U.S. v. Macdonald

Decision Date19 April 2011
Docket NumberNo. 08–8525.,08–8525.
Citation641 F.3d 596
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff–Appellee,v.Jeffrey R. MACDONALD, Defendant–Appellant.New England Innocence Project; The Innocence Project; North Carolina Center On Actual Innocence; National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Amici Supporting Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit


ARGUED: Joseph Edward Zeszotarski, Jr., Poyner Spruill LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. John F. De Pue, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. ON BRIEF: George E.B. Holding, United States Attorney, John Stuart Bruce, First Assistant United States Attorney, Brian M. Murtagh, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Anne M. Hayes, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee. Barry C. Scheck, The Innocence Project, New York, New York; Andrew Good, Philip G. Cormier, Harvey A. Silverglate, New England Innocence Project, Goodwin Procter LLP, Boston, Massachusetts; Christine Mumma, North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, Durham, North Carolina, for Amici Supporting Appellant.Before MICHAEL,1 MOTZ, and KING, Circuit Judges.Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Judge KING wrote the opinion, in which Judge MOTZ joined.


KING, Circuit Judge:

In 1979, Jeffrey R. MacDonald was convicted in the Eastern District of North Carolina of the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and their two young daughters in the family's Fort Bragg home. MacDonald—who has steadfastly maintained that he is innocent of those horrific crimes—ultimately failed to have his convictions overturned on direct appeal and has since filed numerous motions for postconviction relief.

As part of his most recent effort, MacDonald secured pre-filing authorization from this Court in January 2006 for a successive 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion (the § 2255 motion), which asserted a Fifth Amendment due process claim based on the newly discovered evidence of former Deputy U.S. Marshal Jim Britt (the “Britt claim”). Shortly after MacDonald presented the § 2255 motion to the district court, the results of DNA testing previously authorized by this Court in 1997 became available. Consequently, in March 2006, MacDonald moved in the district court—without seeking or obtaining further prefiling authorization—to add a second claim to the § 2255 motion premised on the DNA test results. More specifically, MacDonald sought in his March 2006 motion (the “DNA motion”) to raise a freestanding actual innocence claim (the “DNA claim”). Additionally, the DNA motion urged the district court to consider the DNA test results as part of the “evidence as a whole” in assessing the Britt claim under § 2255. See § 2255(h)(1) (providing that successive § 2255 motion must contain “newly discovered evidence that, if proven and viewed in light of the evidence as a whole, would be sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found the movant guilty of the offense”). MacDonald also proffered additional evidence—some excluded at trial, some submitted in prior unsuccessful postconviction proceedings, and some more recently obtained—for the district court to consider in its analysis of both the Britt claim and the DNA claim.

By its decision of November 4, 2008, the district court denied the DNA motion, on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction as a result of MacDonald's failure to secure additional prefiling authorization from this Court. See United States v. MacDonald, No. 75–CR–26–3, 2008 WL 4809869 (E.D.N.C. Nov. 4, 2008) (the Opinion).2 The district court also refused to consider the DNA test results and other evidence proffered by MacDonald as part of the “evidence as a whole” relevant to the Britt claim. And finally, after performing its more searching assessment of the Britt claim than we had conducted for purposes of prefiling authorization, the district court denied MacDonald leave to file the § 2255 motion.

As explained below, the district court erred in assessing the Britt claim by taking an overly restrictive view of what constitutes the “evidence as a whole,” and further erred in renouncing jurisdiction over the DNA claim. Accordingly, without expressing any view on the proper ultimate disposition of either claim, we vacate the Opinion and remand for further consideration of both the Britt claim and the DNA claim.


Much has been written about Jeffrey MacDonald's case, by both the courts and the media. As background, we include the following recitation of the facts spelled out by the district court, in 1985, in its first postconviction decision.

