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Courtroom Developments in the “Fatal Vision” Case

Alex Constantine - October 17, 2012

This house, located at 544 Castle Drive on Fort Bragg, N.C., is the residence where Jeffrey MacDonald lived with his family in this photo taken Feb. 15, 2000. MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters were murdered in 1970, and MacDonald was convicted of the crimes. On Monday MacDonald was scheduled to appear in federal court in Wilmington, N.C., for a hearing about new evidence in the case.  (AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, Brian Thorpe, File)

Ex-Green Beret in court in ‘Fatal Vision’ case

 The Morning Sun  (Central MI), September 17, 2012

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Jeffrey MacDonald began another bid Monday to prove his innocence more than three decades after the former Green Beret was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and their two daughters.

MacDonald’s hearing on whether he gets a new trial started with his attorney arguing that jurors would have found him not guilty in 1979 if they could have considered new DNA evidence and witness testimony.

MacDonald, 68, has never wavered from his claim that he didn’t kill his wife, Colette, and their two daughters, 5-year-old Kimberley and 2-year-old Kristen. He has maintained that he awoke on their sofa in their home at Fort Bragg in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1970, as they were being attacked by three men and a woman.

The crime became the basis of Joe McGinniss’ best-selling book “Fatal Vision” and a made-for-TV drama.

At the hearing Monday, prosecutors focused on Helena Stoeckley, who had told various people she was in the MacDonald home when the family was killed, but testified during McDonald’s trial that she didn’t remember where she was that night.

Wade Smith, one of MacDonald’s trial attorneys, said Monday that during defense interviews on Aug. 16, 1979, Stoeckley never said anything in his presence that helped prove MacDonald’s innocence.

“I was absolutely devoted to the case and upheld my role as counsel,” Smith said just before the hearing broke for lunch. “I’m still devoted to the case. But I did not hear Helena Stoeckley say useful things for us.”


Witness: Cult members committed "Fatal Vision" murders

By Shannon Carnahan

CNN Justice, September 25, 2012

 fatal vision - Courtroom Developments in the "Fatal Vision" CaseA lawyer took the stand Monday in the hearing for Jeffrey MacDonald, the North Carolina man convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1970. Jerry Leonard was the attorney for the late Helena Stoeckley, a woman who at one point claimed to have been in the MacDonald apartment the night of the murders. Leonard testified that she told him the cult members committed the murders.

WRAL reports, Leonard testified that Stoeckley, who died in 1983, told him she was a witch in a cult. She said the cult members decided to go to the MacDonald home to confront him because they were heroin users and they thought his drug treatment program discriminated against heroin users.

Stoeckley said they went to the house and things got out of control, but she said she had no part in the murders.

Prosecutors alleged MacDonald, who was 26 at the time, brutally stabbed his family to death with two paring knives and an ice pick and beat them with a piece of wood in their apartment on Feb. 17, 1970. MacDonald claimed four drug-crazed hippies, who were chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” murdered his family, stabbed him and left him for dead. He is seeking a new trial, because DNA technology didn’t exist during his original trial.


Couple: In drunken confession, man said he murdered MacDonalds

Griffins of Charlotte say electrician sobbed out confession 30 years ago

By Michael Gordon
The Charlotte Observer, September 20, 2012

1auexh Em 1381 - Courtroom Developments in the "Fatal Vision" CaseJohn and Chris Griffin at their south Charlotte home. The couple says they hired Greg Mitchell to do some electrical work at their Lake Wylie home in the early 1980s. While drinking at their home, he confessed to killing the MacDonald family in 1970.

A Charlotte man who has long been an alternative suspect in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case confessed to the slaughter of MacDonald’s family some 30 years ago, a local couple say.

Chris and John Griffin, who lived in a house on Lake Wylie at the time, say Greg Mitchell made his drunken admission a year or two after MacDonald’s 1979 conviction for the gruesome stabbing and beating deaths of his pregnant wife and two young daughters.

MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain and Ivy League-educated physician, is back in a North Carolina federal court this week, asking for a new trial.

