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WILMINGTON, N.C. — A federal judge has the task of determining whether to overturn the conviction of a former Army surgeon in the murders of his pregnant wife and young daughters in 1970, a case that inspired a best-selling book.
Closing arguments in the Jeffrey MacDonald hearing ended in U.S. District Court in Wilmington on Tuesday, concluding six days of evidence and testimony.
Lawyers for MacDonald presented written statements and testimony that Helena Stoeckley repeatedly admitted that she was with a group of people who murdered the MacDonalds in their apartment on Fort Bragg in the early hours of Feb. 17, 1970. However, at MacDonald's trial in 1979, Stoeckley denied on the witness stand that she had any role in the murders and couldn't recall where she was when they occurred.
The case was the basis for the best-selling book "Fatal Vision."
During closing arguments, U.S. District Judge James Fox heard from MacDonald lawyer Gordon Widenhouse, who focused on testimony from Jerry Leonard, who represented Stoeckley in August 1979, and on statements from Stoeckley's mother.
Leonard testified Monday that Helena Stoeckley later said she was in the apartment but didn't participate in the killings. Stoeckley died in 1983.
Widenhouse said MacDonald's convictions should be vacated based on the Stoeckley statements and DNA evidence.
"MacDonald would have had a fairer trial if the Stoeckley evidence had been admitted in trial," he said.
The DNA provides positive circumstantial evidence of a home invasion, Widenhouse said. The hair from under 2-year-old Kristen's fingernail could have been left by her attacker as she fought for her life, he said.
Prosecutors Brian Murtagh and John Bruce countered that the newest claims of Stoeckley confessions — her statements had been raised before — are not credible, and that the DNA results show no evidence of home invasion. Results from other samples boost the contention that MacDonald is guilty, Murtagh said.
Murtagh said that the hair from under Kristen's fingernail was not documented in any records until July 1970, five months after the murders and autopsy. Evidence collection and maintenance standards were less stringent then than now and the hair could have come from anyone who was near or handled her body before she was autopsied or who handled the evidence later, he said.
Fox gave both sides 60 days to file briefs on the case before he makes a determination.
MacDonald, now 68, was convicted in the killings of his wife Colette and his daughters — Kristen and 5-year-old Kimberly — at their Fort Bragg home in 1970. MacDonald has maintained his family was killed by a band of intruders who burst into his home.