In the early morning of February 17, 1970, MacDonald's pregnant wife, Colette, and his two daughters, Kristen and Kimberly, two and five years old, were clubbed and stabbed to death in their apartment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When military police arrived at the crime scene following a telephone call from MacDonald, they found MacDonald, a physician and Captain in the Army Medical Corps, unconscious and lying partially across his wife's body in the master bedroom. The bodies of Kristen and Kimberly MacDonald were found in their bedrooms. Although MacDonald had sustained a number of stab wounds, one of which partially collapsed a lung, he was treated at the Womack Army Hospital Emergency Room and released after a brief hospitalization.

On the morning and afternoon of the murders and in subsequent interviews, MacDonald told investigators that the murders had been committed by four drug-crazed intruders. He said that upon retiring at approximately 2:00 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., he found that his youngest daughter, Kristen, had crawled into bed with his wife and had wet his side of the bed. He picked her up and returned her to her own room and then went into the living room to lay down on the sofa where he fell asleep. Sometime later, he was awakened by his wife and oldest daughter's screams and looked up to see a woman with blonde hair wearing a floppy hat, boots and a short skirt carrying a lighted candle and chanting “acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” He said that three men, two white and one black, standing near the couch then attacked him, pulling or tearing his pajama top over his head which he then used to ward off their blows. The three attackers continued to club and stab him until he lost consciousness. When he awoke on the hall steps to the living room, MacDonald stated that he got up and went to the master bedroom where he found his wife dead. He said that he pulled a Geneva Forge knife out of her body and covered her with his pajama top and a bathmat. He then went to his children's rooms and unsuccessfully tried to revive them. After going to the bathroom to wash himself and calling the military police, he again lost consciousness.

The military police, the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), the FBI and the Fayetteville, North Carolina Police Department initially accepted MacDonald's account of the murders and immediately began searching for four people fitting his descriptions. At the same time, they continued to examine the crime scene and began to discover evidence which cast doubt on MacDonald's story. Although MacDonald had said that his pajama top was torn during his struggle with the three assailants in the living room, no fibers from the pajama top were found in that room. Fibers were found, however, inside and outside the body outline of Colette MacDonald in the master bedroom and in the rooms of Kristen and Kimberly MacDonald. A piece of a plastic surgeon's glove, stained with Colette MacDonald's blood, was found inside a sheet in a pile of bedding at the foot of the master bed. Moreover, although there were numerous unidentified fingerprints in the apartment, no direct evidence of the alleged intruders was found to support MacDonald's version as to what happened on the night of the murders. From this and similar evidence, investigators became convinced that MacDonald had killed his family and staged the crime scene to cover up the murders.

The Army eventually charged MacDonald with the murders and a formal pre-court martial investigation was conducted and hearings held pursuant to Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. At the close of the Article 32 proceedings, the investigating officer recommended that all charges against MacDonald be dismissed and that civilian authorities investigate Helena Stoeckley, a young woman resembling MacDonald's description of the female assailant, as a possible suspect.

MacDonald was subsequently discharged from the Army but investigation of the case continued into the early 1970's. Over six hundred witnesses were interviewed and a thirteen-volume report, twice supplemented, was prepared by the CID. Based upon this report and other evidence gathered by civilian and military authorities and testimony by witnesses, one of which was MacDonald, on January 24, 1975 the grand jury indicted MacDonald for the murder of his family. A series of pre-trial motions and interlocutory appeals delayed trial of the case until July of 1979.

During the seven-week trial of the case, the government presented extensive physical and circumstantial evidence supported by expert and lay testimony. Physical evidence ranging from the amounts of MacDonald's pajama top fibers found in various rooms in the MacDonald residence to the pattern of blood spatterings on the victims and in the rooms of the apartment was offered.

[[3 The government also pointed to the absence of evidence in the apartment linking Helena Stoeckley or anyone else to the crimes, apparent contradictions in MacDonald's numerous accounts of what transpired that morning, and the marital

difficulties MacDonald and his wife were allegedly having prior to February 17, 1970.

MacDonald's defense consisted primarily of his own testimony, character...

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