Jeffrey MacDonald's murder conviction in 1979 for the brutal killing of his wife and two young daughters in 1970, along with his fight for more than three decades to get the conviction overturned and unwavering proclamation of innocence, is one of the most controversial and publicized murder cases in U.S. history. His supporters contend that the conviction was unjust and railroaded in by prosecutors anxious to wrap the case up in a tidy bow. His detractors, including his murdered wife's family, maintain that the right man is paying the price and he should rot in prison for the horrific crimes he committed.
A book and subsequent TV movie by Joe McGinniss in the early 1980s, "Fatal Vision," brought lots of attention to the case and portrayed MacDonald as the cold-hearted lone slayer of his family. A new book, “A Wilderness of Error” by Errol Morris, calls into question everything that played a part in convicting MacDonald and keeping him in prison despite numerous appeals and evidence that his camp claims could exonerate him.
There are even websites that argue both sides: MacDonald’s innocence at themacdonaldcase.org, and guilt at thejeffreymacdonaldcase.com.
The former Green Beret doctor is again making headlines, with his attorney in federal court this week arguing that he should, at a minimum, be granted a new trial for two reasons: DNA from three hairs found at the crime scene that were tested six years ago do not match any MacDonald family members and a 2005 statement from a retired, now deceased U.S. marshal alleged prosecutorial misconduct during the original trial. His attorney contends that if jurors know about these during the murder trial, their verdict might have been different.
Are DNA tests from three little hairs enough to exonerate the man, especially when other DNA found at the crime scene does match MacDonald? Is a statement from a dead man pertaining to a now deceased woman, who was supposed to be a star witness for the defense but changed her testimony at the trial, even admissible in court?
It's up to very capable judges to decide the answers to these questions. Only one thing is known for sure: Should MacDonald get the new trial that he so desperately wants, he faces a straight uphill fight for an acquittal. The guy does stand a chance, though, with a good defense team, credible witness testimony, indisputable DNA and other evidence in his favor, and his refusal to admit guilt to this crime, even if it could have gotten him released from prison. But first, he needs the new trial.
Once a person is convicted of a crime, our legal system makes it nearly impossible to gain a new trial or be exonerated, even when a mountain of evidence later surfaces that proves the person innocent. It's one thing to grant a new trial on frivolous, baseless grounds, but allowing to proceed with one if there's even a remote possibility that an injustice has been served, especially in serious criminal cases, just makes sense.
Page 2 of 2 - The added cost is well worth it if an innocent person goes free, although some people are bound to have egg on their faces afterwards. Likewise, if a person's guilt is reinforced at the end of the trial, well there you have it.
In MacDonald's case, the court of public opinion has spoken for decades and likely will keep on going that way whether or not he gets a new trial and if the verdict changes. In the eyes of the law, though, maybe it could settle the matter once and for all.