Convicted murderer and former Fort Bragg Army Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald cannot get out of prison under a federal compassionate release law, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said in a ruling issued Friday.
MacDonald is serving three life sentences at a federal prison in Maryland for the murders in 1970 of his pregnant wife and two children at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He has claimed factual innocence.
The compassionate release law allows some federal prisoners over age 70 to get out of prison under certain circumstances, such as if they have served at least 30 years of their sentences or there are extraordinary and compelling reasons.
The compassionate release law doesn’t apply to MacDonald, Boyle said, because MacDonald was sentenced under an older sentencing law that has provisions for parole. The compassionate release law applies only to inmates whose crimes took place on or after Nov. 1, 1987, Boyle said, and who were sentenced under a newer law that replaced traditional parole with supervised release.
“Under the parole or old-law sentencing scheme, defendants can seek immediate eligibility for parole based upon extraordinary and compelling circumstances,” Boyle wrote. The judge serves on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
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MacDonald, 77, was convicted in 1979 and is serving three life sentences for the beating and stabbing deaths of his first wife, Colette MacDonald, and their children ages 5 and 2.
He applied for parole in 2005 but was rejected. He wasn’t allowed to ask again for parole until 2020. Twice he put in requests to be considered, but then he withdrew them. Late last year he instead put in his request for compassionate release.
At a hearing last month, Colette MacDonald’s brother, Bob Stevenson, told Boyle that her family opposes MacDonald’s release.
“This man should never be allowed to walk the face of the Earth again,” Stevenson said.
MacDonald’s lawyers argued he qualifies for compassionate release because he is over 70 and has served 40 years. They further cited his age, his failing health (including failing kidneys) and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawyers tried and failed to persuade Boyle that the compassionate release law applies to cases that were sentenced for crimes that took place before Nov. 1, 1987.
Boyle said other federal courts, including the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, have ruled against other defendants whose crimes predate November 1987.
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Highly prominent murder case
The MacDonald case is one of the most-storied homicides to come from the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community.
Colette MacDonald and the children were killed in the family’s residence at Fort Bragg in February 1970.
At the time, Jeffrey MacDonald was an Army physician assigned to provide medical care for a Special Forces unit.
MacDonald told the police he and his family were the victims of a home invasion — that he woke on the living room couch in the night to find three men and a woman, and that he fought with the men until he was knocked unconscious. He said when he came to, he found the bodies of Colette and the children.
Investigators grew to doubt his story based on the relatively light injuries MacDonald suffered and the limited amount of evidence of a struggle in the living room.
The Army investigated, and that fall it said it found insufficient evidence to prosecute MacDonald. The military officer who oversaw the investigation recommended that civilian authorities look into a young woman who may have been the woman who MacDonald reported seeing in his home.
MacDonald left the service shortly after and resumed civilian life.
Federal civilian prosecutors later concluded there was evidence of MacDonald’s guilt. They persuaded a grand jury to indict him, and his trial was held in summer 1979 in Raleigh.
The MacDonald family murders have been the subject of books, documentaries and television programs across the decades. The case picked up the “Fatal Vision” moniker because that is the title of a book and television miniseries about it.
“Fatal Vision” author Joe McGinniss was embedded with MacDonald’s legal team during the 1979 trial, and MacDonald expected him to report that he is innocent. But McGinniss concluded that MacDonald was guilty and portrayed him that way in the book.
In 2012, another book called “A Wilderness of Error” by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris questioned MacDonald’s conviction. The book was made into a documentary series that was released in 2020.
Senior North Carolina reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and [email protected]