For 42 years, he has blamed the Feb. 17, 1970, massacre on four intruders – three men and a woman – who broke into the MacDonalds’ apartment at Fort Bragg and also beat and stabbed him. MacDonald has said the woman likely was Helena Stoeckley, Mitchell’s girlfriend at the time and a focal point of this week’s hearing.

A new book on the crime focuses in part on Mitchell and Stoeckley’s possible role.

On a Saturday night three decades ago, Mitchell, a Vietnam veteran and unlicensed electrician, sorrowfully confessed to the killings, the Griffins said this week.

So powerful were Mitchell’s emotions that Chris Griffin says she believes he was telling the truth, despite prosecutors’ contentions that he was not involved.

“We witnessed the rawest kind of sorrow and regret and suffering,” she said. “I have never seen anything like that in a human being.

“He did it. I believe that.”

Not reported before

The Griffins’ account has never before been published or entered into the voluminous MacDonald case file.

It has no legal standing and is one more piece of uncorroborated information in a case that spawned a generation of conspiracy theories and investigative dead ends.

Still, in a 40-year-old legal marathon – in which more and more of the original witnesses and key figures have died – their account gives lawyers on both sides information to consider from live sources.

Wade Smith, a member of MacDonald’s original defense team, called the Griffins’ account “very interesting and important information that somewhere down the line could make a difference.”

Don Connelly, the public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office handling the case, said the office had no comment on the new information.

MacDonald’s lead defense attorney, Gordon Widenhouse, could not be reached for comment.

The Griffins said they called the Observer this week after reading stories in Sunday’s paper on the new MacDonald hearing in Wilmington.

“We thought, you know, that we should tell somebody,” Chris Griffin, now 70, said Tuesday at her south Charlotte home. “We had tried before. Apparently they don’t want to hear it.”

According to records, Mitchell moved to Charlotte in 1972 after his marriage to his wife, Pat. He lived in Charlotte for most of the next 10 years before his death at age 31 on June 3, 1982, at the University of Virginia Hospital. The cause: cardiac arrest related to an alcohol-damaged liver. He’s buried in Sharon Memorial Park in Charlotte.

In 1971, Mitchell passed an Army polygraph test indicating he had no connection to the MacDonald murders.

But in his final years, Mitchell told Charlotte friends several times that he had done something terrible in his past.

In a 1984 FBI affidavit, his widow, Pat Mitchell, then living on Eastway Drive, said her husband never talked about the MacDonald case except to say he had been interviewed about it by the FBI.

Three years before that interview, a drunken Greg Mitchell talked about the killings – to virtual strangers.

How Griffins, Mitchell met

The Griffins say they met Greg Mitchell in the summer of  1980 or 1981. John had started a company that put computer systems in hotels. To handle a larger home computer, John needed to upgrade the wiring at the couple’s lakefront house.

Their carpenter recommended Mitchell. When Mitchell came to check out the job, the Griffins say he made an unusual offer: He would give them a really good deal, if they would allow him and his crew to hang out at the home after the job was finished to drink and enjoy the lake.

Despite having children in the house at the time, the Griffins agreed. Looking back, they say they acted brashly to save a little money.

On his next visit to the house, Mitchell and his crew completed the work – an excellent job, John Griffin recalls.

Then they drank heavily.

Mitchell liked to talk – about his tours in Vietnam, about allegedly being doused with Agent Orange.

Gradually, John Griffin, now 68, says he had begun to believe that Mitchell was “a whacko. His eyes were wild.”

Later on, Chris Griffin said she told Mitchell he had to leave and wasn’t invited back, that she didn’t want her kids around that much drinking.

Besides, the couple believed their hospitality had paid the electrician’s invoice in full.

Instead, Mitchell asked to visit once more. He promised he would curb his drinking and he would bring steaks for dinner.

Telling the story this week in her den, Chris Griffin turned to her husband. “Why did we let him come back?” she asked.

Mitchell’s final visit came a week later. He brought two friends and the steaks, but he drank harder.

A sobbing confession

At one point, Mitchell picked up the Griffins’ phone, saying he wanted to invite Helena Stoeckley, whom he said was living in Gastonia at the time.

Stoeckley had been questioned in the 1970s in connection with the killings. This week, her brother testified in Wilmington that she had said she was in the MacDonald home on the night of the murders. She died in 1983.

