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Innocence Project Applauds Federal Appeals Court Ruling in Jeffrey MacDonald Case Saying Court Must Consider All Evidence of Innocence When Considering Innocence Claims

[Print Version]

April 19, 2011

CONTACTS:  Paul Cates, 212/364-5346, cell 917/566-1294,

A federal appeals court today ruled that courts must consider all relevant evidence of innocence when deciding whether to grant a defendant’s writ of actual innocence.  The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued the ruling in a case brought by Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Captain in the Army Medical Corps who claims he was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters back in 1970. 

“This decision is extremely good news for everyone who has been wrongfully convicted of a crime and is seeking relief in the federal courts,” said Barry Scheck, Co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliate with Cardozo School of Law, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.  “Over the years, MacDonald has uncovered significant evidence pointing to his innocence, including DNA testing, but the district court refused to look at all this evidence as a whole.   Today, the 4th Circuit correctly rejected this piecemeal parsing of innocence claims and said all the relevant evidence must be considered.”

Since MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979, considerable evidence of his innocence has come to light.  Most recently, retired US Marshall Jimmy Britt came forward with information that another suspect in the case, Helena Stoeckley, admitted to the prosecutor that she was in the house on the night of MacDonald’s murder and that he treated to indict her for first degree murder if she admitted that in court.  In addition, DNA testing on evidence that was recovered from the fingernails scrapings of one of the victims and a hair found under another victim did not match MacDonald.  Earlier, evidence came to light that a FBI forensic examiner mislead the jury about synthetic hair evidence.  MacDonald claimed the hairs were from the wig of one of the murders, but the forensic examiner incorrectly claimed they were from one of the children’s dolls. 

“Far too often the people who have been wrongly convicted uncover evidence of their innocence bit by bit, slowly over time.  Courts reject this evidence claiming it wouldn’t have made a difference in their cases and then refuse to look at it again when more evidence is discovered,” added Scheck.  “With this decision, courts will have to look at all the evidence as a whole when considering innocence claims, which will open up a whole new avenue defense for many people who can’t get the courts to take their claims seriously.”  

A pdf of the appellate court’s decision is attached.  A copy of the friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Innocence Project, the New England Innocence Project, with the support of attorneys Andrew Good and Phillip Comier, and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence is available here.