Fatal flaws in 'Fatal Vision'


Lindell John Kay


By Lindell John Kay
Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Something most folks who knew my late mother probably didn’t know about her was that she loved a good murder mystery.

She was the rare type who actually liked catching jury duty. Had Investigation Discovery been around years ago, my mother would have watched it exhaustively.

One case in particular captivated my mother more than any other because it hit close to home. In 1970, my father was in Vietnam. My mother was home alone in Sanford with a bunch of small children. She was scared for them when word went out that a group of hippies had brutally killed a family on Fort Bragg, just a few miles down Highway 87.

Fourteen years later I watched “Fatal Vision” with my mother. She was disappointed the mini-series pointed the finger at the father, Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald who had been convicted of triple murder in 1979.

My mother believed MacDonald was innocent. We talked about it not long before she died. MacDonald always insisted on his innocence as well. Decades later, MacDonald, now 73, still maintains he didn’t kill his pregnant wife and two young daughters. He passed on a chance at parole a few years back because it would include an admission of guilt.

Like most people, “Fatal Vision” convinced me of MacDonald’s guilt. But now, after years of writing about countless homicides, I’m no longer convinced of MacDonald’s culpability.

When MacDonald fell asleep on his couch in base housing he felt secure and his family safe. He had a pregnant wife and two beautiful daughters. When he woke up in the middle of the night he was surrounded by strangers who beat and stabbed him. When he gained consciousness again, bleeding on the floor, he found his wife and daughters had been slaughtered. They were beaten with a piece of scrap lumber and stabbed to death with a kitchen knife and ice pick. “Pig” was written in blood on the wall of the bedroom.

I don’t believe MacDonald killed his family, but sloppy crime scene work, an unfair trial and “Fatal Vision” sealed his fate.

DNA test results on hairs found on MacDonald's wife don't match MacDonald. Wool fibers found on one of the murder weapons don't match any clothing found in the MacDonald home. And crime scene workers found two long blonde wig hairs at the scene.

MacDonald's story has never wavered. He says he woke up to find four crazed hippies standing over him: two white men, a black man and a white woman in a floppy hat holding a candle. MacDonald said the group attacked him.

Investigators claim MacDonald, as a doctor, would know how to and where to stab himself to make his injuries look serious without endangering his own life. But MacDonald's injuries were life threatening. He suffered blunt force trauma to his forehead, sever stab wounds and a collapsed lung.

A recently published book, “A Wilderness of Errors” by Errol Morris, promises to convince readers 85 percent of MacDonald’s innocence and 100 percent that he didn’t received a fair trial.

A woman, Helena Stoeckley, repeatedly told people she and her boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, were involved in the MacDonald family massacre. Stoeckley says she was threatened by a prosecutor not to testify about being involved. A U.S. Marshal eventually backed up her story. Stoeckley died of pneumonia in 1983, but her mother says she told her on her death bed that she was in MacDonald's house the night of the murders.

And then there was “Fatal Vision,” the popular, best-selling true crime book about the murders published in 1983. The book painted MacDonald as a manipulative mastermind who erased his family so he could be with another woman. The book's author Joe McGinniss was embedded with the defense during and after the 1979 trial. MacDonald cooperated with McGinniss because he believed the book was about his innocence. But when the book was published, it made MacDonald look guilty as sin. MacDonald sued McGinniss for a breach of trust. McGinniss settled out of court for $325,000.

With so many lingering questions about the case, the fact that MacDonald was convicted and sent to prison for three life sentences should at least give us pause. If a Princeton graduate and decorated Army doctor like MacDonald was really railroaded, no one is safe from bungled investigations and prosecutor misconduct.