During the trial of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald in Raleigh in the summer of 1979, the jury toured the Fort Bragg apartment where MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters were killed.
MacDonald, charged with three murders, was there. So was Jim Blackburn of Raleigh, the assistant U.S. attorney who was prosecuting him.
Unexpectedly, Blackburn found himself alone with MacDonald in the bedroom where MacDonald’s wife, Collette, had been bludgeoned and stabbed nine years earlier. “I thought at the time how strange it was that the two of us should be there, right where they died,” Blackburn told The News & Observer’s Ginny Carroll a few years later.
MacDonald was convicted a few weeks later of second-degree murder in the deaths of Collette, 26, and Kimberly, 5, and first-degree murder in the death of Kristen, 2. He is serving three life sentences. MacDonald insisted then, and still does today, that a group of hippies entered the apartment, chanted “acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” injured him and killed his family.
Joe McGinniss, the writer who brought MacDonald’s story to the world with his 1983 best-selling book, “Fatal Vision,” died last week at 71. His death narrows a bit more the living cast of characters from that unforgettable trial.
Helena Stoeckley, the drug-addled “woman in the floppy hat” who gave multiple stories and testified in the trial, has been dead for more than 30 years. Gone also is U.S. District Judge Franklin Dupree. So is Carroll, the fine reporter who covered the trial for The N&O.
Yet the case lives on. Appeals have taken it before the U.S. Supreme Court seven times. A hearing was held in U.S. District Court in Wilmington in 2012 to consider new DNA evidence and statements made since the trial from a former U.S. marshal and Stoeckley’s mother (both also have died). The judge has not ruled on the 2012 testimony.
The trial’s remaining central characters are defense attorney Wade Smith of Raleigh, 76; prosecutor Brian Murtagh, 67; MacDonald, 70; and prosecutor Blackburn, 69.
Blackburn and McGinniss started on different sides. McGinniss was a journalist and established author. He was recruited by MacDonald to tell his story, although their agreement was that McGinniss was free to write as he saw fit. McGinniss was part of MacDonald’s entourage during the trial, living with the group at the Kappa Alpha house at N.C. State University.
Blackburn knew who McGinniss was, but they didn’t speak during the trial. “I was terrified of his existence,” Blackburn told me last week. “I knew he was going to treat us as a bunch of Southern bumpkins.”
But by the end of the trial, which showed that the physical evidence didn’t match MacDonald’s story, McGinniss was convinced that MacDonald had killed his wife and children. McGinniss wrote to Blackburn, and Blackburn decided to talk. He also cleared the way for McGinniss to interview Murtagh and Freddy Kassab, Collette MacDonald’s stepfather.
Some thought McGinniss had double-crossed MacDonald. New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm said McGinniss was an example of the reporter as a “kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Blackburn said McGinniss was “personable, a good listener, a good interviewer, absolutely devoted to pursuing a subject to the end.” They became friends, saw each other from time to time. When Blackburn had legal problems – in 1993, he admitted he had stolen $230,000 from his law firm to cover lies he made to clients – McGinniss wrote him supportive letters.
They had breakfast in Wilmington in 2012 before Blackburn was to testify. McGinniss had sent Blackburn an email that said, “You'll do great. The truth is hard to screw up, unlike lies.”
At the hearing, 33 years after the trial, Blackburn and MacDonald were in the same courtroom again. They did not make eye contact.