Criminal Justice

Convicted 'Fatal Vision' doctor loses retrial bid; judge discounts woman's supposed confessions


The former Army doctor convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters in a case chronicled in the book Fatal Vision has lost his latest bid for a retrial.

Senior U.S. District Judge James Fox of Wilmington, North Carolina, ruled against Jeffrey MacDonald, 70, last Thursday, report the Associated Press, the News & Observer, the Fayetteville Observer and an FBI press release. Fox said MacDonald failed to establish during a 2012 hearing that a reasonable juror would not have convicted him.

MacDonald, convicted in 1979, has always maintained his innocence. He claimed that four intruders chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” had stabbed him and knocked him unconscious. He claims he found his family members dead after he awakened. One of the intruders, he said, was a woman who had long blond hair, and wore a floppy hat and boots.

In a federal hearing in 2012, lawyers for MacDonald presented statements by a U.S. marshal that prosecutors pressured a witness, Helena Stoeckley, to lie about the case. Stoeckley initially said she and others had gone to MacDonald’s home on the night of the murders to acquire drugs, but she changed her story after the prosecutor told her she would be charged with murder, the marshal claimed. Neither the marshal nor Stoeckley are still alive.

At MacDonald’s initial trial, Stoeckley testified she didn’t take part in the murders and she couldn’t remember anything on the night in question because she had taken so many drugs. Prosecutors contended that MacDonald had worn latex gloves found near the kitchen sink while murdering his family and used the gloves to write “pig” on the master bedroom headboard while staging the crime scene.

MacDonald had claimed he struggled with the intruders in the living room, but there were no threads, yarns, splinters, or blood found there, except for blood on a magazine containing an article on the Manson murders. And there was no evidence that drugs had been stolen during the crime.

At the 2012 hearing, Stoeckley’s lawyer during the initial trial, Jerry Leonard, testified after a court ruling that the attorney-client privilege could be waived. Leonard testified that Stoeckley initially told him she didn’t remember anything the night of the murders. Later that day, Leonard said, Stoeckley told him she was present during the murders but did not participate. She said she was in a cult associated with the devil, and one of its members wanted to confront MacDonald because he recommended heroin users in an Army drug treatment program for court marshal or discharge. Leonard said he advised Stoeckley to assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

DNA evidence introduced at the 2012 hearing showed that three hairs at the crime scene did not come from the MacDonalds, Stoeckley, another rumored suspect or other known sources. Several hairs came from Jeffrey MacDonald.

Fox was unpersuaded by the DNA and new Stoeckley evidence. “None of the new evidence, considered against the whole panoply of evidence that MacDonald has marshaled over the past forty-plus years as well as the evidence presented at trial, would preclude a reasonable juror from finding him guilty,” Fox said.

None of the three hairs from an unknown person had been forcibly removed during a struggle, and none were bloody, Fox said. The hairs could have been “mere artifacts or debris, and not indicative of intruders, ” he wrote.

Fox also noted inconsistencies in statements by the U.S. marshal and other evidence, including details about where he picked up Stoeckley, whether he took her to jail or a hotel, and what she told prosecutors. “Attributing these major inconsistencies to fading memories is extraordinarily difficult,” Fox wrote, “Rather, it is more likely that these details are fabrications or confused memories.”

Fox noted that the prosecutor Stoeckley spoke with admittedly engaged in unrelated fraudulent acts and later lost his license to practice law. But Fox said the U.S. marshal was no more credible, given that he likely submitted a fraudulent court document in his divorce proceeding stating that he could no longer live with his wife, even as the couple remained together.

Fox also found Leonard’s testimony about where and when he spoke with Stoeckley was contradicted by other evidence. “Given Leonard’s seemingly poor memory about the events of August 1979,” Fox wrote, “the court finds it entirely plausible that he is ‘remembering’ information he learned at a later date. In sum, the court respectfully finds that Leonard’s testimony is not likely credible nor probably reliable.”

Even if Stoeckley did confess to her lawyer, the marshal and her mother, Fox said, her statements about the murders were “all over the lot” and were not reliable. He noted she abused drugs and then alcohol, and the trial judge who observed her said her brain was “scrambled” like an egg.

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