FATEFUL JUSTICE

By Mitchell Zuckoff

August 29, 1999, Page A1, National Section

SHERIDAN, Ore. -- Jeffrey MacDonald can barely contain himself. Moments after he enters a cinder block visiting room at the federal prison here, the former Green Beret doctor and convicted triple murderer begins dissecting the long-suppressed evidence he says proves his innocence.

There is the mystery hair clenched in his slaughtered wife's hand, the fingernail scrapings from his slain daughters, the black wool on the club used in the murders, the blond wig hairs, the wax drippings, the confessions of others, and on and on -- a torrent of details bouncing off the oddly cheery yellow walls.

``By keeping the pressure on, and constantly fighting and never saying die, the truth will come out,'' MacDonald boomed. A prison official and a guard seated nearby don't even look up; they've heard it before.

But 29 years after the notorious murders, new hope has emerged for MacDonald. His Boston-based defense team has persuaded a court to order DNA tests on 15 key exhibits, primarily hair samples, that were taken from the crime scene. Most were discovered, long after his conviction, by MacDonald's defenders poring over prosecutors' records. The DNA tests are expected to begin within two weeks, and results are expected by October.

Whatever the outcome, MacDonald knows he is challenging more than his 1979 guilty verdicts in the murders of his pregnant wife and their two daughters. He also is fighting the devastating public image created by ``Fatal Vision,'' the 1983 bestseller that portrayed him as a narcissistic hedonist driven mad by domestic drudgery and diet pills. A television miniseries also made indelible the impression of a psychotic doctor stabbing and clubbing his family, then blaming it on drug-crazed hippies.

By all accounts, the DNA tests are MacDonald's last best chance for freedom and, perhaps, a measure of public redemption.

``At some point somebody is going to have to face the reality, which is that Jeffrey MacDonald is a crime victim, not a crime perpetrator,'' said Boston lawyer Andrew Good, who has defended MacDonald without pay for the past decade along with his partner Harvey Silverglate, an acquaintance of MacDonald's from Princeton University, and their associate, Phil Cormier. The team also includes Barry Scheck, an expert on DNA evidence who helped defend O.J. Simpson.

MacDonald and his lawyers expect the test results -- barring what they call an ongoing pattern of government treachery -- will support MacDonald's claim that murderous strangers, including a woman named Helena Stoeckley, left behind telltale traces never seen by the jury that convicted him. And that, they hope, will persuade a court to allow the introduction of not just the DNA results but also a broad assortment of other exculpatory evidence they say was withheld from MacDonald's trial lawyers.

``We're at the point in 1999 where I am literally at my last gasp, and it hinges on this sort of magical new three-letter term, DNA,'' MacDonald said. ``What I hope and pray for is enough findings on the DNA that the court door gets opened for a hearing. Then all the evidence that I've been talking about, the stuff that puts Helena Stoeckley and her crowd in that house, committing those murders, all comes to light.''

Justice Department officials have maintained that MacDonald is a guilty man properly serving three life terms. Department lawyers refused to discuss the DNA testing, MacDonald's claims about Stoeckley, who died in 1983, or allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

``The Justice Department has nothing to say about Jeffrey MacDonald,'' said spokesman John Russell. Federal attorney Brian Murtagh, who coprosecuted the case and has spent two decades defending his work, also declined to comment.

At issue in the DNA tests, and ultimately the crux of the case, is who was present at 544 Castle Drive on the Fort Bragg, N.C., Army base in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1970.

To the government, the answer is as simple as it is chilling. From the start, Army investigators and federal prosecutors have maintained there was clear evidence that MacDonald acted alone, savagely murdering his wife Colette, 26, and their daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2.

Either in a failed suicide attempt or merely to deflect blame, prosecutors said, MacDonald stabbed himself in the side, collapsing a lung, and inflicted other nonlethal injuries on himself, then trashed the apartment to make it appear he had battled with intruders.

The jury agreed, as did millions who read ``Fatal Vision'' by Joe McGinniss or saw a televison movie based on the book.

From the start, and to this day, MacDonald told a far different story, no less chilling but more complicated.

MacDonald said Colette went to sleep before him that night, and when he joined her he found their daughter, Kristen, already had crawled in and wet the bed. He said he carried the sleeping toddler to her bed, then went to the living room and fell asleep on the sofa. He said he awoke to the screams of his wife and older daughter and found three men, two white and one black, standing over him. He rose to fight, but they cut and stabbed him, then beat him unconscious, he said.

Before he blacked out, MacDonald said, he saw a woman wearing what appeared to be a blond wig and a floppy hat. Carrying a flickering light, possibly a candle, she chanted, ``Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs,'' he said.

Later, suspicion would mount among MacDonald's supporters that the woman was Stoeckley, a drug informant for Army and civilian authorities who gave several partial confessions, though at other times said her memory was clouded by drugs. To the day she died, she was never able to account for her whereabouts at the time of the murders.

Significantly, in the eyes of MacDonald and his defenders, Stoeckley acknowledged owning a blond wig, which she said she burned after the murders. Unknown to MacDonald's defense team until a decade after the trial, investigators had found an unidentified hairbrush at the murder scene containing blond synthetic wig hairs. Colette MacDonald did not own such a wig.

