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Jeffrey Robert MacDonald Trial: 1979

Drama In Court

A moment of high drama occurred when prosecutors Brian Murtagh and James Blackburn abruptly staged an impromptu re-enactment of the alleged attack on MacDonald. Murtagh wrapped a pajama top around his hands and tried to fend off a series of ice pick blows from Blackburn. For his troubles Murtagh received a small wound to the arm, but two telling points had been made. First, all of the holes in the pajama top were rough and jagged, not smoothly cylindrical as the holes in MacDonald's pajama jacket had been; second, Murtagh was stabbed, albeit not seriously. When MacDonald had been examined at Womack Hospital he did not have a single wound on his arms. The inference was obvious and highly damaging to MacDonald.

The strongest defense witness was supposed to be Helena Stoeckley, 18 years old at the time of the murders, a known liar with a long record of drug abuse and alcoholism. Over the years, she had yielded several confessions to involvement in the slaughter and an equal number of retractions. Segal was at least hoping to establish some kind of link to a "hippie gang," but Stoeckley let him down. On this occasion she denied ever having been inside the MacDonald home. Furthermore, she denied ever having seen MacDonald before that very morning in court.

Segal was furious. He fought for the introduction of evidence from other witnesses to whom Stoeckley had confessed. But Judge Dupree, in the absence of any evidence to connect Stoeckley to the house and unimpressed by her performance on the stand, refused. When Segal persisted in arguing the point he got his comeuppance. Dupree revealed that, over the weekend, he had received two phone calls from Helena Stoeckley. She had talked about hiring a lawyer because she felt herself to be in mortal danger from none other than Bernard Segal. Upon hearing this Segal sank back into his chair and let the matter drop.

Perhaps the most decisive evidence against MacDonald was a tape made during his original 1970 interview with military investigators. Jury members got to hear a man who sounded evasive and indifferent. Worse than that, he sounded arrogant. Describing himself, MacDonald said: "I'm bright, aggressive, I work hard.… Christ, I was a doctor!" Later: "I had a beautiful wife who loved me and two kids who were great.… What could I have gained by doing this?" By way of an answer, a detective showed MacDonald the photograph of a young woman, just one of MacDonald's many sexual conquests, a side of his nature that he had desperately tried to conceal. MacDonald, rattled by this surprise revelation, said quietly, "You guys are more thorough than I thought." One juror later remarked, "Until I heard that, [tape] there was no doubt in my mind about his innocence.… but hearing him turned the whole thing around."

Under Segal's gentle probing, MacDonald performed well on the stand, but as soon as he was subjected to cross-examination that old cockiness began to reassert itself. Whenever asked to explain an awkward fact or statement, he would shrug indifference. In the end, his performance failed to convince those who mattered most: the jury. On August 29, 1979, they found MacDonald guilty. Judge Dupree sentenced him to the maximum allowable under federal law, three consecutive life terms.

After several appeals, in January 1983 the Supreme Court upheld all three convictions. But Jeffrey MacDonald wasn't finished yet.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Jeffrey Robert MacDonald Trial: 1979 - The Trial, At Last, Drama In Court, Murderer Sues Writer