By Misti C. Lee

March 24, 1999

WILMINGTON -- Nearly 30 years after his pregnant wife and two children were brutally killed in their Fort Bragg home, Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of the murders, is hanging hopes of freedom on new DNA evidence.

U.S. District Judge James Fox of Wilmington on Tuesday granted a request by MacDonald's lawyers that at least 18 items of evidence, including 13 vials of blood and hair - some of it scraped from under the victims' fingernails - be tested for DNA evidence in an independent laboratory. The attorneys, led by Barry Scheck, who helped win an acquittal in O.J. Simpson's murder trial, hope the testing will turn up evidence that could rule out MacDonald as the killer.

MacDonald, 55, a former Green Beret doctor, has maintained he is innocent of killing his pregnant wife, Colette, and daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, in February 1970 at their Fort Bragg home. MacDonald told investigators he was awakened in his living room by a group of drug-crazed hippies chanting, "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs," who attacked him and his family. He was tried in Raleigh in 1979.

Prosecutors said MacDonald murdered his wife in a rage and then killed his daughters to cover it up. They said he based the story of the intruders on the Manson murders.

MacDonald lost an appeal for a new trial in 1997, but was granted a request to do DNA testing, which was not available at the time of his trial.

"We'll see what happens," Boston lawyer Andrew Good said after the hearing. "One step at the time. We don't know if it's the last ditch or not. All we're going to do is use the science to see what we can find out."

Under Tuesday's ruling, both sides were given 14 days to agree on a lab to do the testing. Both sides will be represented during the testing. But the judge stopped short of granting the defense's request for a "special master" to oversee the case.

The remaining evidence may be limited. Prosecutor Brian Murtagh, the special U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina who prosecuted the case and is now a deputy chief in the terrorist and violent crime section with the Department of Justice, said that hairs still remain for sampling, but that blood samples taken during an autopsy for comparison purposes have been used up.

In some cases, the samples are so small that they would be used up by the new testing, which could lead to additional hearings on the matter.

"We're limited by the amount of evidence that was saved, and unfortunately it seems there's not a lot, so we'll do the best with what we can," Scheck said.

During the testing, strands of hair would be subjected to a sonogram-type sound vibration that would clear the hair of any saliva or encrusted blood or other debris.

Mitochondrial DNA testing, which has been used to identify the remains of missing servicemen and Czar Nicholas II's family in Russia, could be helpful in finding a new suspect in the murders on a new national DNA database of convicted felons, Scheck said.

The test results "could come back to some killer or serial killer or could return to some unsolved murder that occurred while Mr. MacDonald was in jail," Scheck said.

A hair found in a bedroom of the MacDonald home has not been previously tested, Murtagh said. The hair was found on top of a bloodstained bed. Tests found the blood was of the same type as MacDonald and his wife.

Still, defense attorneys are hopeful.

MacDonald is serving three life sentences in a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore. In a telephone interview from prison Tuesday with The Associated Press, he said the hearing was an attempt to force the government to produce the exhibits for testing.

"The government's case is predicated on there's no evidence of the presence of outside assailants," MacDonald said. "There were other people in the apartment that night murdering my family."

His defense team is especially eager to test hair he said was found in his wife's hand, MacDonald said.

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