By Tom Hennessey
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
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
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.