never fit the crime. MacDonald had no history of violence or temper. When the initial military hearing was conducted in 1970, no one in his life could be found who had a bad thing to say about him. Psychiatric professionals on both sides pronounced him incapable of having committed the crimes. On the evening of the murders, Jeffrey MacDonald had taken his kids to ride the pony he had bought them, fed them dinner while their mother took a night class, and put them to bed. It didn’t make sense.

But did hippie intruders make sense? Maybe more than I would have thought as a teen. Vietnam-era Fayetteville was not sleepy Raleigh in the 1980s. There was violence. Soldiers’ corpses arrived at Fort Bragg stuffed with heroin. In 1970 America was gripped by the horror of the Manson murders – a fact used against MacDonald because he subscribed to Esquire magazine, which had run a story about the dark side of hippie culture. The Esquire story, for all its salaciousness, touched upon real issues that plagued many communities outside of California. In Fayetteville, an army town, strong tensions existed between army types like Jeffrey MacDonald on one side of the war, and hippies and protesters on the other. Helena Stoeckley confessed many times that MacDonald’s willingness to turn heroin addicts in to the police infuriated local drug dealers. She knew this world, and was herself a police informant. According to her, they wanted to teach MacDonald a lesson and rough up his family the night of the killings. But things got out of hand.