The Case of Convicted Killer Jeffrey MacDonald

A Convicted Murderer Maintains His Innocence

Jeffrey MacDonald

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On February 17, 1970, a horrific crime took place in the Fort Bragg, North Carolina army base home of U.S. Army surgeon Captain Jeffrey MacDonald. The doctor claimed strangers had broken in, attacked him, and slaughtered his pregnant wife and their two young daughters in a manner that eerily resembled the recent Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by the Manson Family in California. Army investigators didn't buy his story. MacDonald was charged with the murders but later released. Though the case was dismissed, it was far from over.

In 1974, a grand jury was convened. MacDonald, now a civilian, was indicted for murder the following year. In 1979, he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Even in the face of conviction, MacDonald has staunchly maintained his innocence and launched numerous appeals. Many people believe him; others do not, including "Fatal Vision" author Joe McGinnis, who was engaged by MacDonald to write a book exonerating him—but got one condemning him instead.

Jeffrey and Colette MacDonald's Bright Beginnings

Jeffrey MacDonald and Colette Stevenson grew up in Patchogue, New York. They'd known one another since grade school. They began dating in high school and the relationship continued during their college years. Jeffrey was at Princeton and Colette attended Skidmore. Just two years into college, in the fall of 1963, the couple decided to marry. By April 1964, their first child Kimberly was born. Colette put her education on hold to become a full-time mother while Jeffrey continued his studies.

After Princeton, MacDonald attended Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. While there, the couple's second child Kristen Jean was born in May 1967. Times were tough financially for the young family but the future looked bright. After graduating from medical school the following year and completing his internship at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, MacDonald decided to join the U.S. Army. The family relocated to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Advancement came quickly for Captain MacDonald, who was soon appointed Group Surgeon to the Special Forces (Green Berets). Colette was enjoying her role as a busy homemaker and mother of two but she had plans to return to college with the eventual goal of becoming a teacher. Over the Christmas holidays in 1969, Colette let friends know that Jeff would not be going to Vietnam as they'd feared he might. For the MacDonalds, life seemed normal and happy. Colette was expecting a third child—a boy—in July but just two months into the new year, Colette's life and those of her children would come to a tragic and terrifying end.

A Horrific Crime Scene

On February 17, 1970, an emergency call was forwarded from an operator to the military police at Fort Bragg. Captain Jeffrey MacDonald was pleading for help. He begged for someone to send an ambulance to his home. When the MPs got to the MacDonald residence, they found 26-year-old Colette, along with her two children, 5-year-old Kristen and 2-year-old, Kimberly, dead. Lying beside Colette was Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, his arm stretched over his wife's body. MacDonald was wounded but alive.

Kenneth Mica, one of the first MPs to arrive on the scene, discovered the bodies of Colette and the two girls. Colette was on her back, her chest partially covered by a torn pajama top. Her face and head had been battered. She was covered in blood. Kimberly's head had been bludgeoned. The child also suffered stab wounds on her neck. Kristen had been stabbed in her chest and back 33 times with a knife and 15 more with an icepick. The word "Pig" was scrawled in blood on the headboard in the master bedroom.

MacDonald appeared to be unconscious. Mica performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When MacDonald came to, he complained of not being able to breathe. Mica says that while MacDonald did request medical attention, he attempted to shove him away, urgently demanding that the MP tend to his children and wife instead.

The Woman in the Floppy Hat

When Mica questioned MacDonald about what had happened, MacDonald told him that three male intruders accompanied by a hippie-type woman had broken into the home and attacked him and his family. According to MacDonald, a blonde female, wearing a floppy hat, high-heeled boots and holding a candle had chanted, "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs," as the carnage took place.

Mica recalled noticing a woman who fit that description while en route to the crime scene. She was standing outside in the rain on a street not far from the MacDonald home. Mica informed a superior at the army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) about having seen the woman but says his observations were ignored. The CID chose to remain focused on the physical evidence and the statements MacDonald made regarding the crimes to formulate their theory of the case.

The First Murder Charges

At the hospital, MacDonald was treated for wounds to his head, as well as various cuts and bruises to his shoulders, chest, hand, and fingers. He also sustained several puncture wounds around his heart, including one that punctured his lung, causing it to collapse. MacDonald remained hospitalized for a week, leaving only to attend the funerals of his wife and daughters. MacDonald was released from the hospital on February 25, 1970.

On April 6, 1970, MacDonald underwent an extensive interrogation by CID investigators, who concluded that MacDonald's injuries were superficial and self-inflicted. They believed that his story about intruders was a fabrication created as a coverup and that MacDonald himself was responsible for the murders. On May 1, 1970, Captain Jeffrey MacDonald was formally charged by the U.S. Army for the murder of his family.