But that night at the lake house, Mitchell didn’t reach her. The Griffins say they didn’t recognize her name.

By evening, Mitchell had drunk himself off his feet, “stumbled over our bar,” as Chris described it. He had grown increasingly depressed. He heaved with sobs.

He told Chris that he was dying from Agent Orange exposure and that there was something in his past so terrible that he was going straight to hell.

In all, Chris Griffin, nursing a Scotch and water that night, says she spent more than an hour with Mitchell at her bar, astounded at his misery.

“I mean, I really thought I was going to have to call an ambulance and have him put up somewhere,” she said. “I felt sorry for him, but he was scary at the same time.”

Eventually, she said she coaxed the distraught and drunken Mitchell toward a confession.

“You know about the MacDonald murders?” he asked her. “I’m the one who did it.”

The sobbing resumed, she said, with Mitchell wailing about the MacDonald daughters, who were 2 and 5 when they died.

“The part that got me was he was so remorseful, body language, everything was just, ‘I did it. I did it,’ ” she said.

“I think he wanted to talk. He may have wanted us to turn him in.”

The Griffins didn’t try to tell anybody for almost a year. “We were scared,” Chris said. “If we called somebody, he might come back and get us. Later, we tried to call, and couldn’t find anybody to listen.”

After reading about Mitchell’s death in June 1982, they said they felt safe to share what they’d heard.

They tried to contact celebrity defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, they said. Later, they called Joe McGinniss, whose 1983 book “Fatal Vision” concluded that MacDonald had killed his family.

John Griffin said MacDonald deserves a new trial.

“It’s a crying shame that a man has spent 42 years in jail for something he didn’t do,” he said.

Judge vows leeway in MacDonald’s bid for new trial

Testimony begins in hearing of new data on trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of triple murder in 1979

By Anne Blythe     
The News and Observer, September 16, 2012

TSv57 Em 74 - Courtroom Developments in the "Fatal Vision" CaseAuthor Errol Morris (center) , an Oscar-winning documentarian whose "A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald," was published this month by The Penguin Press leaves the Federal Courthouse in Wilmington, N.C. Monday Sept. 17, 2012. MacDonald, a former Fort Bragg Army officers and doctor, was convicted in 1979 of murdering his wife and two young daughters in 1970.   The hearing could determine whether MacDonald gets a new trial decades after he was convicted of killing his family.   

WILMINGTON — Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret captain and doctor convicted 32 years ago of slaughtering his family, shuffled into a federal courtroom in this historic port city on Monday, hoping to win a brighter future by revisiting a notorious past.

The 68-year-old federal inmate, described alternately as an exploitive psychopath and a hapless victim of a gross injustice, has maintained for four decades that intruders bludgeoned his pregnant wife and two young daughters to death on Feb. 17, 1970.

His contentions have taken him on a tortuous legal journey that brought him back to North Carolina this week to a grand courtroom overlooking the Cape Fear River.

Author Errol Morris (center), an Oscar-winning documentarian whose "A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald," was published this month by The Penguin Press leaves the Federal Courthouse in Wilmington, N.C. Monday Sept. 17, 2012. MacDonald, a former Fort Bragg Army officers and doctor, was convicted in 1979 of murdering his wife and two young daughters in 1970.   The hearing could determine whether MacDonald gets a new trial decades after he was convicted of killing his family.

MacDonald, dressed in a drab tan uniform from the New Hanover County jail, settled into a chair at the defense table, his movement confined by the shackles on his legs and the tan shower shoes on his feet. Over the years, his hair has grayed and thinned, and the frailty of age has begun to show on the man who was described as handsome and alluring at the 1979 trial that has generated several best-sellers, a top-rated TV miniseries and strong camps of opinion.

Though the hearing in Wilmington is not a retrial, it ultimately could conclude with U.S. District Judge James Fox ordering a new trial, vacating the conviction or ruling that all the evidence would not have led a reasonable jury to a different conclusion from the one that has been unsuccessfully challenged many times in the ensuing 32 years.

