Crime & Courts

Federal judge upholds Jeffrey MacDonald murder conviction; his attorney talks about appeal

Jeffrey MacDonald was disappointed, but not surprised, by a federal judge’s ruling that upholds the murder conviction that has imprisoned the former Army doctor for three decades.

Gordon Widenhouse, the Chapel Hill attorney representing MacDonald in his latest quest for freedom, on Friday recounted the phone call he had with his client after Judge James C. Fox’s ruling late Thursday.

“Dr. MacDonald has not seen the order yet,” Widenhouse said. “I will mail it to him. He knows what it says. My gut reaction is we’ll appeal.”

MacDonald, 70 now and housed in a medium-security federal prison in Cumberland, Md., has maintained since 1970 that he did not kill his pregnant wife, Colette, and two daughters – Kimberly, age 4, and Kristen, age 2 – in the Fort Bragg apartment where they lived.

Almost 23 months after a 2012 hearing in Wilmington in which DNA evidence and statements about key witnesses were presented to him, Fox said Thursday that he had not been persuaded to overturn the verdict.

The case – which has inspired several best-selling books, countless articles and the hit “Fatal Vision” TV miniseries – has outlasted many of the key witnesses and seen the graying of others.

It has sparked strong camps of opinion.

Some contend that the Princeton-educated MacDonald is an exploitative psychopath who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, as the sentence handed to him specifies.

Others argue just as vehemently that MacDonald is a victim of a gross miscarriage of justice who would have abandoned his quest for freedom long ago if there was not something to his claims of innocence.

The 2012 hearing in front of Fox was to consider what the defense contended were new claims about DNA evidence. They also presented statements made by a former marshal and by family members of a drug-addled woman spotted by law enforcement officers near the murder scene.

The late Franklin Dupree was the judge during the 1979 trial and for many of MacDonald’s post-trial proceedings. But Dupree died in 1995, and Fox, an octogenarian who assumed semi-retirement status in 2001, found himself in an unusual position when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the MacDonald case back to his courtroom.

In 2011, the federal appeals court reversed a Fox ruling in the MacDonald case, telling the judge he needed to consider claims about new DNA evidence in the context of all the evidence. The appeals court did not elaborate on the meaning of “all the evidence.”

Fox told MacDonald and the attorneys at the start of the 2012 hearing that he was going to allow great leeway on what evidence could be presented.

In a 169-page order that recaps the case and highlights chapters of its tortuous legal journey, Fox said MacDonald’s attorneys failed to establish that a reasonable juror would not have found the Army captain guilty had they heard the new evidence.

‘Failed to establish’

“After conducting an evidentiary hearing, receiving voluminous supplementary briefing and examining the evidence as a whole, the court finds that MacDonald has failed to establish, by clear and convincing evidence” that a reasonable juror wouldn’t come to the same verdict, Fox’s order states.

“Alternatively, the court finds that MacDonald has failed to adequately establish the merits of any of his claims,” the order says.

Colette MacDonald had 37 stab wounds – some from an ice pick, some from a knife – and was beaten. She had two broken arms and a fractured skull.

The older daughter had a fractured skull and eight to 10 stab wounds. The younger daughter had 27 stab wounds.

Thomas Walker, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina where the case has been tried and heard over the years, was only 5 when MacDonald’s family was murdered on the Army base near Fayetteville.

“Today our thoughts turn toward Colette, Kimberly and Kristen MacDonald whose lives were taken tragically by the defendant in this case,” Walker said in a statement released Friday. “We have and will continue to seek justice on their behalf.”

If MacDonald decides to appeal Fox’s ruling, the 4th Circuit must agree to hear the challenge.


Widenhouse, who represented MacDonald in Wilmington in 2012, said he thought after his initial read of Fox’s order that there were issues to appeal.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed by the result,” Widenhouse said.

In 2012, MacDonald’s defense team submitted statements made by a retired U.S. marshal that a prosecutor pressured a witness to lie on the stand. The retired marshal is dead, as is the witness.

That witness, the woman spotted by law enforcement officers near the scene, gave many different accounts during her troubled life about the MacDonald case. Widenhouse said he thought if a jury had heard that she planned to testify that she was at the scene, they might have come to a different verdict.

“To me, that completely changes the trial,” Widenhouse said.

Fox, though, ruled otherwise, bringing another chapter in MacDonald’s protracted legal case to a close.