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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

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Posted: April 20, 2011   12:00 AM

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.
Philip Callahan says:
Jul 30, 2015 09:05 PM

I just came across this article, so my commentary is full of old news. Despite receiving more chances at a new trial than any convicted murderer in history, the 4th Circuit Court completely ignored the voluminous case record, and made a decision that smelled of political leanings. The good news is that Judge Fox followed the 4th Circuit's roadmap to a tee and he allowed the kitchen sink to be presented at the 2012 evidentiary hearing. The government destroyed all of the claims contained in this article and the specious arguments put forth by MacDonald attorney Gordon Widenhouse. Judge Fox denied MacDonald relief on 7/24/14, and despite the inclusion of the FBI's Microscopic Hair report, Judge Fox again denied MacDonald relief on 5/18/15. IMO, the Innocence Project has done some good work, but getting involved in the MacDonald Case will forever tarnish the Project's accomplishments.

Robyn Bishop says:
Jul 31, 2015 08:24 AM

I used to be a supporter of the IP but since it became involved in this case my feelings have been forever tarnished. During the initial investigation of this case a limb hair was found clutched in Colette MacDonald's hand along with a bloody splinter from the murder club. The defense named this hair "the mystery hair" and said that it HAD to have come from the murderer. The DNA testing showed (as most of us suspected/new) the hair was a 100% match to Jeffrey Robert MacDonald. He was rightfully convicted, all the sourced evidence points to him being the sole criminal actor in this case, and it is long past time for the courts to put an official and formal end to his appeals. The IP needs to review the evidence as a whole before jumping on any particular inmate's bandwagon.

Sherry Canada says:
Aug 10, 2015 01:50 PM

I have had great respect over the years for the IP and the brilliant work that has been done on many cases. I work through cases with an objective and open mind. This is one case I have followed for many years and have read about in depth. I am profoundly disappointed the the IP has asserted that Jeffrey Macdonald is in any way innocent. He, and he alone is responsible for the brutal death of his wife and children. While it may not have been premeditated, he was the executioner. As a parent it is incomprehensible to imagine this scenario but it all fits. I believe the marriage was on the rocks (likely due to his numerous infidelities) and priorizing career pursuits over his family life. A vicious fight between him and Colette ensued late at night and he lost it. After killing Colette he realized his daughter was old enough to implicate him and/or he wouldn't have wanted to parent alone. What he wanted was to be free of his marriage and familial responsibilities. Sadly, he is not alone in this distinction... John List, William Bradford Bishop, Shane Miller and so on. The facts of this case are pretty clear and I have to believe the Innocence Project is forever tarnishing its reputation by any suggestion that Jeffrey Macdonald is innocent on any level.

Scott Pletcher says:
Aug 24, 2015 01:43 PM

I agree with all 3 previous comments. I understand that the IP is concerned about the general principle of defendants being able to use evidence accumulated over time to contest convictions. But MacDonald is so 100% clearly guilty, and of such a heinous crime, and with no actual new evidence, that using him in any way tarnishes the good work IP is doing.

cee Johnson says:
Sep 28, 2015 01:06 PM

I only know and understand this case from seeing a movie made about the crime and hearing bits and pieces from TV. It is extremely disturbing and horribly tragic. I cannot begin to imagine what those beautiful babies and their mother suffered, and it is because of how horrible this crime was that any new FACTS that come to light whether it be to exonerate or affirm anyone of the horrific acts which took place they should be considered. It is imperative that the responsible face the consequences to the fullest and that the courts do not fill in gaps of reasonable doubt with arrogant opinions that lead to wrongful convictions. It would be heartbreaking to one day learn that a innocent husband and father not only suffered the horrible attack and loss of his family but also suffered the nightmare of being accused, judged, sentenced and imprisoned for something he did not do....the truth will show itself we must not ever close our eye's for the sake of the court's convenience. God knows the courts spend plenty of time on far more trivial questions to be sure. If there is a chance that there has been a mistake let us make sure we test what we know, the truth can handle any examination, mistakes and lies hide in the failure to examine. Reconsider away, it is my sincere belief that no one would want or support the wrongful convictions of an innocent man or woman.

Rosie says:
Oct 27, 2015 06:14 PM

Justice Is Blind, It is very sad that people will continue to find this men guilty. Many people would continue to be blinded .
Many people don't stop to think ,their must be evidence that prove this man is Inocent? ?
If it wasn't for IP who team up to help those who claim they did not commit the crime but instead our legal system are letting those criminals get away with it..enjoying life. IP believe that our Justice system needs a reform, IP has
help those who maintain their innocence "obvious" they been wrongly convicted.

T Hall says:
Oct 08, 2015 02:42 PM

It is utterly deplorable that the IP has engrossed themselves in a case where there is undeniable evidence proving guilt! Despite all the ramblings of so-called "New Evidence"! There is no "new evidence", MacDonald has always preyed on the "errors" made in the case! All the DNA evidence back in 2006 still pointed to him! The Blood trail points to him! Guilty as convicted and shall remain that way!

marc says:
Nov 23, 2015 12:50 PM

the skin under colettes finger nails from scratching her murderer are factully not Macdonalds.Macdonald had no scratches on his body.The hair in colettes was in fact brown not blonde.Macdonald had blonde hair.the cid notes state his pajama fibers were found exactly where he said he was unconcious.THE GOVERNMENT DID NOT PRESENT THIS IN THE TRIAL.MACDONALD IS INNOCENT AND WAS RAILROADED.

PianoPlyr says:
Feb 06, 2016 12:26 AM

Actually, he did have scratches - he talks about them during the April 1970 questioning by investigators. There is debate about if skin was found under her fingernails - is was lost (if it existed) and not tested, so we don't know that it wasn't MacDonald's. Also, the hair in Colette's hand was MacDonald's - that was one of the results of the DNA testing released in 2006. He always said it belonged to the murderer. All of this was presented to the jury (although the DNA testing was not, but the existence of the hair in Colette's hand was).

jef says:
Jan 03, 2016 09:35 PM

As someone who has literally followed this case for years and made a point of looking at the points made both by those who believe macdonald guilty and those who believe he is not, I am certain of his guilt.

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