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‘Fatal Vision’ killer Jeffrey MacDonald wants judge to grant ‘compassionate’ exit from federal prison in Maryland

Jeffrey MacDonald gestures at the federal correctional institution in Sheridan, Oregon, in March 1995. MacDonald, a former Army captain serving three life sentences for the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two young children, is seeking release from a federal prison in Maryland due to his age and failing health. (AP Photo/Shane Young, file)
Jeffrey MacDonald gestures at the federal correctional institution in Sheridan, Oregon, in March 1995. MacDonald, a former Army captain serving three life sentences for the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two young children, is seeking release from a federal prison in Maryland due to his age and failing health. (AP Photo/Shane Young, file) (SHANE YOUNG)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Jeffrey MacDonald sought compassionate release from prison Thursday as a sick and elderly inmate, more than 50 years after Army investigators found his wife and children brutally slain in their Fort Bragg home, triggering a murder mystery that still holds the world in its grip.

Attorneys for the former Green Beret doctor, now 77, argued in U.S. District Court that their client has roughly three years to live if he starts kidney dialysis. That chronic condition, coupled with skin cancer and hypertension, qualify him for release from a prison environment where COVID-19 remains a threat, his lawyers said.

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The motion filed in federal court in November cites staff shortages at the Western Maryland prison that houses MacDonald, noting that inmates there continued making license plates even after COVID-19 cases appeared. MacDonald was placed under quarantine last year.

“He’s very near the end of his life,” attorney Elliot Abrams said Thursday.

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Were MacDonald released, the motion said, he would stay in Maryland with his second wife of 18 years. Kathryn MacDonald attended the Raleigh hearing, nodding or shaking her head as attorneys made their case.

“I intend to give the gravity and issues in this case the attention they deserve,” said U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle. “We’re in a journey to arrive at the right place in the right way.”

Boyle will issue his ruling at an unspecified future date.

In 1970, Army investigators found MacDonald’s wife, Colette, and their two daughters, Kimberley and Kristin, beaten and stabbed to death inside their Fort Bragg home.

MacDonald, both a medical doctor and Green Beret, had a lung-puncturing stab wound in the chest. He told investigators he and his family had been slain by hippies who broke in chanting, “Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs.”

Murder charges against MacDonald were dropped that same year, but Colette’s family urged the federal courts to take up the case, resulting in his indictment, three guilty verdicts and three life sentences.

After years of legal wrangling and a brief release, MacDonald has long insisted on his innocence and sought release. The case famously unwound in Joe McGinniss’ 1983 book “Fatal Vision,” based on the writer agreeing to embed with McDonald during his legal fight but ultimately becoming convinced of his guilt.

Throughout Thursday’s hearings, prosecutors recalled the grisly details — the victims clubbed and stabbed with a paring knife and ice pick, their four different blood types being discovered throughout the house. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Harris described MacDonald staging the crime scene himself, an impression investigators also had after examining the house.

“This is a request for a person who murdered his wife and his children — and was duly convicted by a jury — for compassionate relief,” Harris said.

Compassionate relief allows courts to set prisoners free or alter their sentences based on changes in their medical status without considering guilt, innocence or behavior behind bars.

Abrams said MacDonald had a COVID-19 rapid test while in prison so it is not certain whether he had contracted the virus. Harris noted, though, that MacDonald had recently refused the Moderna vaccine.

Jeffrey MacDonald, middle, arrives at the U.S. District Court in Raleigh, North Carolina, flanked by his lawyers Wade Smith, left, and Bernard Segal on July 17, 1979.
Jeffrey MacDonald, middle, arrives at the U.S. District Court in Raleigh, North Carolina, flanked by his lawyers Wade Smith, left, and Bernard Segal on July 17, 1979. (Raleigh News & Observer/The News & Observer/TNS)

Boyle asked why MacDonald had not sought parole — Harris said he was eligible but waived the hearing. His attorneys said he was unlikely to gain such release without admitting guilt.

The case clearly resonated with the longtime judge.

When Harris noted 50 years had passed since the murders, Boyle interrupted. “Fifty-one years,” he said. “It was Feb. 17, 1970.”

Bob Stevenson, brother to MacDonald’s slain wife, stood and tearfully recalled how his family had been shattered by the half-century-old case, holding up pictures.

“This is the sister that I lost,” he said. “This is Kimmy. I miss her today. I’m her uncle. ... This man should never be allowed to walk the face of the Earth again. ... For what he did, it is unspeakable. Unthinkable.”

MacDonald’s wife and attorneys declined to speak outside the Raleigh courthouse. But Wade Smith, MacDonald’s attorney at the 1979 trial, stopped to reflect.

“This case is an enduring mystery,” he said. “Nobody knows who did what inside of that house. Nobody.”

©2021 The News & Observer. Visit at newsobserver.com. Distributed at Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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