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Jeffrey MacDonald's New Wife Sustains Infamous Prisoner's Unceasing Pursuit of Freedom

By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page B01


Kathryn MacDonald knows the visitors' drill at the Federal Correctional Institute here in the hills of Western Maryland: Relinquish the driver's license, take off the black pumps for the metal detector, get the ultraviolet stamp on top of the hand. Accompanied by a guard, she walks into the large, noisy visiting room, and there waiting for her, smiling and waving, is her husband, Jeffrey MacDonald -- the former Green Beret doctor who continues to insist he did not kill his young family nearly 35 years ago.

When Kathryn Kurichh, who owns a children's drama school in Howard County, married Jeffrey MacDonald, now federal Inmate No. 0131-177, she also took on an infamous, disturbing and stubbornly enduring legal case.

(Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

The marriage permitted one of America's best-known federal convicts -- the subject of three books and a TV miniseries -- to transfer 18 months ago from a California prison to the Maryland facility, to be closer to his new home of record. It also gave Kathryn MacDonald a new role as her husband's chief supporter, spokeswoman and backup expert on the case.

"I certainly didn't see myself married to someone in prison," said Kathryn MacDonald, 44, who has operated the Young Artists Theatre in West Laurel for the past 10 years. "There's no glamour in it. It's not fun at all. I hate it. But I love the person."

And she believes, with an intensity that equals her husband's, that he has been wrongly accused and convicted and will be freed someday. Jeffrey MacDonald -- who is serving three life sentences for the February 1970 murders of his pregnant wife, Colette, 26, and two daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2 -- recently applied for parole for the first time since he became eligible in 1991. A parole hearing is scheduled for March 2. The couple also are hoping that DNA tests currently being conducted on some long-ago hair and blood samples will confirm what MacDonald has claimed all along: that a group of intruders wounded him and killed his family. Prosecutors, however, remain convinced of his guilt.

Now 61, MacDonald has spent more than half his life declaring his innocence. He is fit in his khaki prison uniform -- he works out an hour each day, he said -- but the young man in his twenties in the green Army beret, the oft-described "golden boy," is gone. Weekdays, he works as a prison orderly, mopping floors and cleaning toilets. He reads avidly, subscribing to 26 publications, including medical journals. After nearly 24 years in prison, he concentrates, he said, on "the next achievable goal."

"I try to compartmentalize and stick to that," he said in a recent interview at the prison. "I'm really not very good at answering philosophical questions like 'Why?' and 'Why you?' I'm just not good at it, and I find that, mentally and emotionally, I do a lot better if I don't answer those questions."

The difference in his life now is his wife, he said, "because I can talk to someone that I trust." The couple were married in August 2002, at a federal prison in California. They had met briefly many years ago in Baltimore, but it was not until Kathryn wrote Jeffrey a letter in 1997 to ask what she could do to help his case that a friendship developed. As much as the circumstances allow, they try to make their marriage a partnership: When Kathryn needed a new vehicle, Jeffrey did the consumer research and produced a 14-page report on the pros and cons of each model. When her drama students put on a new play, he receives photographs of the costumes and a copy of the script so he can imagine the performances. She is "the creative one," he said, while he is "the fact guy."

"Several years into this, we realized we had become basically a couple," he said, "despite me being in prison and Kathy being in the real world, working for a living. . . . When we realized that we were the single most important person to each other, then it seemed like a no-brainer. We wrestled with this for a long time and it finally came down to, what are two decent, sane, normal, loving people going to do in a bad situation?"

In its time, the MacDonald case was big news, unfolding on the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina at the height of the Vietnam War, coming six months after Charles Manson and his followers had left a trail of blood in California. Kathryn MacDonald, then a young girl in Baltimore, remembers seeing Jeffrey's photograph on a magazine cover. The case had staying power; even today, Internet chatters continue to debate MacDonald's guilt or innocence. Why would a young doctor with no history of violence slaughter his family? Why would a group of hippies do it? The case's many twists and turns compounded the mystery.

Jeffrey MacDonald speaks with the tireless patience of someone who has spent years poring over documents and reports released to him through the Freedom of Information Act. "Don't let me get off track here," he says often, although he seldom does. He is "devastated," he said, that much of the negative image of him derives from Joe McGinniss's best-selling 1983 book, "Fatal Vision." (MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of contract and fraud and received a $325,000 settlement from the author.) It was another book, 1995's "Fatal Justice," by Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost, that portrayed the MacDonald trial as a travesty and prompted Kathryn to write the letter that would change her future.

On his Web site, titled "A Wrongly Convicted Man -- An Egregious Miscarriage of Justice," MacDonald's supporters contend that he never received a fair trial: From the beginning, the crime scene was trampled by more than 200 people, they say, and the federal government ignored any evidence that supported MacDonald's account of intruders. Helena Stoeckley, a young woman who told police she had gone with friends to the MacDonald apartment that night, was never heard in court. MacDonald said the FOIA files have revealed, among other things, unexplained candle wax, black wool fibers and a long strand of synthetic blonde hair.

Prosecutors, however, contend that the doctor's charm and success masked a homicidal rage. They point out that Stoeckley, who died in 1983 of liver disease, was not allowed to testify because, a judge said, a drug addict's testimony could not be considered reliable. Through the years, prosecutors have not budged, calling MacDonald's account "a sham" and vowing to fight any effort to release him from prison.

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