It’s the case that never seems to die. It’s now been nearly 40 years since I wrote my first story, in February 1973, on the case of Jeffrey Robert MacDonald.
Now the case is back—on the shelves of bookstores, on national television, on CBS Sunday Morning and in the headlines from a North Carolina federal courtroom, where MacDonald is once again trying to prove he didn’t slaughter his family.
The story begins on Long Island, where MacDonald grew up, in Patchogue. The crime at the heart of it took place in military housing at Fort Bragg, N.C. At the time, MacDonald was a doctor in the United States Army Special Forces, the Green Berets. He lived on base with his pregnant wife, Colette, and their daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2. On Feb. 17, 1970, someone beat and stabbed Colette and the two girls to death.
MPs found MacDonald injured, but alive. He attributed the crimes to a band of hippies. In the era of the gruesome murders in California led by Charles Manson, his story seemed plausible enough on the surface.
At first, Colette’s mother and stepfather, Mildred and Alfred Kassab, believed MacDonald’s version and supported him staunchly. But then, after the Army investigated and found insufficient evidence to prosecute MacDonald for the murders, the Kassabs began to doubt.
They obtained a copy of the 16-volume transcript of the Army investigation, and Fred Kassab read it compulsively, making it his bible. In 1973, I heard from John Cummings, who had covered the murders for Newsday in 1970, that the Kassabs were changing their minds about MacDonald. So I interviewed them at their home in Stony Brook and wrote a story airing those doubts.
For years after that, whatever job I had at Newsday, I’d always cover major events in the MacDonald case. In 1974, I covered the federal grand jury proceedings in Raleigh, N.C. The Kassabs, with legal advice from Long Island attorney Richard Caleb Cahn, had succeeded in persuading a federal judge to convene the grand jury. In 1979, I covered every minute of the six-week trial in Raleigh. And I wrote two Newsday magazine pieces: one on the 10th anniversary of the murders and one when the Joe McGinniss book, “Fatal Vision,” came out in 1983. McGinniss had lived with MacDonald’s defense team throughout the trial, but came to the conclusion that MacDonald was guilty. I interviewed MacDonald in federal prison in Texas, days after Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes had visited him, and we both brought him bad news: He had thought the McGinniss book would portray him as a wronged, innocent man. It didn’t.
Now Errol Morris, a rightfully acclaimed documentary film maker, has a new book out, “A Wilderness of Error,” the product of many years of his fascination with the case.
He and I spoke briefly a few months ago about MacDonald. I admire his journalistic zeal and doggedness, but he has come to a different conclusion than the jury’s—and mine: He believes that MacDonald is, in fact, innocent.
Morris appeared on a recent segment of CBS Sunday Morning to talk about the case and the book. The story still has legs, as they say, partly because of the McGinniss book and the TV film about the case—and because it would be a monstrous injustice if MacDonald has spent more than three decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a crime that left his whole family bloodied and dead in their home.
The Morris book appeared in bookstores not long before a hearing in federal court this week, in Wilmington, N.C. It revolves around DNA evidence on hairs found at the crime scene that did not belong to any member of the MacDonald family. It also examines a federal marshal’s statement that a federal prosecutor had threatened a woman named Helena Stoeckley, a drug addict who has said outside the courtroom that she was in the MacDonald house the night of the murders. The marshal said that the prosecutor threatened to charge Stoeckley with murder if she testified at trial that she was in the MacDonald house that night. When she actually took the witness stand, she made no such confession.
Some would argue that this is MacDonald’s last chance at exoneration. But this is the case that never dies. As long as he draws breath, he will continue to argue that he didn’t kill his wife and daughters. In case you’re curious, there are websites arguing both sides. This one argues for MacDonald’s innocence: http://www.themacdonaldcase.org/. And this one maintains his guilt: http://www.thejeffreymacdonaldcase.com.
As for me, all these years after that first interview with the Kassabs, after covering the trial and writing thousands of words on this case, my belief that MacDonald committed these crimes remains unshaken.
Pictured above: Jeffrey MacDonald at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, OR. A former Green Beret doctor from Patchogue , he was convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters in 1970. (June 12, 1997)