Army doctor's defense says compelling doubt in "Fatal Vision" case

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 25, 2012 8:50 PM
Army doctor's defense says compelling doubt in "Fatal Vision" case

By Judy Royal

WILMINGTON, North Carolina (Reuters) - A defense attorney seeking a new trial for an Army doctor convicted of the 1970 murders of his family on Tuesday argued that no reasonable jury would have convicted him had it been privy to the DNA evidence and witness testimony collected in the years since his first trial.

Former Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald has maintained his innocence in the stabbing and clubbing deaths that brought him three life sentences and led to the bestseller "Fatal Vision" and a television mini-series.

On the seventh and final day of a hearing in Wilmington, North Carolina, his attorneys asked a federal judge to grant a new trial based on a comprehensive review of new and old evidence.

But a prosecutor said the overwhelming amount of evidence relied upon by jurors to decide MacDonald's guilt in 1979 still stands and makes further proceedings in the case unnecessary.

"Jeffrey MacDonald is never going to admit his guilt," prosecutor John Bruce said. "His loyal band of followers is never going to be satisfied no matter how many hearings we have. We must end this case and make it final."

A ruling from Senior District Judge James C. Fox is not expected for weeks.

Much of the defense argument hinged on the testimony of a lawyer who represented a now-deceased material witness.

Lawyer Jerry Leonard testified that the witness, a known drug user named Helena Stoeckley, initially told him she had nothing to do with the crime but later in the same day said she had been at the MacDonald home during the murders.

Several other witnesses also testified that Stoeckley, who is now dead, admitted to being in the MacDonald home that night.

MacDonald, 68, has long insisted that a group of drug-crazed intruders killed his pregnant wife and two young daughters in their Fort Bragg, North Carolina, apartment in February 1970.

At MacDonald's trial, Stoeckley said she could not remember where she was that night. The defense claims her testimony was coerced.

MacDonald defense attorney Gordon Widenhouse said the details of Stoeckley's conversations with her attorney provided the most credible testimony to date.

"We know now what we didn't know yesterday," Widenhouse said during his closing argument.

Prosecutors cited multiple discrepancies in a deceased former federal marshal's claims that Stoeckley told him she was in the MacDonald house during the murders and that he witnessed the lead prosecutor threaten to charge her with first-degree murder if she told jurors that she was there.

Prosecutor Brian Murtagh, who worked on the case in 1979, said the new DNA test results of unsourced hairs found by the bodies were "not forensically significant" because they were naturally shed hairs rather than being forcibly extracted.

On the other hand, Murtagh said, jurors at the trial were presented with a "cornucopia of evidence" supporting MacDonald's guilt. That evidence included strands of MacDonald's "broken, bloody hair" in his dead wife's hand, Murtagh said. (Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott)