RALEIGH, N.C. – A former Army physician serving life prison sentences for the brutal murders of his wife and two young daughters more than 50 years ago should be released because of his deteriorating health, his attorneys told a judge on Thursday.
Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted in 1979 in the three slayings that occurred at his family home at North Carolina's Fort Bragg. Now serving his time at a Maryland prison, MacDonald declares his innocence and spent years on appeals and requests for a new trial.
MacDonald, 77, has chronic kidney disease, skin cancer and high blood pressure that make him a prime candidate for a sentence reduction, even without the threat of contracting COVID-19 behind bars, attorney Elliot Sol Abrams said.
“This is an extraordinary case,” Abrams told U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle in asking for resentencing and what’s called compassionate release. “He’s at the very end of his life. He’s served 40 years.”
Federal laws that MacDonald's lawyers cited in seeking Boyle to release him don’t apply in the case because the crimes occurred before the laws took effect, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Harris said. Even if they did apply, he added, MacDonald's request should be denied because he's never shown remorse and won’t accept responsibility for his crimes.
“This is a request for a person who murdered his wife and his children ... for compassionate release,” Harris said.
Boyle didn't immediate rule from the bench on the defendant in what's known as the “Fatal Vision” case, named for a book about the investigation.
The hearing occurred in the same Raleigh federal courthouse where a jury convicted MacDonald decades ago in the February 1970 slayings of his pregnant wife, Colette; 5-year-old Kimberley; and 2-year-old daughter Kristen.
Prosecutors at trial said MacDonald, then a captain, used a knife and an ice pick to kill his wife and children at their house before stabbing himself with a scalpel. Harris recounted the crime scene in court.
“My family was shattered,” Bob Stevenson, Colette MacDonald’s brother, told the judge in representing the family at Thursday's hearing. He added that Jeffrey MacDonald “should never be allowed to walk the face of the earth again.”
The defendant, who is serving three consecutive life sentences, wasn't in court. His second wife, Kathryn MacDonald, sat in the gallery and declined to speak with reporters afterward.
MacDonald maintains he was wrongly convicted, pointing to “drug-crazed hippies” as the killers. But prosecutors said he donned surgical gloves and used his wife’s blood to write the word “PIG” over their bed to imitate the Charles Mansion murders that also occurred that year.
Harris said the venue for MacDonald to petition for release would be the U.S. Parole Commission. That commission denied his release request in 2005 and set it aside for 15 years. MacDonald waived two opportunities to seek parole in 2020, Harris said in a court filing.
MacDonald’s requests to the prison system last year to be released due to the coronavirus pandemic were unsuccessful, his attorneys wrote.
Abrams said MacDonald's rapid test for COVID-19 this January came back positive. U.S. attorneys contend MacDonald’s refusal last week to take a COVID-19 vaccination means he can’t rely on the potential risks of the illness to justify his release.
But Abrams said MacDonald's health circumstances, along with his exemplary behavior behind bars, warrants consideration of release by Boyle.
A federal grand jury indicted MacDonald in 1975. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his convictions in 1980, but the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated them in 1982.