How I Changed My Mind About the Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case
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In October 1970, following an investigation and hearing, the military dropped its case against MacDonald, and he was honorably discharged from the army. He moved to California to become the director of emergency medicine at St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach. But an unfortunate thing happened in the following years. MacDonald’s relationship with his father-in-law, who had been a staunch supporter, became strained. Freddy Kassab had inserted himself into the 1970 military hearing and made himself the center of a media circus, holding news conferences and firing off letters to members of Congress. He wanted his son-in-law to stay on the east coast and pursue the killers. Eventually, he turned on the man he had once so ardently defended. Through his aggressive pursuit of the case, MacDonald was indicted.
MacDonald was tried in a civilian court in 1979. Many felt that his acquittal would be a cinch, but much more was to go wrong. The nine-year lag between the murders and the trial is extremely unusual; experts consider such a lag to pose a great danger of wrongful conviction. Appearances didn’t help MacDonald, either. He looked angry on the stand. Worse still, Judge Franklin Dupree seemed to have his mind made up before the trial began. Some said he should never have taken the case because his former son-in-law was the prosecutor in the original army hearing. Dupree would not admit overwhelming psychiatric testimony in MacDonald’s favor, nor the testminony of witnesses to whom Helena Stoeckley had confessed her involvement. Bernie Segal, a long-haired Jewish lawyer from Philadelphia, took the lead in the case and managed to alienate the entire courtroom. Segal took up nearly all the time in the critical period for closing remarks and left only a few minutes for co-counsel Wade Smith, an eloquent native North Carolinian who understood the jury.
One thing about this case is never in doubt no matter who’s talking: If Wade Smith had been able to lead and give his closing remarks, MacDonald would be a free man today.
The list of misfortunes goes on: exculpatory evidence withheld; possible prosecutorial misconduct; and fallible humans who twisted the MacDonald story to fit their own agendas. MacDonald was convicted twice, both in the courtroom and in the all-important court of public opinion, which was sealed by McGinniss’ book and miniseries.
Since 1979, the MacDonald case has continued to trouble those who delve beneath the surface of the media narrative. The social justice movement is now involved; the Innocence Project, a prestigious nationwide network dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, has worked strenuously to overturn MacDonald’s conviction. In a 2011 press release, the Innocence Project stated:.
Since MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979, considerable evidence of his innocence has come to light. Most recently, retired US Marshall Jimmy Britt came forward with information that another suspect in the case, Helena Stoeckley, admitted to the prosecutor that she was in the house on the night of MacDonald’s murder and that he treated to indict her for first degree murder if she admitted that in court. In addition, DNA testing on evidence that was recovered from the fingernails scrapings of one of the victims and a hair found under another victim did not match MacDonald. Earlier, evidence came to light that a FBI forensic examiner mislead the jury about synthetic hair evidence. MacDonald claimed the hairs were from the wig of one of the murders, but the forensic examiner incorrectly claimed they were from one of the children’s dolls.
None of this has set MacDonald free. By now, many members of the original hearing and 1979 trial are dead, including Judge Dupree. Judge James Fox, a close friend of Dupree's and quite elderly himself, has taken over and has dismissed appeals. Recently, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ordered Fox to consider new evidence, and to examine all the evidence as a whole. On Sept. 17, 2012, in Wilmington, N.C., a crowd of familiar faces assembled for a new hearing. Jeffrey MacDonald, Joe McGinnis, prosecutor James Blackburn (who went to prison himself for defrauding his clients), Wade Smith and others newer to the case gathered once again to testify.