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Memories Conflict at Hearing for Army Doctor Convicted in Long-Ago ‘Fatal Vision’ Murder Case

Posted Sep 24, 2012 3:52 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Still fighting his 1979 conviction for murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters in their Fort Bragg, N.C., home 42 years ago, a former U.S. Army physician who became a household name is once again in the headlines as witnesses testify about evidence and legal counsel in the notorious case.

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, now 68, might have been acquitted in 1979, had he had local North Carolina counsel Wade Smith as his lead attorney rather than Bernard Segal, a now-deceased civil rights lawyer from Philadelphia who talked down to the jury, said attorney Jerry Leonard in a hearing Monday in federal court in Wilmington, N.C. He also said his client at the time, Helena Stoeckley, who was a witness in the 1979 murder case, had at least hypothetically placed herself at the scene in a conversation with him, the News & Observer recounts.

Author Joe McGinniss, who wrote Fatal Vision, a best-selling nonfiction book about the case that became the subject of a television miniseries, similarly portrayed the two defense lawyers when he wrote about the closing arguments at MacDonald's 1979 trial.

However, on the front burner today in the ongoing hearing is not the lawyering in the long-ago trial but whether Stoeckley could have helped MacDonald win an acquittal if she had testified at his trial to one of the various stories she told about her possible presence at the scene of the murders.

A troubled, drug-addicted woman who died in 1983, Stoeckley, according to the McGinniss book, had mental issues and a history of telling wild, self-dramatizing stories. When she testified at the 1979 trial, she said she had nothing to do with the crime scene and was too high on mescaline and heroin to remember what happened that night, the Los Angeles Times' L.A. Now blog reports.

MacDonald's lawyers say Stoeckley was intimidated by the prosecution from telling the truth. And Leonard, whose attempt to assert attorney-client privilege was nixed by U.S. District Judge James Fox, said his then-client, after initially saying she hadn't been at the MacDonald home, later "told me she was at the MacDonald house, but it was not as bad as everyone thought," reports the News & Observer. She had previously been shown crime-scene photos by authorities.

Last week, former prosecutor James Blackburn and former assistant U.S. attorney Jack B. Crawley testified that a now-deceased deputy U.S. marshal who claimed to have heard Blackburn threaten Stoeckley hadn't even been in the room with Crawley and Blackburn when Blackburn talked with Stoeckley, L.A. Now reported. Both also said Blackburn never threatened Stoeckley.

McGinniss, who had been given extraordinary access by MacDonald's defense for the purpose of writing his book, in which McGinniss eventually concluded that MacDonald was guilty, also testified earlier in the hearing. He said Segal had lied to the court when he said in 1979 that Stoeckley had confessed, the Associated Press reports.

"I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but he stood there right in front of the judge making this stuff up," McGinniss said. "If Stoeckley had confessed during the defense interview there would have been jubilation in that room. There would have been high fives. Champagne corks would have been popped. And that didn't happen."

MacDonald, who was at home when his wife and daughters, age 2 and 5, were slain, has insisted through the decades that he is innocent of their murders. He says four intruders, including a woman in a floppy hat, entered the MacDonald home at the Army base, saying "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs." After being stabbed and knocked unconscious, he told authorities, he awakened to discover that his family had been murdered by the intruders.

Prosecutors contend MacDonald staged the crime scene and say his own injuries were self-inflicted.

Additional and related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Documentary Filmmaker Errol Morris Writes About Jeffrey MacDonald Case After His Movie Is Rejected"

Associated Press: "MacDonald goes to court in 'Fatal Vision' case"

Nation Now (Los Angeles Times): "Jeffrey MacDonald case: Prosecutor denies threatening key witness"

San Francisco Chronicle: "Bernard Segal, longtime law school professor, dies"

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