Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald

Deck Stacked Against MacDonald

Even before the trial began, the deck was stacked against MacDonald although he and his defense team did not know it.  Judge Franklin T. Dupree Jr. had already made up his mind that MacDonald was guilty well before the trial began.  Dupree had a close personal relationship with a man named James Proctor, who was one of the key individuals in the government who was determined to convict MacDonald.  As Potter and Bost point out:   "Proctor had been an associate in Dupree's private law firm from 1967 through 1969.  He regarded Dupree as a mentor, married one of Dupree's two daughters, and sired Dupree's first grandchild."  Considering the opportunity for Proctor to prejudice the judge, Dupree should have excused himself from the case. 

Instead, Dupree asked for the case.

James Blackburn
James Blackburn

It was a high profile case and everyone wanted to be on the bandwagon.  It was the kind of case that could really make one's career.  Assistant U.S. Attorney James Blackburn, the lead prosecutor, used the case as a springboard to become the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of North Carolina.  A man of very dubious ethics and morals, he later was convicted of forgery, fraud and embezzlement.

Blackburn's chief assistant was a young, ambitious government lawyer named Brian Murtagh who made suppression of evidence into a new art form. Worse, Murtagh had in his possession several critical pieces of physical evidence that would have proven MacDonald's innocence and yet he spared no effort to make certain that the evidence remained undiscovered by the defense.

Bernie Segal had hired an expert forensic scientist, Dr. John Thornton, to examine and assess the physical evidence.  Thornton was hired in 1975 right after MacDonald was indicted by the grand jury.  For four years, the government did not allow Thornton to even look at the evidence or see the laboratory notes from the original Army investigation or the FBI analysis.  Incredibly enough, the government did not allow the defense even to see the evidence until a few weeks before the trial, and even then the judge would not allow the defense any lab testing on the evidence.  The Army had taken six months to complete the testing of that same physical evidence years before.  Even worse, Murtagh only allowed Thornton to examine the evidence one time in a small jail cell where box after box of papers and folders were stacked all around the room.  Given so little time to look at the evidence with no indication of what they were looking at, the defense team was completely shackled.  The handwritten lab notes, against which Segal could have checked the honesty of the Army CID technicians, were still held back from the defense.

How could this be?  "In almost any state court," Segal explained, "the examination of evidence in a murder trial would be a given right of the defense experts.  But not with the feds.  It's up to the judge's discretion."   And Judge Franklin Dupree was in bed with the prosecution.

Brian Murtagh
Brian Murtagh

One of the many key setbacks to the defense perpetrated by Judge Dupree was that the results of the Army investigation Col. Rock's report indicating that there was no truth to the charge that Dr. MacDonald was culpable in his family's deaths were disallowed as evidence in the trial.  This meant the Army's completely incompetent investigation and mishandling of evidence and suspects would be kept from the jury, as well as the analysis of the seasoned and respected Army investigator, Col. Rock.

When the judge ruled that Col. Rock's report could not be used by the defense, it became urgent that the notes from the original Army evaluation of the evidence be made available to the defense.  Again the government prosecutors refused and the judge agreed with the refusal.

In retrospect, it is not hard to understand why the prosecution refused to disclose the physical evidence to the defense.  The government's case against MacDonald would have been seriously compromised.


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