The brother of Helena Stoeckley, the now-deceased key witness in the 1979 "Fatal Vision" murder trial, testified in federal court today, saying his sister confessed from her death bed that she had been in the home of Jeffrey MacDonald the night the army doctor's wife and daughters were beaten and stabbed to death.
Eugene Stoeckley's testimony opened the second day of a hearing that will determine whether MacDonald, who was convicted of the murders 33 years ago, will be granted a new trial and a chance to prove his innocence.
The clean-cut former Green Beret, now 68, is serving three life sentences for the Feb. 17, 1970, murders of his wife, Colette, and their two daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2, at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Stoeckley testified that when his sister, who was a known drug addict in the Fayetteville, N.C., area at the time of the murders, knew she was dying, she confided in her mother that she had been in MacDonald's house the night of the murders and told her he was innocent. Stoeckley died in 1983.
Prosecutors tried to poke holes in Eugene Stoeckley's testimony, suggesting that Helena had told many people she had been in the house the night of the murders, including the FBI and 60 minutes.
The evidentiary hearing, which is expected to last two weeks, will focus on DNA evidence, including three unsourced hairs found at the crime scene. But the first two days of the hearing have largely focused on Stoeckley and whether she changed her story on the witness stand.
Defense attorneys presented a sworn affidavit Monday from a now-deceased U.S. Marshal who came forward in 2005 with a "moral burden" he said he kept for decades.
U.S. Marshal James Britt had been tasked in 1979 with driving Helena Stoeckley from the county jail in Greenville, S.C., to Raleigh, N.C., for questioning before MacDonald's trial.
During the nearly 300-mile trip, "without any prompting from me whatsoever, Ms. Stoeckley brought up the matter of the trial of MacDonald," Britt, who passed a polygraph test, wrote in a sworn affidavit dated Nov. 3, 2005.
Stoeckley told Britt and an administrative assistant who accompanied him on the trip that she had been in the MacDonald house the night of the murders to acquire drugs and provided details about the house, including the presence of a hobby horse, according to the affidavit.
Prosecutors said a photo of the hobby horse appeared in the Fayetteville Observer and implied Stoeckley may have seen the photos and had not really been at the crime scene.
Britt said he heard Stoeckley confess to being in the house a second time at the courthouse, this time to U.S. Attorney James Blackburn.
"If you testify before the jury as to what you have told me or said to me in this office, I will indict you for murder," Blackburn told Stoeckley, according to Britt's affidavit.
Blackburn is expected to testify for the prosecution.
MacDonald's defense attorneys contend this moment, recalled decades later by Britt, caused Stoeckley to change her story on the stand, where she testified that she had not been in the house.
What Britt said he heard weighed on him for decades.
DNA evidence that was not available at the time of MacDonald's trial might also be key to exonerating him. Three unsourced hairs were found at the crime scene and blood was found under the fingernail of one of the victims, defense attorneys said.
MacDonald has long maintained his innocence, insisting that a group of drug-fueled hippies broke into his home, beating and stabbing wife and daughters and temporarily knocking him unconscious. The word "Pig" was sprawled in blood on the headboard of MacDonald's master bedroom.
The gruesome murders, which came months after details of the Manson Family murders were revealed, captivated the nation and eventually spawned a bestselling book, "Fatal Vision," and a 1984 television mini-series.
Freddy Kassab, MacDonald's father-in-law, initially stood by him after the murders. But, over time, his confidence in MacDonald's story faded. He pushed for charges to be brought against his son-in-law.
MacDonald was convicted in 1979, nine years after the slayings. While in prison, he remarried.
In a letter provided to The Associated Press from 2000, MacDonald wrote to his new wife, Kathryn: "It would be a dishonor to their memory to compromise the truth and 'admit' to something I didn't do --no matter how long it takes."
If he is not granted a new trial, MacDonald's next opportunity for freedom will be in 2020, when he becomes eligible for parole.