A savage triple murder from four decades ago will be revisited this week as Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret who grew up in Patchogue, gets a federal court hearing on another bid to vacate his conviction for killing his pregnant wife and two children.
The case was a media sensation in the 1970s and the subject of a bestselling book and TV miniseries in the 1980s.
MacDonald, 26 and an Army doctor at the time, blamed the gruesome Feb. 17, 1970, murders of his wife, Colette, 26, and his daughters Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, at his Fort Bragg, N.C., apartment on a band of longhair intruders who chanted "Acid is groovy" and "Kill the pigs."
The slayings came just six months after another shocking mass murder: the killing of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four guests at her suburban Los Angeles home on Aug. 9, 1969, by members of Charles Manson's cultlike "family."
The Army formally charged MacDonald with the murders, but the charges were dropped after a hearing and he was honorably discharged at the end of 1970.
But pressure from the family of Colette MacDonald resulted in his indictment on federal murder charges in 1975 and his conviction in 1979 on three counts of murder. He is serving three consecutive life sentences, but insists he is innocent and has trekked through lawyers and courtrooms for the past three decades in a series of unsuccessful appeals.
He married his current wife, the former Kathryn Kurichh, in 2002 while in prison.
New trial opens
On Monday, attorneys for MacDonald will argue before Judge James Fox in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, N.C., that DNA tests that found strands in the house not linked to any known person and other new evidence should exonerate him. Another team of attorneys, some from the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, is separately seeking further DNA testing of evidence in the case.
MacDonald's attorneyssay in court papers that a federal marshal who escorted a witness in the original trial has signed an affidavit swearing that a prosecutor threatened to indict the witness if she gave testimony that helped the MacDonald defense. Both the marshal and the witness have since died.
The court hearing comes as author Errol Morris, who grew up in Hewlett, publicizes his new book on the case, "A Wilderness of Error," which argues that MacDonald might be innocent, and that he certainly did not get a fair trial.
Morris said in an interview Friday that there was no single thing that led him to his conclusion. "The trial itself was a terrible miscarriage of justice. A lot of evidence was not presented to the jury. On every level, it was deeply unfair," he said.
The verdict was "rubber-stamped" by the Joe McGinniss book "Fatal Vision" in 1983 and the television miniseries of the same name the next year, according to Morris.
The book and the latest court action have angered Colette's brother Robert Stevenson, 73, who, like their stepfather, the late Alfred Kassab of Stony Brook, at first believed Jeffrey MacDonald, but later changed his mind and pressured federal officials to indict him.
"It destroyed my entire family. He stole my sister," Stevenson said. "People keep asking me when this will be over. When he's dead or I'm dead, or both. I promised Fred Kassab on his deathbed that I would follow Jeffrey MacDonald until I died."
Melville attorney Richard Caleb Cahn, who pushed for the prosecution of MacDonald on behalf of Kassab, said he has read portions of the new book. Its cover blurb calling it "a masterful reinvention" of the case is correct, though not with the meaning that was intended, Cahn said. "I also believe that the book's publication was timed to coincide with the hearing."
Given the passage of time, MacDonald has an uphill battle, according to Robin Charlow, a professor of criminal law at Hofstra Law School.
"It's highly unusual for something like this to happen so many years later," Charlow said. "It is unusual for courts to even consider this. The courts like to have finality at some point."
On the other hand, she added: "There is a delicate balance with the rights of people who might benefit from technological advances in DNA testing. They want to be careful."
KEY DATES IN THE JEFFREY MACDONALD CASE
Feb. 17, 1970: The murder of Colette MacDonald, 26, and her daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, in their apartment in Fort Bragg, N.C.
Oct. 13: An Army report concludes that Jeffrey MacDonald should not be charged.
April 30, 1974: Colette MacDonald's stepfather, Alfred Kassab of Stony Brook, files a complaint with Chief Judge Algernon Butler in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Aug. 12: A federal grand jury is convened in the case.
Jan. 25, 1975: Grand jury indicts MacDonald on three counts of murder.
Aug. 29, 1979: After a seven-week trial, MacDonald is convicted on three counts of murder by a federal court jury and is sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.
Aug. 23, 1980: MacDonald is released from prison after an appeals court overturns his conviction on speedy trial grounds.
March 30, 1982: The U.S. Supreme Court reverses the appellate ruling on speedy trial grounds and MacDonald is immediately returned to prison.
Oct. 6, 1986: The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to reverse lower court decisions denying MacDonald a new trial.
Jan. 17, 2006: Attorneys for MacDonald file papers in federal court in Wilmington, N.C., seeking to vacate his conviction based on newly discovered DNA evidence and an affidavit alleging a prosecutor in the original case had threatened a witness who could have helped the defense.