By Tom Hennessey
November, 1997

For those opposing a new trial for Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the news was not good.

A federal appeals court ruled last month that the former head of St. Mary Medical Center emergency room can seek blood and hair evidence from the government and use it in DNA testing. This raises a possibility, however slight, of a new trial in the (1970) murders of MacDonald's wife and two daughters.

Michael Malone, an FBI expert on hair and fiber analysis, previously said the hair was too old and that there was too little of it for testing. But his testimony in several cases, including MacDonald's, has been since questioned by FBI critics.

Further, a new testing technique has been developed for working with old evidence without destroying it in the process.

The ruling in Richmond, Va., was Macdonald's first legal victory since 1980, when a federal court declared that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated, a ruling overturned by the U. S. Surpreme Court.

The new ruling came just weeks after MacDonald had been denied an earlier bid for a new trial.

"We believe that DNA testing will demonstrate evidence of Jeffrey Macdonald's actual innocence," Philip Cormier, a MacDonald attorney, told the Wall Street Journal, which took up the case this year while
reporting on alleged incompentence in FBI laboratory procedures.

New York attorney Peter Neufeld, a DNA expert, told the Journal the new ruling is significant for Macdonald - and rare for an appellate court. "It's an acknowledgment by the judiciary of the profound and increasingly dispositive role that scientific testing such as DNA can have on proving factual innocence."

MacDonald's lawyers say hair and blood samples never before tested can prove his story that intruders killed his wife and daughters at thier home in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Support in Washington

Meanwhile, MacDonald has garnered a supporter in Congress. Although uncertain if Macdonald is guilty or innocent, Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., believes the one-time doctor should be given a new trial based on faulty FBI crime lab procedures.

A member of the House Judiciary's crime subcommittee, Wexler's interest in Macdonald's case is part of his attack on alleged FBI inefficiency. And in that regard, he has called for a new MacDonald trial; politically, an unpopular thing to do.

"It's no easy to stand up and cast doubt on the conviction of a man who, if guilty, committed the most heinous of crimes," Wexler told the Palm Beach Post last month.

But if Macdonald is innocent, Wexler added, his imprisonment is torment. "If he is not, in fact, guilty - that is the worst hell."

Every mention of MacDonald in this column prompts a flurry of calls from readers adamantly opposed to granting him a new trial. On such occasions, I resort to what has become an almost standard disclaimer, to wit: I don't know if Macdonald is guilty, but, like Wexler, I believe has has not received due process.

Wexler's stated goal is to preserve integrity in the FBI, an objective which, he says, is "much bigger than Jeffrey Macdonald".

In past columns - to the disbelief, if not downright disgust of MacDonald's critics - I have suggested that the intregity of the whole judicial system is at play here. If there were flaws behind his conviction, and it seems there were, they need to be addressed.

The sooner the better.