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Habeas Corpus-The Great Writ and Jeffrey MacDonald

In 1979 then Captain Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted in the federal court in North Carolina for the brutal murders of his wife and three daughters in 1970. MacDonald maintained that three men accompanied by a drug fueled woman chanting, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs” entered his home, brutally beating and stabbing him. MacDonald awoke to find his wife with a knife still embedded in her body and called for the military police. The case took a number of bizarre turns as he was first arrested by military authorities and later released when a military judge determined that the charges were not true. He was subsequently indicted by a federal grand jury and convicted. He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences and has been incarcerated for 33 years, while constantly maintaining his innocence. His conviction was overturned on appeal but ultimately reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980. The case became the basis for the book, Fatal Vision, as well as a TV series.

A hearing was concluded last week in North Carolina before a federal judge where MacDonald has claimed that he was denied due process of law. Central to his attack on his conviction were claims based on statements of witnesses long dead surrounding the testimony of Helena Stoeckley at his original trial. His attorneys had sought to have the judge consider DNA evidence discovered in 1998 as well as claims from late federal Marshal Jimmy Britt that he was present when the trial prosecutor purportedly coerced Stoeckley to testify falsely. Stoeckley later gave a statement that she had been present in MacDonald’s home that night when her boyfriend and two accomplices committed the murders. Former prosecutor, James Blackburn testified at the new hearing that Britt was not present when Stoeckley was interviewed.

How does a case get re-visited 33 years later? MacDonald sought the ancient legal remedy of Habeas Corpus. Also known as “The Great Writ” habeas corpus literally translated from medieval Latin means “we command that you have the body.” The full Latin term is habeas corpus ad subjiciendum et recipiendum; it was a command to bring before the tribunal a prisoner who challenged the legality of his detention. In addition to serving as a basis to challenge a claimed wrongful conviction, it exists in other forms today as well. Habeas corpus ad prosequendum is a direction to the custodian to produce a prisoner for trial. Habeas corpus ad testificandum is a command to produce that prisoner in other proceedings to testify.

Through the years the Writ has been used and abused by prisoners. Complaints run the gamut from legitimate collateral attacks on a conviction to ridiculous claims of maltreatment by jailhouse “lawyers.” In the federal arena the Writ has been codified in the United States Code. The proceeding is in the nature of a civil, not criminal action. 28 USCS § 2255 provides, “If the court finds that the judgment was rendered without jurisdiction, or that the sentence imposed was not authorized by law or otherwise open to collateral attack, or that there has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner as to render the judgment vulnerable to collateral attack, the court shall vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate.”

The habeas judge, James Fox, had previously ruled to exclude much of the testimony presented last week but an Appeals court ruled last year that Fox failed to consider evidence of innocence that had been part of prior proceedings through the years, as well as claimed newly discovered DNA evidence. For those wrongly convicted, the remedy of habeas corpus provides a slim modicum of hope for exoneration. For others who deserved their conviction it keeps the wounds of victims and their families still bleeding long after the case should have come to a close.

Rich Meehan