Before there was O.J.
Long before OJ Simpson and the birth of reality television, long before so called “celebrity lawyers” and court commentators, long before true crime became “cool” on Netflix, there was the sensational murder case of Green Beret Army Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. During the 1970’s and 1980’s the case against Dr. MacDonald was perhaps the most highly publicized murder case in North America and it remains the most procedurally litigated case ever. Perhaps it was the first real modern “trial of the century.” A trial by newspaper for the most part.
It all began during the early morning hours of February 17, 1970 when military police at Fort Bragg, North Carolina received an urgent 9-1-1 call from a male caller. The voice said: “Stabbing. 544 Castle Drive. Hurry.” Military investigators found a scene of unimaginable carnage. Colette MacDonald, 26, lay dead. She had been stabbed at least 30 times. Her daughter, Kimberly, 5, was also brutally overkilled as was her youngest daughter, Kristen, aged 2. Then one of the investigators noted to himself “we have a survivor.”
On the floor of the master bedroom, also stabbed, but still alive, lay the husband and father of the victims, 26-year-old Green Beret Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
Dr. MacDonald was a Princeton educated and Northwestern Medical School graduate. The proverbial “All American Boy.” He had married his high school sweetheart Colette and they had had two children while he was in college. Dr. MacDonald seemed destined for a bright future. That is until the early morning of February 17, 1970.
Revived by investigators and medics, Dr. MacDonald told of a bizarre and ritualistic killing. He had been awoken to the screams of his wife and children in the middle of the night after dozing off alone on the couch. Standing over him were men with clubs and a woman with a blond wig and a long floppy hat who kept chanting “Acid is Groovy. Kill the Pigs.” Dr. MacDonald told investigators that he had been knocked out and when he came to his family was dead.
At first, everyone believed Dr. MacDonald. This was only six months after the Charles Manson hippie killings where similar methods had been used. However, Dr. MacDonald soon became the Army’s chief suspect. Dr. MacDonald had minimal wounds in comparison to the drastic overkill of his family. Further, Dr. MacDonald’s pajama top fibers were found under his wife and children’s bodies. There was no blood evidence in the living room where Dr. MacDonald claimed that he was involved in a deadly struggle with at least four intruders. High amounts of his blood were found in the bathroom sink, where investigators theorized that being a Doctor, MacDonald may well have stabbed himself to make it look like he was a victim.
On May 1, 1970 the Army formally charged Dr. MacDonald with three counts of first-degree murder. However, after a lengthy and highly publicized pre-hearing, all charges were dropped in October 1970 due to Army mishandling of some of the crime scene. Yet, Dr. MacDonald had not been acquitted as he had never faced a trial. At the pre-hearing, his staunchest defenders were the parents of his murdered wife who believed Dr. MacDonald was simply incapable of such horrific violence.
After his release from Army custody, any talk of finding the “real killers” quickly evaporated. MacDonald spoke only of building a new life for himself. He went on national television and accused the Army of bungling his case. Far from coming across as a grieving husband and parent, Dr. MacDonald was rather cavalier and folksy during the interview. It was this more than anything that was responsible for renewed official interest in Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
MacDonald moved to California where he became the Director of Emergency Services at a hospital in Long Beach, California. He more or less abandoned his former in-laws, who now, after reviewing all of the evidence, had come to believe the worst about their former son-in-law. In fact, MacDonald’s father in law Freddy Kassab made it his mission in life to bring Jeffrey MacDonald to justice. For years Kassab badgered the Justice Department and Army to launch a new investigation. Finally, his efforts paid off and in January 1975, Dr. MacDonald was indicted again on three murder charges by a civilian grand jury.
Released on bail within a week of his arrest, and allowed to continue with his high-profile medical career and new life in California, it took nearly four years to get the case to trial after a series of interlocutory appeals on speedy trial and double jeopardy grounds. It was not until the summer of 1979, nine and a half years after the slayings, that MacDonald finally faced his accusers in a North Carolina courtroom.
The trial was international news. A confident Dr. MacDonald took the witness stand in his own defence and more or less performed disastrously. Prosecutors introduced hundreds of pieces of forensic evidence that demonstrated that while the initial crime scene had not been well-preserved, the evidence of MacDonald’s guilt was overwhelming. Simply put, no real evidence of outside assailants could be found. The jury took just six and a half hours to find Dr. MacDonald guilty and he was sentenced to three life terms.
After a short bout of freedom between 1980-1982 on an appellate bail, when the issue of whether or not Dr. MacDonald’s Sixth Amendment speedy trial rights had been violated went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (they were not violated as per United States v. MacDonald 456 US 1 1982, Marshall, Blackmun, and Brennan J. dissenting), MacDonald was returned to prison in March 1982 and he has remained there ever since. He still maintains his innocence.
In the end the case really reminds one that outside appearances cannot always be accepted at face value. A successful and seemingly well-established person can still be capable of and guilty of the worst of crimes (for further reading, see Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, published in 1983).