Saturday, September 15, 2012

My talk with MacDonald during his 1979 trial

I can see how someone coming across the murder trial of former Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald 33 years later would think he was wrongly convicted.

As a reporter who covered the trial, I watched the case build for and against MacDonald, day by day, for seven weeks inside a Raleigh courtroom.

I was a 24-year-old reporter for the Fayetteville Observer, barely a year into my first job as a journalist. My beat was the military, and MacDonald, 35, had been a doctor in the Army’s Special Forces.

Fort Bragg was where I reported most of my stories. It was there, nine years earlier, that MacDonald’s family had been savagely wiped out in one night.

Now, MacDonald stood accused of committing that savagery against his own pregnant wife and two small girls.

As the jury went into deliberations, the press corps quietly took its own poll. A majority said MacDonald would be found guilty.

I voted with the minority.

It wasn’t that I was convinced that MacDonald was innocent. I simply doubted that a jury of 12 people could see what I had seen and unanimously agree he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yet they did. They looked right past nagging details that supported MacDonald’s case and decided that what really mattered was this: He was lying.

A 33-year-old tape of the interview.
On Monday, the case gets another airing in a court in Wilmington. MacDonald’s lawyers say they have fresh evidence and testimony that gives more credence to MacDonald’s version of what happened.

That version goes like this. MacDonald and his family were attacked by two white men, a black man wearing a fatigue jacket and a blonde-haired white woman wearing a floppy hat and carrying what appeared to be a candle. The woman, he said, chanted: “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.”

Journalists tend to hang on to their work when they report memorable stories. For me, the MacDonald trial was that kind of story. When I heard last week about the new hearing, I dragged a plastic tub from a closet and soon was leafing through dozens of articles I filed over that seven-week period.

Reading those yellowed pages, I was reminded how the jury could think the unthinkable.

I also found a cassette tape. On it was my one-on-one interview with MacDonald, conducted while the trial was under way.

I didn’t know this in 1979, but it was remarkable we were talking at all. The government had begun presenting its case. MacDonald decided he could talk because the judge’s gag order covered witnesses, but not the prosecution or defense.

So there we were, sitting in a pizza restaurant during a lunch recess. The rookie reporter asking questions of a defendant who had been honing his story for nearly a decade.

In playing the tape now, I’m reminded of how indignant MacDonald was over the idea of a trial.

Nine years earlier, the Army had investigated MacDonald for the murders and declined to prosecute.

The latest set of prosecutors, he assured me, would present nothing new from that time.

“There is no case,” MacDonald said. “They know there is no case. What they are trying to do is, they are trying to mound up a pile of stuff and make it look like a good investigation was done, and then in a closing argument, unbuttressed with any facts at all, they’re going to misinterpret the witnesses’ words. You watch.”

He heaped special scorn on two people he held principally responsible: His stepfather-in-law, Alfred Kassab, whose complaint with the Justice Department was the basis for re-opening the case; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Murtagh, who helped prepare the case for trial.

I asked again. Are you sure there’s nothing new?

And then he brought it up. The blue pajama top.

MacDonald had worn it the night of the murders. He said a government expert had come up with a model of that shirt, which would be shown during the trial.

“(It’s) something he devised in 1974 that he felt added to the case,” MacDonald said.

He didn’t seem particularly worked up about this model. And showing my inexperience, I didn’t ask him to explain further.

But a few weeks later, its significance showed when the former FBI expert, Paul Stombaugh, took the stand.

Stombaugh said the shirt had 48 ice pick holes in it, more than four times the number of wounds found on MacDonald. None of the holes matched his wounds. But it was possible to fold the shirt in such a way that the holes equaled the 21 ice pick thrusts into the chest of MacDonald’s wife, Colette.

The shirt was found on her chest. MacDonald said he only put it there after regaining consciousness and finding her severely wounded.

But prosecutors asserted that he stabbed his wife with the ice pick through the pajama top to simulate an attack on him.

As the jury deliberated, among the evidence it requested to see again was that blue pajama top, as well as the top Stombaugh used as a model.

Later, jurors said it was part of a patchwork of physical evidence that convinced them MacDonald had made up his story.

Never mind that the initial Army investigation mishandled critical evidence.

Never mind that a neighbor saw three people, one with a candle, walking toward the MacDonald home the night of the murders.

Never mind that the defense worked to implicate a drug addict who owned a floppy hat and blonde wig, and bore an uncanny resemblance to one of MacDonald’s alleged attackers in a police sketch.

Clothing, blood, fibers and wounds all told a different story.

“All the pieces came together,” one juror told a Charlotte Observer reporter also covering the trial. “You couldn’t deny it.”

As long as those pieces stay firmly in place, it’s difficult to imagine MacDonald’s fate changing now.

Clippings of some of the stories Thames wrote in 1979 while covering the Jeffrey MacDonald trial in Raleigh for the Fayetteville Observer.


Anonymous said...

Any chance of linking the cassette tape on the Observer's web site? I would love to hear that interview.

Rick Thames said...

We'll give that some thought. We isolated this excerpt as one interesting segment. The whole interview probably lasted 45 minutes. Of course, as a newspaper reporter, I recorded the interview solely to back up my written notes, never imagining it could become audio someday for something called the Internet. Now, it's not unusual at all for an Observer reporter to include video from an interview. At one point on this tape, you can hear MacDonald and me talking to the waitress, ordering ham and cheese sandwiches!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. My daughter just graduated from law school, and somebody convinced her and many others that McDonald is not guilty.
I was living in Faytettville during this mess, and I think that the Joe McGuinnis book was right on target.

Greg McNair said...

Rick, my observation is that trials are less about real truth and justice and much more about manipulating the facts.

The prosecution wants to bend the truth, by limiting witnesses' testimony with yes/no answers and not allowing them to expound. ("Just answer the question.")

The defense, of course, wants to control testimony and phrase questions to win the case.

If only the real world was like on "Matlock" and "Perry Mason," where the guilty party is usually convicted and the innocent goes free.

We are fortunate today to have DNA analysis, which can make a great difference in achieving justice, as long as the evidence-gathering and the testing are done correctly.

Philip said...

Rick, this is a case of concrete data vs supposition. At trial, the prosecution presented 1,100 evidentiary items and that was only about 60 percent of their case file. All of the SOURCED evidence in this case points to MacDonald as the perp. This includes DNA, blood, fiber, hair, bloody footprints, fabric damage, bloody fabric and non-fabric impressions.

There is also no evidence of Helena Stoeckley's presence at the crime scene. No DNA, no hairs, no fingerprints, nothing. Jeffrey MacDonald is not a tortured innocent. He is a coward, a psychopath, and a convicted mass murderer.