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Law in Popular Culture

4th Circuit Tells Lower Court to Consider DNA in Appeal of ‘Fatal Vision’ Doc

Posted Apr 20, 2011 11:41 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A federal appeals court has directed a lower court to consider DNA evidence and witness statements in an appeal by the Army doctor convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters in a case portrayed in the book Fatal Vision.

Jeffrey MacDonald claims the 1970 murders were committed by four intruders, including a woman in a blond wig who chanted "acid is groovy; kill the pigs." He is claiming actual innocence.

In an opinion issued Tuesday, the Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the lower court was too restrictive when it barred much of MacDonald’s evidence in assessing his innocence claim, according to the opinion (PDF). The News & Observer and the Associated Press have stories.

The lower court had barred DNA and other evidence when it considered a statement by a retired deputy U.S. marshal. The marshal said he heard the lead prosecutor threaten a woman, Helena Stoeckley, with prosecution after she admitted being at MacDonald’s home the night of the murders. Stoeckley initially said she and others had gone there to acquire drugs, but she changed her story after the prosecutor told her she would be charged with murder, the marshal says.

Stoeckley has since died. As a result of the 4th Circuit ruling, the lower court will also consider statements by Stoeckley’s mother and boyfriend, who have also died, that support MacDonald’s version of events. The lower court will also consider DNA evidence showing a hair found under the fingernail of MacDonald’s 5-year-old daughter did not match anyone in the MacDonald family. And the court will consider evidence of synthetic hair found on a brush, evidence submitted in a prior habeas appeal.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, told AP that the ruling is important. "The problem we have in so many innocence cases is all these procedural bars prevent the entire story from getting out in trying to determine if there was a wrongful conviction," Scheck said. "The court is saying you have to consider everything."

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