Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Issue of MacDonald's Character

The defense was counting very much on the evidence of MacDonald's character to persuade the jury that he was incapable of committing the horrible crimes with which he had been charged.  There were numerous people who could testify to MacDonald's love of his wife and children, his professionalism and his leadership qualities.  Additionally, there were the various testimonies of the government's top psychiatrists at the time of the Army hearing, plus the expert testimony of Dr. Sadoff, founder of the American Boards of Forensic Psychiatry.  Segal added to that expert testimony by asking Dr. Seymour Halleck, a well-known forensic psychiatrist, to examine MacDonald.  Dr. Halleck also pronounced MacDonald to be a stable, non-pathological personality who was not the type to commit murder.

Judge Dupree would only allow the psychiatric testimony if MacDonald would agree to another psychiatric examination with a psychiatrist selected by the judge.  Fearing a set-up, Segal was wary, but had very little choice.  The government's choice was Dr. James Brussel.  Potter and Bost describe him as a kind of celebrity psychiatrist:   "Brussel's dominant reputation was that of almost psychic criminalist with the power to describe a suspect without interviewing him, without seeing the crime scene, and without questioning witnesses.  It was said that he often needed only to talk with police on the telephone to make his diagnosis.  His fame was tied primarily to cases of the "Boston Strangler and New York's Mad Bomber...Brussel was also an innovative researcher into novel methods for controlling inmates in psychiatric institutions.   Lamenting the frustrations of managing unruly patients and the cost of housing them in the late 1940s, Brussel and an associate instituted electric shock experiments on the brains of female inmates."

Brussel, after a very short examination, decided that MacDonald was a homicidal psychopath.  What the defense did not know at the time was that Brussel had been used for eight years by the Army's CID to justify their continuing persecution of MacDonald.  Far from being an independent expert, Brussel had for eight years before he had ever met Jeffrey MacDonald gone on record claiming he was guilty and had continued to work on the case for the government all those years.

The defense never got a copy of this report by Brussel before the trial even though one was provided to Brian Murtagh and Judge Dupree.  Then the judge ruled that psychiatric testimony would not be presented to the jury because it would confuse the jurors.  However, Brussel's report characterizing MacDonald as a raging maniac was allowed to be placed into the trial record even though the reports of the other psychiatrists were not.  The effect of this was devastating. 

"The prosecution had managed to replace MacDonald's 'golden boy' image with that of a twisted monster, and Judge Dupree's edict actually invested the dubious transformation with the sanctity of the law."  (Potter & Bost)

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald in court
Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald in court

Considering the deliberate lies, suppression of evidence and shameless manipulation of the facts in this trial, it was not surprising that the jury convicted Jeffrey MacDonald of the murder of his wife and two daughters.  He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms.  But the travesty of justice did not end with that alone.   The judicial system continued to work against him in the appeals process and he became the victim of a stunning personal betrayal.


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