Among the five attorneys here, Murtagh alone has been on this case from the start; the woman who sits to his left, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Cooley, was born the year of the murder trial, nine years after the crime.
As the years have passed and the appeals continued, several times reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, as witnesses have died, as evidence has literally desiccated in file drawers, as lawyers came and went — his two co-counsel at the trial were later disbarred for ethics violations unrelated to this case — through it all, Murtagh alone persisted. At 66, he is now technically retired, but the government brought him back especially for this appeal. Jeffrey MacDonald hates him.
“The little viper” is how MacDonald described Murtagh to the grand jury hearing his murder case. Later, to reporters, MacDonald called Murtagh “a berserk person, a middle-level bureaucrat run amok ... paid with taxpayer money to do this to me.”
When Morris’s “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald” came out in September, Brian Murtagh sat in the study of the Oakton home he shares with Margaret, his wife of 43 years, and read it cover to cover, all 500-plus pages. He found it credulous, manipulative, a Swiss cheese of strategic omissions. To assert this, he typed out a rebuttal — a legal brief, double-spaced, 14 pages long, with Roman numerals and alphanumerically labeled paragraphs. It is not light reading. Morris, Murtagh writes, “doesn’t explain how 60 pieces of the pajama top, including the ripped-off pocket bearing a contact stain in Colette’s blood, could be found in the master bedroom, as well as 30 seam threads. ... ” Murtagh didn’t file this odd document anywhere. He didn’t release it to the media. It was mostly for himself.
Murtagh sounds exactly like a lawyer but carries himself exactly like a butler. You want to call him Jeeves. He’s punctilious, a bit formal, often greeting people with a courtly little bow. He views this whole case with an air of bemused exasperation, puzzled by its refusal to die. He knows his “brief” would mostly confuse people. Only two people on Earth, he says, are really in a position to understand it — to understand what a flimsy, paltry, bankrupt case for innocence Errol Morris makes.
Brian Murtagh and ... ?
Murtagh smiles grimly.
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. The weapons were a kitchen knife, an ice pick and a piece of scrap lumber used as a club. Colette was hit so forcefully that both her arms were broken. Kimberly’s skull was split open. All three were stabbed as though in a frenzy, the wounds coming from all directions, but unerringly finding vital organs and vessels.