Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cyril Wecht: Forensic Pathologist

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald: Victim or Murderer?

At 3:45 a.m. on February 17, 1970, military police responded to a call from a residence at the Army base, Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The home was that of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a physician, captain in the army's Special Forces, and father of two. The police broke in the front door of the darkened home to find blood stains everywhere.

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald
Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald

After checking the living room, where a coffee table was overturned and magazines scattered, they entered the master bedroom where they found Dr. MacDonald and his wife lying on the floor with multiple wounds. Collette, five months pregnant, was dead. She had been stabbed 21 times and clubbed severely on her skull. Dr. MacDonald was barely conscious but alive, though he had been hit in the head and stabbed several times in the chest.

This room, too, was a mess. The word "PIG" was written above the headboard of their bed. Looking around, the police found the two little girls stabbed to death in their bedrooms, and one had been beaten. When he could speak, Dr. MacDonald described "hippies," three men and a woman, who had broken into the house.

Yet on May 1, he was charged by the military court with the murder of his family, because of the suspicion that his wounds had been self-inflicted. MacDonald hired Bernard Segal, a nonmilitary lawyer, for his defense. After all was said and done at a preliminary hearing, including finding a woman who resembled the hippie who allegedly had entered the house, the military judge ruled that because of mishandling of evidence, MacDonald was free to go.

In 1972, Colette's stepfather had the case reopened. Seven years later, Dr. MacDonald was again charged with the murder of his family, this time in federal court. MacDonald's lawyers challenged the charges on the grounds of double jeopardy and on the grounds that since no new evidence had been shown since the original hearing, the charges now, nine years later, violated his Sixth Amendment right to a fair and speedy trial. Yet the Supreme Court ruled for the prosecution.

Mr. Segal then asked Cyril Wecht to review the physical and forensic evidence. Wecht was shocked to find how poorly the investigation had been done.

"That case is one of the most puzzling that I've been confronted with," Wecht says many years later. "He was in a court-martial and acquitted. There's no question in my mind that he was nailed largely on the basis of other things that came up, as well as by the botched investigation. The evidence was not sufficient to convict him."

Since the original investigation, evidence had been destroyed, proper records were not kept, and the medical evidence for review was scarce. Wecht met and interviewed MacDonald and found him to be credible as he told his own version of the events that night. Wecht failed to see signs in him that he would suddenly snap, kill his family, and then prepare a cover-up. There was no pattern in his past of violence.

Then Wecht examined MacDonald's wounds, now healed over. From previous cases, Wecht knew what to look for: self-inflicted stab wounds tend to be parallel and have a downward direction. However, MacDonald's wounds were too healed with the passage of time to make a definitive analysis. For that reason, Segal declined to have Dr. Wecht testify.

Jeffrey MacDonald was found guilty of the murders and sentenced to three consecutive life terms. Although the evidence did weigh against him, it was insufficient to satisfy Dr. Wecht.

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