Five months later, however, Colonel Warren Rock, the presiding officer over the Article 32 hearing, recommended that the charges be dropped, citing insufficient evidence to indict. MacDonald's defense civilian defense attorney Bernard L. Segal had argued that the CID botched their jobs at the crime scene, losing or compromising valuable evidence. He also floated a credible theory of alternative suspects, claiming to have found Helena Stoeckley, "the woman in the floppy hat," and her boyfriend, a drug-using army veteran named Greg Mitchell, as well as witnesses who claimed Stoeckley had confessed to her involvement in the murders.

After a five-month inquisition, MacDonald was released and received an honorable discharge in December. By July 1971 he was in living in Long Beach, California, and working at the St. Mary Medical Center.

Colette's Parents Turn Against MacDonald

Initially, Colette's mother and stepfather, Mildred and Freddie Kassab, fully supported MacDonald, believing him innocent. Freddie Kassab testified for MacDonald at his Article 32 hearing. But all that changed when they reportedly received a disturbing phone call from MacDonald in November 1970, during which he claimed to have hunted down and killed one of the intruders. While MacDonald explained away the call as an attempt to get an obsessive Freddie Kassab to let go of the investigation, the revenge story made the Kassabs uneasy.

Their suspicions were stoked by several media appearances MacDonald made, including one on "The Dick Cavett Show" in which he showed no signs of grief or outrage over the murders of his family. Instead, MacDonald spoke angrily of the Army's mishandling of the case, going so far as to accuse CID investigators of lying, covering up evidence, and scapegoating him for their bungling. MacDonald's behavior and what they deemed arrogant demeanor led the Kassabs to think that MacDonald might have actually murdered their daughter and grandchildren after all. After reading a full transcript of MacDonald's Article 32 hearing, they were convinced.

Believing MacDonald to be guilty, In 1971, Freddie Kassab and CID investigators returned to the crime scene, where they attempted to recreate the events of the killings as described by MacDonald, only to arrive at the conclusion that his account was totally implausible. Concerned that MacDonald was going to get away with murder, in April of 1974 the aging Kassabs filed a citizen's complaint against their former son-in-law.

In August, a grand jury convened to hear the case in Raleigh, North Carolina. MacDonald waived his rights and appeared as the first witness. In 1975, MacDonald was indicted on one count of first-degree murder in the death of one of his daughters, and two counts of second-degree murder for the deaths of his wife and second child.

While MacDonald awaited trial, he was released on $100,000 bail. During this time, his lawyers appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the charges on the grounds that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. The decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in on May 1, 1978, and MacDonald was remanded for trial.

The Trial and the Verdict

The trial opened on July 16, 1979, in Federal Court in Raleigh, North Carolina with Judge Franklin Dupree presiding (the same judge who’d heard Grand Jury arguments five years before). The prosecution entered into evidence a 1970 Esquire magazine found at the crime scene. The issue featured an article on the Manson family murders, which they argued had given MacDonald the blueprint for his so-called “hippie” murder scenario.

The prosecution also called an FBI lab technician whose testimony regarding physical evidence from the stabbings wholly contradicted the events as described by MacDonald. In Helena Stoeckley’s testimony, she claimed never to have been inside the MacDonald’s home. When the defense attempted to call rebuttal witnesses to refute her assertions, they were denied by Judge Dupree.

MacDonald took the stand in his own defense but despite a lack of motive, he was unable to come up with a convincing argument to disprove the prosecution’s theory of the murders. On August 26, 1979, he was convicted of second-degree murder for the deaths of Collette and Kimberly, and first-degree murder of Kristen. 

The Appeals

On July 29, 1980, a panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned MacDonald’s conviction, again as a violation of his 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial. In August, he was released on $100,000 bail. MacDonald returned to his job as the Head of Emergency Medicine at the Long Beach Medical Center. When the case was heard once again in December, the 4th Circuit upheld their earlier decision but the U.S. government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oral arguments in the case took place in December 1981. On March 31, 1982, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that MacDonald’s right to a speedy trial had not been violated. He was sent back to prison.

Subsequent appeals to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court have been denied. A 2014 appeal was based on DNA testing of hairs found on Collette’s leg and hands that didn’t match any member of the MacDonald family. It was denied in December of 2018.

MacDonald continues to maintain his innocence. He was originally eligible for parole in 1990 but refused to consider it because he says it would have been an admission of guilt. He’s since remarried and is next eligible for parole in May 2020. 

Sources

  • The MacDonald Case Website.
  • McGinnis, Joe, "FatalVision." New American Library, August 1983
  • Lavois, Denise. “‘Fatal Vision’ Doctor Denied New Trial in Family Triple Murder.” Associated Press/Army Times. December 21, 2018
  • Balestrieri, Steve. “Jeffrey MacDonald Stands Trial For His Wife and Daughters Murders in 1979.” Special Operations. July 17, 2018