By Judy Royal
WILMINGTON, North Carolina (Reuters) - Several witnesses testified on Tuesday that a now-dead woman with a history of drug abuse told them she was at the home of an Army doctor on the night his family was killed 42 years ago, evidence he hopes will bolster his claim that he is innocent of the notorious murders that inspired a best-selling book.
Former Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald, 68, is serving three life sentences for the deaths of his pregnant wife and two young daughters in their Fort Bragg, North Carolina, apartment in February 1970.
MacDonald has always insisted the murders were committed by drug-crazed intruders, including a blonde woman who he said carried a candle and chanted "acid is groovy, kill the pigs" while three men attacked him and killed his wife, Colette, and daughters Kristen and Kimberley, ages 2 and 5.
MacDonald, whose case inspired the bestseller "Fatal Vision," this week is asking a federal judge in Wilmington to give him a new trial based on evidence collected since his 1979 conviction.
An appeals court ruled last year that the evidence, including DNA results from unidentified hair found at the crime scene, must be weighed in light of all the other facts previously gathered rather than considered piecemeal.
A key focus of the defense case is the now-deceased Helena Stoeckley, who is thought by MacDonald's supporters to be the woman he said witnessed the murders.
At MacDonald's trial, Stoeckley testified that she could not remember what she was doing that night and had no recollection of being in the house. But witnesses who testified on Tuesday said she told them a different story.
Wendy Rouder, a law clerk for the defense during the 1979 trial, said a day or two after Stoeckley testified, she told Rouder that she had in fact been in the MacDonald home during the crime.
Stoeckley said she remembered holding a candle, "only it was not dripping wax, it was dripping blood," Rouder said.
Rouder said she asked Stoeckley why she did not say that on the witness stand and Stoeckley said, "I can't with those damn prosecutors sitting there."
MacDonald's defense contends that the lead prosecutor in the case intimidated Stoeckley into changing her testimony to avoid facing a murder charge herself. The basis for their claim is a sworn statement by a former federal marshal who said he heard the prosecutor threaten Stoeckley.
The former marshal also is dead. Prosecutors have sought to poke holes in his claim, questioning his character and why he waited until 2005 to come forward.
Prosecutors say no evidence supported MacDonald's scenario about intruders killing his family and contend he staged the crime scene to cover his tracks.
Helena Stoeckley's younger brother and Sara McMann, who let Stoeckley live with her shortly before her 1983 death, also testified on Tuesday that she had admitted to being inside the MacDonald home.
McMann said Stoeckley told her she went to the house with some men on the night of the murders and that they only planned to rough up Jeffrey MacDonald. The men had promised Stoeckley that if she went with them "she would become a wizard in the occult group," McMann said.
"She was haunted with nightmares about that," said McMann, who through tears added, "I know as well as I'm sitting here today that Jeffrey MacDonald is innocent."
The hearing, which is expected to last up to 10 days, resumes on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Judy Royal; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Tim Gaynor)