Prisoner in Oregon wins DNA testing

Ground rules are set for tests that could clear former Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald of killing his wife and daughters

Wednesday March 24, 1999


By Gary D. Robertson of The Associated Press

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- A federal judge set ground rules Tuesday for DNA testing that defense attorneys believe could erase former Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald's convictions for killing his wife and daughters.

U.S. District Court Judge James Fox told lawyers for MacDonald and the government that they had two weeks to pick an independent lab able to perform the tests. The lab also will determine which samples of blood, hair and fibers saved from the killing scene could spare a sample to be tested.

Fox refused requests by Barry Scheck, MacDonald's lawyer, to allow the defense team's representatives to oversee the unsealing of evidence stored at the FBI's crime lab in Washington, D.C.

MacDonald, 55, is serving three life sentences at a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., for killing his wife, Colette, and daughters Kimberly and Kristen on Feb. 17, 1970, at Fort Bragg.

The former physician claimed a band of drug-crazed hippies attacked his family, chanting "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs." The case inspired the book "Fatal Vision" and a television film based on it.

The defense is trying to show that intruders were in MacDonald's home around the time of the slayings.

"We think he's innocent. Science will speak," said Andrew Good, a Boston defense attorney who is working for MacDonald without pay.

The judge said the DNA tests also carried risks for the defense, because the results could present new evidence pointing to MacDonald's guilt. That's the expectation of Special Assistant Attorney General Brian Murtagh, who was the government's lead lawyer at the hearing.

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 types as MacDonald and his wife.

Mitochondrial DNA testing, which has identified the remains of missing servicemen and Czar Nicholas' 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.

MacDonald said in a telephone interview from prison Tuesday 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," he 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 Colette MacDonald's hand, MacDonald said.