Criminal Justice

4th Circuit Hears 'Fatal Vision' Appeal

A federal appeals court is considering today whether to grant a new trial to a former Army doctor who claims drug-crazed hippies killed his wife and two daughters 40 years ago.

The Fatal Vision book and miniseries were based on the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, who cites new evidence in his quest for a retrial. Oral arguments were scheduled this morning before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, Va., according to the Fayetteville Observer and the Associated Press.

MacDonald is relying on DNA tests and witness affidavits to support his claim of actual innocence. A complication, however, is the death of potential witnesses. One of them is a man who reportedly said his friend, Greg Mitchell, had confessed to the crime, the Fayetteville Observer says. Mitchell died in 1982.

Two other potential witnesses died after the appeals process began, the stories say. Helena Stoeckley’s mother, also named Helena, died early last year after telling lawyers that her daughter had said MacDonald was innocent. Stoeckley died in 1983. The other witness is a former federal marshal who said he heard prosecutors intimidate Stoeckley before the trial, AP says.

Prosecutors argue the statements should not be admitted without an opportunity to hear live testimony. They also claim DNA evidence is not relevant because it doesn’t contradict evidence used to convict MacDonald.

MacDonald’s wife, Kathryn, tells the ABA Journal it’s wrong to say her husband claims drug-crazed hippies committed the crime. She says her husband merely described the assailants, and others characterized them as drug-crazed.

She also points out that her husband had sued the author of Fatal Vision and says he felt the book was inaccurate. The breach-of-contract case ended in a mistrial, the New York Times reported in 1987.

Kathryn MacDonald is a drama teacher, but she obtained a paralegal certificate to work on her husband’s case.

Hat tip: How Appealing.

Updated on March 26 to clarify that the man who died in 1982 is Mitchell and to add comments by Kathryn MacDonald.

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