By Judy Royal
WILMINGTON, North Carolina (Reuters) - The author of a best-selling book about an Army doctor convicted of killing his family testified on Friday that he never heard a key defense witness admit to being present at the 1970 murders that are once more back in the national spotlight.
Author Joe McGinniss, who penned "Fatal Vision" after getting unlimited access to former Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald and his attorneys during the doctor's 1979 trial, said he also doubted a former defense lawyer's claim that the witness had privately admitted to involvement in the crime.
"If she had ever said anything like that there would've been jubilation and high fives all around," McGinniss said at a hearing on Friday. "There would've been champagne corks popping. This was their dream, but it just didn't happen."
MacDonald, 68, was found guilty of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters in their Fort Bragg, North Carolina, apartment in February 1970 and is serving three life sentences.
But he has always maintained that the murders were committed by a band of drug-crazed intruders. He said the group included a blonde woman who 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.
For the past week, MacDonald's lawyers have worked to persuade a federal judge in Wilmington to grant him a new trial based on an evaluation of both new and old evidence in the case, including DNA results from unidentified hair found at the crime scene.
The evidence also includes testimony from several witnesses who said a now-dead woman with a history of drug abuse told them she was at the MacDonald home on the night of the murders. The defense claims that the woman, Helena Stoeckley, would have testified to that at MacDonald's trial had she not been threatened by the lead prosecutor.
James Blackburn, the former prosecutor, earlier this week denied making any threats. He said the former federal marshal who claimed to have heard him intimidate Stoeckley couldn't have heard such a remark because the prosecutor never allowed marshals to sit in on conferences with witnesses.
FBI Special Agent Raymond Madden Jr., who interviewed Stoeckley on two days in September 1981 after the trial, testified on Friday that she never mentioned any threats by Blackburn.
McGinniss, who was called as a prosecution witness on Friday, said he sat in on Stoeckley's meeting with defense lawyers and heard her give the same response over several hours of questioning.
"I can't help you. I wasn't in that house," McGinniss said Stoeckley told the lawyers.
Under cross-examination by MacDonald's lawyer, McGinniss said, "I certainly would have known about it if Helena Stoeckley had said anything helpful to the defense."
McGinniss, who last year published an unflattering book about former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, ultimately concluded in "Fatal Vision" that MacDonald was guilty of killing his family and described him on Friday as a "psychopath."
When asked why he kept contacting MacDonald and expressing support even after his conviction, McGinniss said the realization of his guilt took a little while to solidify.
"I kept trying to find any reason I could to believe that he was not guilty," McGinniss said.
The hearing resumes on Monday.
(Reporting by Judy Royal; writing by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Prudence Crowther)