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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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MacDonald now waits to see if the federal judge will vacate his 33-year-old conviction. He could get an answer by the end of this year.

Wade Smith rarely grants interviews. I contacted his office, and to my surprise, he was willing to talk to me. What follows is the transcript of our conversation.

Interview: The Spookiest Case Wade Smith Ever Encountered

Lynn Parramore: In all your years as a lawyer, what makes this case stand out?

Wade Smith: It’s a very spooky case. It’s a case that if you were telling scary stories around the dining room table and you had all your family gathered, people could hardly believe it. It’s a scary, spooky story that sounds made up. It has witchcraft in it. It has Helena Stoeckley, the dominant person who continues to play a remarkable role. She’s haunting this case. In the hearing we just had in Wilmington she played an important role, decades after her death. It is also a Manson-like killing. It has Charles Manson written all over it. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the late 1960s and early '70s there were spooky, weird people on acid—back then it was believable.

LP: Then why did MacDonald, the emblem of law-and-order, the Green Beret, become a suspect? Why did people in the community believe he did it?

WS: In every murder of a spouse, the remaining spouse is the number-one suspect and is almost always charged. Often, the spouse turns out to have committed the murder, so it’s not surprising that the case turned to McDonald. The crime scene was so messed up that you couldn’t depend on it. So MacDonald was the logical choice. And yet there are thousands of people in North Carolina who do not believe he did it.

Even back then, if you polled Fayetteville folks, you might have found that a lot of people did not believe that he did it. The military hearing found that the charges against MacDonald were not true. He was given an honorable discharge. He could have gone on with his life, and he should have. But he taunted the police. He made fun of them. He did interviews. When Victor Worheide, who was a federal prosecutor, later became interested in the case at the urging of the parents of Colette MacDonald, the case was gone.

LP: In Joe McGinnis’ book, Fatal Vision, Freddy Kassab, MacDonald’s father-in-law, was presented as the protagonist. What do you recall of the in-laws in the trial?

WS: They were a very normal-looking mama and daddy. Nothing unique in any way. I think that one of the problems MacDonald had was that they expected him to undertake to find these killers, to go on a mission to find them. He didn’t do that. He continued to work as a doctor and moved to California. Some people would say that was the wrong thing to do. Others would say that that was a healthy thing to do. But his mother and father-in-law did not want him to do that.

LP: Did anything new come out in the Wilmington hearing in September?

Oh, yes. Back in the 1979 trial, a lawyer named Jerry Leonard represented Helena Stoeckley. No one ever knew what it was Helena told him because of attorney-client privilege. He was the lawyer she was talking to one-on-one who had been appointed to advise her of her rights. I used to joke with him when I saw him around – “Hey Jerry, isn’t there something you want to tell us?” But he couldn’t, and he likely would have gone to his grave carrying the secret of what Helena told him had it not been for that hearing. Finally, in Wilmington, Jerry Leonard was ordered to tell what she had said to him 30 years ago. And she told him she had been there, at the MacDonald home, the night of the murders.