July 16

This Day in History

Crime

Jul 16, 1979:

An army doctor is accused of stabbing his family to death

Jeffrey MacDonald stands trial in North Carolina for the murder of his wife and children nearly 10 years before. Captain MacDonald, an army doctor stationed at Fort Bragg, made an emergency call to military police in the early morning hours of February 17, 1970. Responding officers found Colette MacDonald and her two children, five-year-old Kimberley and two-year-old Kristen, dead from multiple stab wounds. The word "pig" had been written in blood on the headboard of a bed. Jeffrey, who had a few stab wounds himself, told the officers that four hippies had attacked the family.

With little evidence of disruption to the home, investigators doubted MacDonald's story of struggling with the killers. An Esquire magazine containing an article about the notorious Manson murders was on the floor in the living room where MacDonald claimed to have been attacked. Investigators theorized that the hippie story and writing on the wall were attempts to mimic that crime and diffuse suspicion.

More important, the blood and fiber evidence did not seem to support MacDonald's account of events. In a stroke of luck for detectives, each member of the MacDonald family had different and distinguishable blood types. Little of Jeffrey's blood was found anywhere in the home except in the bathroom. In addition, his wounds were much less severe than those of his family; his wife and children had been stabbed at least 20 times each.

Still, the initial forensic investigation was badly bungled and the charges were eventually dropped later in 1970. A three-month military hearing ended without a court-martial due to lack of evidence and MacDonald was honorably discharged shortly afterward. Although MacDonald appeared on television complaining about his treatment, investigators stayed on the case. In 1974, a grand jury indicted him for murder, but due to various delays, the trial did not begin for another five years. In 1979, MacDonald was convicted and given three life sentences.

MacDonald, still vigorously insisting on his innocence, enlisted author Joe McGinnis to help exonerate him. McGinnis interviewed MacDonald and investigated the case on his own, but decided early on in the project that MacDonald was indeed guilty. The subsequent book, Fatal Vision, was a bestseller and it enraged MacDonald, who sued McGinnis for fraud.

MacDonald has since exhausted his appeals--his case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court more than any other--and remains in prison. He has been denied parole, but will again be eligible in 2020, when he will be 76 years old.

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