The hearing was scheduled after the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals kicked the matter back to the trial court, ordering that new DNA evidence be considered in the broader context of statements made since the trial from a retired U.S. marshal and the mother of a heroin addict.

“The evidence supporting these claims, in light of the evidence as a whole, will compellingly demonstrate reasonable doubt as to MacDonald’s guilt,” said Gordon Widenhouse, a new member of MacDonald’s defense team. “No reasonable juror,” he said, would find MacDonald guilty.

Prosecutor John Bruce, though, contended otherwise.

Fox told the defense team and prosecutors that he planned to allow broad leeway on what evidence could be presented.

“We don’t want to be back here in 42 years doing this again,” he said.

Post-trial disclosures

Wade Smith, a Raleigh lawyer, was on the witness stand much of Monday, offering details from conversations of which he is the only survivor.

Smith, who was a member of the MacDonald defense team at his 1979 trial in Raleigh, recounted conversations with Jimmy Britt, who came to him in 2005 as a retired U.S. marshal, wanting to get something off his chest.

Britt, in a series of statements that Bruce picked apart in cross-examination, claimed Helena Stoeckley, a known drug-abuser seen near the MacDonald home near the time of the murders, told him during a car ride from South Carolina in 1979 that she had been inside the home when the killings happened.

Britt also told Smith that he heard Stoeckley offer the same details to the lead prosecutor shortly before she was to testify.

Britt claimed Jim Blackburn, the federal prosecutor who later was disbarred after his own criminal troubles, threatened to charge Stoeckley with first-degree murder if she testified to such an account.

Though Britt came forward more than 25 years after the trial’s conclusion, Smith said the retired marshal’s words were significant.

The defense theory throughout the trial was that intruders repeatedly stabbed and bludgeoned a pregnant Colette MacDonald and the two daughters, Kimberly 5, and Kristen, 2, that she had with the defendant.

Smith said Britt told him he waited a quarter-century to tell his story because he did not want to appear disloyal to law enforcement by undermining the prosecution’s 1979 case.

“He sort of unloaded his soul,” Smith testified.

Accounts differ

But Bruce went over Britt’s many statements, showing many inconsistencies. One example, Bruce said, was when the retired marshal contended in one statement that he picked Stoeckley up in Charleston, S.C., to transport her to the trial; while in another statement he said he had picked her up in Greenville, S.C.

The defense contends that Stoeckley, who died in 1983, was the mysterious “woman in a floppy hat” who MacDonald said was with three other intruders who burst into his house, stabbed and beat him unconscious, then killed his family.

Stoeckley provided many accounts of her whereabouts that rainy February night when emergency workers rushed to the MacDonald house.

Her mother provided a sworn statement to the defense team several years before her death, saying her daughter told her on several occasions that she was inside the Fort Bragg apartment when her boyfriend and another man committed the murders.

MacDonald’s testimony

MacDonald told investigators that one intruder chanted “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs,” details that brought comparisons to the Charles Manson cult killings in California which had occurred six months earlier.

Police found the word “pig’’ scrawled in blood on a headboard in MacDonald’s home; the same word was written in blood at a murder site in the Manson case.

Prosecutors contend that MacDonald concocted the scenario after reading an account of the Manson murders in an Esquire magazine recovered from the crime scene.

Mary Wood Britt, a former wife of the now-deceased U.S. marshal, took the stand late in the afternoon and described her husband’s unease with the MacDonald case at the time of the trial.

She also recounted a conversation she had with Britt after seeing the TV miniseries “Fatal Vision,” based on the Joe McGinniss book of the same name.

According to his ex-wife, Britt said McGinniss’ account, which ultimately concluded that MacDonald committed the murders, contained inaccuracies.

A reunion of sorts

The courtroom on the second floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Wilmington offered a reunion of sorts for many followers of MacDonald’s life and predicament.

Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning documentarian whose newly published book on the matter has renewed old debate, filled a notebook with observations as he watched from the courtroom gallery.

Kathryn MacDonald, who married McDonald in federal prison in 2002, watched the morning proceedings, exchanging glances and short comments with her husband as he was ushered into and out of the courtroom.

Mary Britt is expected to return to the witness stand Tuesday morning.


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