Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jeffrey MacDonald and Fatal Vision

I was only 8 years old in February of 1970, so I do not recall much about those days. One thing I do remember is that I could not wait to finish third grade at the local public school that I and several of my siblings attended. I was excited because the following school year my home parish was preparing to discontinue the Catholic high school and re-open its early elementary school that had been closed several years earlier for lack of space. I would be able to attend fourth grade there instead of having to wait until fifth grade. It was an exciting time for me, as I loved school.

However, I had an ulterior motive for wanting to go to Catholic school: I did not like attending CCD. My dislike for the Sunday lessons was my not the subject matter. Nor was it the fact that I had just sat for an hour in Church and was restless. It was simply that I did not want to be in a classroom with kids that I did not know. No other kids from my public school were Catholic, so I had no friends or acquaintances in my CCD class.

I remember that one of those years my CCD class was held in the same classroom that was my oldest brother's classroom, as he was old enough to go to the Catholic grade school. I would try hard to get to the classroom as fast as possible when Mass dismissed so that I could sit in my brother's desk. If  someone else had already claimed his desk by the time I got there, I was miserable throughout that whole class period while longing to kick the other kid out of my brother's desk. That was not a very Christian thing to be thinking while sitting through Sunday school, but as kids we don't reason like that.

As silly as it seems now, I needed that feeling of connection that came with knowing my brother sat in that desk Monday through Friday. I do not fully understand it even as an adult, but the sense of loneliness that I felt when I sat in my CCD classrooms in grades one, two and three was nothing short of depressing. I felt like a prisoner for an hour every Sunday morning. I was always relieved and elated when the class ended, and I was released to go find my other siblings and head for my parents' station wagon that waited to take us home.

I thought of that sense of relief that I felt on being released from my childhood "prison" when I read this morning's headlines. In particular, I am referring to the case of prisoner Jeffrey MacDonald, the central figure in the notorious murder case in North Carolina  in February of 1970. The story has remained a sensation ever since the MacDonald became the only suspect in the murder of his wife and two young daughters at Fort Bragg 42 years ago. The story was even the basis for a a movie called "Fatal Vision" in the 1980s, and has left many people doubting that the jury got the right verdict in the 1979 murder trial of Doctor MacDonald, a former Green Beret.

Over the years the defense team of Dr. MacDonald has insisted that evidence was ignored and that the prosecution targeted MacDonald to the exclusion of all other possible suspects. Indeed, when a woman came forward after the murders to state that she was in the MacDonald home that night of the murders, thus confirming MacDonald's assertion that a woman in a floppy hat was there, the prosecution refused to take her seriously. She was dismissed as a known drug addict who was seeking attention or was merely delusional.

MacDonald's defense team is seeking a new trial based on the fact that DNA evidence has been identified showing the presence of non-family persons in the home at the time of the murders. Also, a witness now says that his sister made a death-bed confession that she was in the home that night. This is the same woman who made the claim in the early 1980s that she was in the house, but at MacDonald's trial testified on the witness stand that she was NOT in the MacDonald house that night. One difference is that now the 2005 testimony of a deceased U.S. Marshall has been presented to show that the woman, who died in in 1983, was threatened (prior to her trial testimony) by the U.S. attorney, who told her "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." Faced with this threat, the witness recanted her assertion that she was in the house, and MacDonald was convicted on three counts of murder.

So, what all of this comes down to is that MacDonald is seeking a new trial or to be exonerated of all charges based on the new evidence. At age 68, MacDonald remarried in 2002 while incarcerated. His wife is his principle agent in the free world. She awaits his release, just as MacDonald still yearns to be free. Only MacDonald knows the truth of what happened that night in February of 1970. But a judge will be making some pretty important decisions that will affect MacDonald's chances for freedom.

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