MacDonald Confident DNA Will Win Him a Retrial

By Richard Lezin Jones

August 25, 1999

It has been the subject of three decades of court proceedings, two books, and a mini-series. But as early as next month, the long twisting case of Jeffrey MacDonald - the Army surgeon serving three life sentences for killing his wife and two daughters in 1970 - will be played out yet again in perhaps its most important venue: A DNA laboratory.

After a two-year legal fight, lawyers for MacDonald this spring won the right to extensive DNA testing on hair and other samples that were culled from the crime scene in North Carolina - and locked away for nearly 20 years. DNA testing was not available at the time of the slayings.

Those samples, defense attorneys believe, will help win a new trial for MacDonald, now 55, and eventually exonerate him.

"We certainly hope so, " said Andrew Good, the Boston lawyer who has worked without pay on MacDonald’s behalf for 10 years. "Just as anybody who was the victim of a crime and then found themselves convicted of it, it’s horrible, but he’s coping."

MacDonald has maintained his innocence since the morning of Feb. 17, 1970, when military police at Fort Bragg responded to an emergency call from MacDonald’s home on the base. "We’ve been stabbed, " he told them.

When police arrived, they discovered the bloody bodies of his pregnant wife, Colette, 26, and the couple’s children, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, hacked and bludgeoned in their bedrooms. MacDonald himself was found unconscious, with multiple stab wounds.

The murders and the resulting trail were the subject of author Joe McGinniss’ best-selling book, Fatal Vision, and a made-for-tv movie of the same name.

MacDonald was portrayed as a cold, calculating murderer who killed his family in a fit of rage after one of his children wet the bed. Another book, Fatal Justice, by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost, offered a rebuttal to McGinniss’ finding and made a case for clearing MacDonald.

That case is built around the story MacDonald told investigators: That he had been sleeping on the sofa when he awoke to the screams of his family. They were being stabbed and clubbed, he said, by three "hippies" who appeared to be on drugs and chanted "Acid is groovy; kill the pigs."

In 1979, after numerous legal twists and turns, MacDonald was convicted of the murders based on a seeming raft of forensic evidence - including fibers from his pajamas found on a wooden club used in the killings - that implicated him and that produced no evidence, under the kind of testing then available, that anyone else was in the apartment that morning.

But the samples in questions - hair and flecks of what is believed to be blood - may actually show just the opposite, MacDonald’s lawyers said.

"What we’re hoping to establish is that these are not MacDonald family hairs and because of their location - like under the nails of the victims - they are the leavings of those who committed the crime, " Good said.

The samples are being looked at for how well they can withstand testing, Good said, and are expected to be examined using mitochondrial DNA techniques at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington.

Results may come by the end of the year.

In the meantime, MacDonald is serving his time at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution in Oregon, where he continues to lobby lawmakers and the public about his case through letters and even a website -

"I am confident," reads a letter from MacDonald on the website, "that sometime in 1999...I will be in court proving my innocence and facing vindication."