Insights on an Inmate Seeking New Appeal

Do you remember the book Fatal Vision?

Well, it was true crime novel by Joe McGinnis detailing the case of Captain Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a former Army surgeon, who was found guilty of killing his wife and two children and is now serving three life sentences in Cumberland, Maryland.

MacDonald has always insisted that he is innocent. After years of failed appeals, MacDonald now claims he has new evidence that proves he is not the killer.

Details of the ‘fatal vision’ case

At 73 years old, MacDonald claims that on the night of Feb. 17, 1970, a group of drugged hippies entered his home and murdered Colette McDonald, his 26-year old wife, and their two daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2.

The wounds that he presented to the police were caused by his failed attempt to fend the attackers off and protect his family.

In light of new evidence, namely, three hairs obtained from the crime scene that didn’t match the family’s DNA, and a statement from U.S. marshal Jimmy Britt accusing the prosecution of intimidating Helena Stoeckley, a key witness, MacDonald believes that he has enough evidence to have his case appealed. Unfortunately, both Britt and Stoeckley have long since died.

Defense attorneys for MacDonald believe the new evidence sufficiently shifts the blame for the murder to an unidentified third party and warrants a new trial.

What are the chances of getting a new trial?

Is it possible for the court to accept a defendant’s appeal based on new evidence presented by his or her criminal defense lawyer?

In a limited number of circumstances, it is, but each state has its own rules. However, a defendant has very limited ability to present new evidence before the court.

In North Carolina, among other circumstance, instances when the court can consider new evidence include the following:

  • Evidence was not available at trial through the trial lawyer’s due diligence
  • Evidence could have affected the verdict if it was presented during the trial
  • New relevant evidence becomes available after the initial trial

In the case of Brad Cooper, who we represented at his initial murder trial in 2008, the Appeals court granted a new trial in 2013 after reviewing the case noting that defense expert testimony was not allowed to be presented at trial. Cooper has since accepted a plea bargain agreement, but will not be serving out the initial life sentence for first degree murder.

Criminal cases can often be very complex. Prosecutors seek to piece bits of evidence together to present a realistic case to a jury. Often that evidence is circumstantial, other times experts may disagree as to its relevance. Criminal defense attorneys who understand the law must examine the evidence and determine if it is reliable.

Our justice system only works when all of the evidence has been gathered and presented at trial. Only then do we have a system that is fair and unbiased against the accused.

For sure, everyone deserves a tenacious, vigorous defense when they are charged with any type of criminal offense. Anyone charged with a crime should consult a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer with Kurtz & Blum, PLLC.


  • ‘Fatal Vision’ doctor claims innocence in family’s slaying,