Gene Weingarten: "Since 1979, Brian Murtagh has fought to keep convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald in prison"
December 10, 2012 8:18 AM Subscribe
Gene Weingarten: Since 1979, Brian Murtagh has fought to keep convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald in prison. (Here is the single-page link.) Warning: graphic details of the murders of Colette MacDonald and her two small children.
If you are of a certain age, the story is familiar. In the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1970, in an officer’s apartment at Fort Bragg, N.C., someone savagely attacked Colette MacDonald, 26, and her two daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2... Military police arrived, summoned by a gasping phone call from Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, 26. He told them he’d been awakened to the screams of his family, and was immediately set upon by scruffy intruders... The doctor’s wounds were trivial, at least compared with those of his family...
Almost from the start, investigators focused on MacDonald, whose account of the attack seemed to contradict the physical evidence: the locations of bloodstains and spatters and of torn fibers from his pajamas, and the lack of evidence of a furious defensive struggle... he was prosecuted in 1979 in federal court, where he was convicted after a six-week trial. The jury was out only six hours. The prosecution’s methodical use of circumstantial evidence had overcome a signal weakness in the case: The state never presented an entirely convincing motive.
The lurid crime was an international story that became even bigger with the publication in 1983 of “Fatal Vision,” the bestseller about the case by journalist Joe McGinniss; the book would lead to a TV miniseries and, later, to an excruciating spasm of self-examination by the media... From prison, MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of contract, alleging that the writer had betrayed him. During trial and its preparations, McGinniss had been embedded with the defense team, ostensibly to write a book about an unjustly accused man. At some point, the writer became convinced of the doctor’s guilt but never told MacDonald, fearing he would lose the doctor’s cooperation. So, as he was ingratiating himself with the convicted killer, feigning incredulity over the verdict, encouraging MacDonald to send deeply self-revealing letters from prison, McGinniss was writing a book describing MacDonald as a narcissistic, psychopathic monster. McGinniss contends he behaved ethically in dealing with MacDonald under enormously difficult circumstances...
[Brian] Murtagh today is unrecognizable from the news photos of him on the day of the verdict 33 years ago... It was only his second trial ever... Responsibility for the huge case had fallen into his inexperienced hands by default in 1975, when the original lead prosecutor, Victor Worheide, died suddenly of a heart attack.
Murtagh has had an unconventional career: Half his professional life, he estimates, has been consumed by two cases only: the prosecution of Jeffrey MacDonald and the prosecution of the Libyan intelligence officer who masterminded the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. He won them both.
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