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.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Click here for your free copy of today's Charlotte Observer

Want to see today’s printed newspaper? Do that here this week -- for free.

Through Friday, we are offering our popular e-edition of the Charlotte Observer at no charge. Get it on your computer, iPad or smartphone.

PC users go to:
Mobile users go to

IPad users download our iPad app at the Apple Store.

The e-edition looks exactly like the printed Observer, only it arrives digitally. I read the Observer this way on an iPad three or four times a week. It’s very user-friendly. We’ve arranged for you to link to it easily from the home page of

Why the free offer now? Because tighter security measures for the Democratic National Convention could, at times, delay the delivery of the printed Observer.

Our offices are within blocks of the convention. That’s great for news coverage. But we’ve also learned that our delivery trucks will be slowed by security checkpoints next Tuesday through Friday. As a result, some papers may arrive later than usual those days.

We apologize for this inconvenience. As a help, we are offering all readers free access to our printed newspaper, via the Web.

The free access remains in effect daily through Friday. (To report e-edition problems, please call 704-358-5980.)

When you link to the e-edition, you will read the latest possible edition of the newspaper. This could be especially helpful during DNC week because much of the convention will unfold after our early edition deadlines.

So, if either the paper or the news is late, we hope this helps.