A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that courts must consider all relevant evidence of innocence when deciding whether to grant a defendant’s writ of actual innocence. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Virginia issued the ruling in a case brought by Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Captain in the Army Medical Corps who claims he was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters back in 1970.
MacDonald has maintained that four drug-crazed hippies broke into his Fort Bragg, N.C., home, knocked him unconscious and killed his family, according to the Associated Press. In MacDonald’s latest request to be exonerated, he presented DNA test results from a hair found under the fingernail of his 5-year-old daughter that did not match anyone in his family.
There was also a recent statement from a retired US Marshall who came forward with information that another suspect in the case, Helena Stoeckley, admitted to the prosecutor that she was in the house on the night of MacDonald’s murder and that the prosecutor threated to indict her for first degree murder if she admitted that in court.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the ruling has ramifications beyond MacDonald’s case.
“The problem we have in so many innocence cases is all these procedural bars prevent the entire story from getting out in trying to determine if there was a wrongful conviction,” said Scheck, whose organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief in MacDonald’s case. “The court is saying you have to consider everything.”
In addition to the statement from the US Marshall and the DNA evidence, the appeals court said the lower court should consider statements by Stoeckley’s boyfriend, Greg Mitchell, and her mother that support MacDonald’s version of the events. Mitchell and the elder Stoeckley also are dead.
The court made it clear that its ruling was only saying the lower court must consider all the evidence, and not that MacDonald deserves a new trial.