In the aftermath of the murders, official suspicion fell almost immediately upon MacDonald, who at the time was an Army captain. But an Army colonel cleared him after a six-week hearing.

Nevertheless, federal prosecutors picked up the case, and nine years after the murders, MacDonald was convicted. For the past 20 years, he has been behind bars for all but 18 months, during which he was freed by a finding that he did not receive a speedy trial; that ruling was overturned and he was returned to prison.

Now 55, his blond hair has turned a soft gray, his hazel eyes are clear and lively, and his expressive face is still handsome. He retains the charisma his critics say accounts for much of his support. In a different setting, inmate 00131-177 could easily pass for the distinguished doctor he once was.

He retains a military bearing, accented by a well-pressed khaki prison uniform. On his feet are Adidas running shoes. Called ``Doc'' by fellow inmates at this campus-like, medium-security prison 50 miles southwest of Portland, MacDonald has made few concessions to age, although his slight paunch resists a daily regimen of running and weight lifting. He also plays first base on a prison softball team, the Dust Devils.

He wakes daily at 5:20 a.m. in cell 233, which he shares with a 42-year-old robber. He works as an orderly, cleaning the offices of prison officials for 16 cents an hour. He meditates regularly and says he still spends an hour or two daily reading medical books and journals, in the event he is freed and can reclaim his license.

MacDonald has a relatively clean prison record, although last year he spent a month in disciplinary segregation -- ``the hole'' -- for giving medical advice to a fellow inmate.

MacDonald says he mostly avoids trouble by following a few strict rules: no gang ties, no booze, or drugs, no homosexual liaisons, no unpaid debts, and no holier-than-thou attitudes.

Although he keeps himself as busy as a caged life allows, what occupies him is working on his case. MacDonald has read thousands of pages of government files and prosecution notes released to him and volunteer investigators under the Freedom of Information Act, and he has an encyclopedic memory of the details. The only mistake he makes is occasionally reversing dates, 1979 for 1997, for instance, but that is understandable: his life has been on hold all that time.

What excites MacDonald most is talking in an uninterrupted stream about dozens of key exhibits and other evidence that, in his narrative, points unequivocally to other killers. He bolsters his case with support from a 1995 book, ``Fatal Justice,'' written by two independent investigators as a compelling repudiation of ``Fatal Vision.''

Among the most explosive evidence not included at the first trial, MacDonald and his lawyers say, is a short brown hair found in Colette MacDonald's left hand. The hair was tested against MacDonald's and found not to be his, but the jury was told it was too small to test. Now cut into four tiny pieces, it will be included in the DNA tests.

MacDonald's defenders speculate it might have come from a man named Greg Mitchell, a boyfriend of Stoeckley's who died in 1982. After his death, friends came forward to say he had confessed to the crimes, although Army officials said he had been cleared during the initial investigation by a polygraph test.

Also intriguing to MacDonald supporters are brown hairs from different sources found under the fingernails of the two girls.

``The point is, if there is hair and it's not from the family or me, and it's not from an investigator who was working over that crime scene, I think the government's case is in serious trouble,'' MacDonald said. ``Believe me, if they had shown in 1970 that brown hair was mine, it would have been their prime piece of evidence. When it wasn't mine, they first lost the hair report, then tried to change it.''

Also on a ``Use of uninitialized value at /data/commerce/bg_archives/newarch.cgi line 725. Use of uninitialized value at /data/commerce/bg_archives/newarch.cgi line 725. No recipient!Top 10'' list of suppressed evidence compiled by Silverglate are black wool fibers found on the murder club and on Colette MacDonald's mouth that matched nothing found in the house. Trial prosecutors characterized the fibers as having come from MacDonald's pajamas, but that assertion was false, and MacDonald partisans suggest they came from the real killers.

Investigators also found fresh wax drippings, seeming to support MacDonald's vision of a candle-holding hippie woman, that did not match any of the candles in the MacDonalds' home. Silverglate and MacDonald also lament what they call the strange disappearance of a piece of skin investigators found under his wife's fingernail.

While MacDonald is difficult to stop when talking about the details of the case, he is reticent about his family, although he chokes up when reciting their birthdays and sheds tears when describing his effort to resuscitate his wife. He also cries while discussing Silverglate's belief in his innocence.

``My most difficult fight was coming to the conclusion that I was OK, that somehow the fact that I wasn't able to get off the couch and defeat the aggressors and save Colette and Kim and Kris, it doesn't mean that I murdered them, which is what the government said it means. But it also doesn't mean, as a lot of people alleged, that I'm a coward.''

If the DNA evidence fails to win MacDonald his freedom, he could apply for parole, although he has promised himself he won't.

``I can't see going into a parole hearing and somehow feign that I'm rehabilitated or remorseful for something I didn't do,'' he said.

``I'm going to stay alive, and I'm going to stay in good shape,'' he said, his eyes wandering toward the barred window behind him.

``I'm going to keep fighting my case. The DNA is very, very important, but if I don't win on DNA this year, I'm going to win on something else, sometime.''