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Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of murdering family at Fort Bragg, petitions for release from prison

A sign at one of the entrances to Fort Bragg. (Fish Cop./WikiCommons)

Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army captain who is serving three life sentences for the murders of his wife and two young children their home at Fort Bragg in 1970, is asking a federal judge free him due to his age and failing health.

A hearing on MacDonald’s request for what’s known as compassionate release is set for 3 p.m. Thursday at the federal courthouse in Raleigh. This is the same courthouse where MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979.

MacDonald’s former brother-in-law, Bob Stevenson of Hull, Massachusetts, plans to attend the hearing to testify against MacDonald’s request for release. Stevenson’s sister was MacDonald’s first wife, Colette MacDonald. She was pregnant when she was beaten and stabbed to death in her bedroom 51 years ago.

“He wants to get out. I want to keep him in. It’s that simple,” Stevenson said. “He destroyed my family.”

MacDonald is locked up at a federal prison in Maryland. He obtained this court hearing to petition for compassionate release by using a criminal justice reform law signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018 called “The First Step Act.”

The First Step Act created a new avenue for prisoners to petition the court for compassionate release, the Congressional Research Service said in 2019.

The U.S. Attorney Office in Raleigh opposes MacDonald’s request. It says the new law for inmates to seek judicial hearings for release doesn’t apply to him.

Separately, MacDonald last year submitted twice submitted requests to be considered for parole to U.S. Parole Commission, but then canceled those requests.

MacDonald’s four lawyers said in a court filing in November that federal law specifies inmates over the age of 70 can ask a judge to order compassionate release if they have served at least 30 years of their sentences. In the alternative, inmates can request release if there are “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”

The lawyers said:

— MacDonald is 77 years old and has served 39 years.

— He has health problems include chronic kidney disease, skin cancer, and high blood pressure.

— Those factors plus his age “make him extremely vulnerable to severe illness or death if he were to contract COVID-19.”

— MacDonald has been exposed to inmates who had COVID, and the prison is poorly equipped to deal with a pandemic.

— The health factors are the extraordinary and compelling reasons that MacDonald should qualify for release.

If he were to be released, MacDonald would settle with his wife, Kathryn MacDonald, whom he has been married to for 18 years, his lawyers said. She lives in Columbia, Maryland.

MacDonald asked federal prison officials to grant him compassionate release, his filing says, but they turned him down, saying he could function in prison. So now he is appealing to the federal court. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle is scheduled to hear the matter.

In arguing against MacDonald’s freedom, the government makes two arguments.

First, wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Harris, MacDonald isn’t allowed under the compassionate release law to ask the judge to set him free because the law applies only to crimes committed on or after Nov. 1, 1987. The MacDonald murders were in February 1970 and he was convicted August 1979.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made this conclusion in a ruling issued in February for another inmate who was seeking compassionate release in a criminal case from California, Harris said.

North Carolina is in the 4th Circuit, so rulings by the 9th Circuit do not automatically apply here. But judges may find appellate rulings from other circuits to be persuasive.

Second, Harris said, even if the judge decides that MacDonald is allowed to use the compassionate release law to petition the court, MacDonald should stay locked up.

“Given the nature and circumstances of the brutal murders of his family, including his little girls, to release MacDonald now would not reflect the seriousness of his crimes, would engender disrespect for the law, and would undermine the just punishment he deserves for his crimes,” Harris wrote.

The MacDonald murders may be the most-infamous homicides from the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community.

MacDonald has always insisted that he is factually innocent. He has said his wife and two children, ages 2 and 5, were killed in a home invasion in which he fought the attackers and was knocked unconscious.

Investigators grew to suspect MacDonald because his wounds were relatively minor compared to those of Colette and the children and other factors in his story did not mesh with the evidence they found in the home.

The military investigated, charged MacDonald, investigated further then dropped the charges in late 1970. Civilian investigators took up the case later, and this led to new charges and MacDonald’s conviction in 1979.

The case has been the subject of books, television programs, websites, podcasts and other intense media scrutiny for the past 50 years. Some argue he is innocent, others that he is guilty.

The MacDonald case is sometimes is known as the “Fatal Vision” case because that is the title of a popular book about the murders and a 1980s television miniseries based on the book.


(c) 2021 The Fayetteville Observer

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