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Dedicated Legal Partners

There was no DNA testing when MacDonald was finally tried in federal court in 1979 -- nine years after the Army had first lodged, then dropped, the charges against him. A federal judge in 1997 agreed to permit the testing of some evidence, but the process has been delayed.

MacDonald declined previously to apply for parole, although he has been eligible for 14 years, because of hope that the evidence alone would clear him, he said. But he has been encouraged to explore every option by new members to his legal team -- Tim Junkin, a Potomac lawyer and author whose most recent book, "Bloodsworth," was about the first death-row inmate freed after DNA testing; and Wade Smith, a highly regarded North Carolina criminal defense attorney who represented MacDonald at his 1979 trial.

(Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

"Their advice is, if you can go in and maintain your innocence and present all these logical reasons why you should be released, then why not try?" Kathryn MacDonald said.

Jeffrey MacDonald believes the times might also be in their favor now. People are more willing to concede that the government or the courts could make such a terrible mistake.

"Up until the mid-nineties, when I said to people, 'Don't you see, there were wool fibers on the murder weapon that don't match garments in the house?' they'd glaze over within 30 seconds. . . . But now with 'CSI' and DNA and the Innocence Project, everybody's going, 'Wait a minute, what really ties this person to this crime?' and it's a whole new ballgame."

As other families mill about, Jeffrey and Kathryn MacDonald sit, side by side, in the prison visiting room of the medium-security facility in Western Maryland. They greet each other with brief hugs and kisses and often hold hands -- the extent of the contact permitted.

Kathryn MacDonald drives here from her Howard County home as often as three times a week, putting more than 1,000 miles on her car each week, joking that the vehicle can find the facility automatically. Known as "Miss Kathy" to the hundreds of young students who have attended her drama school, she is a small woman with a ladylike demeanor and a self-deprecating sense of humor.

A performer since childhood, Kathryn MacDonald worked on USO tours and other productions and received a master's degree in video and film from American University. After her marriage to MacDonald -- her first marriage ended in divorce -- she added a paralegal degree to better assist her husband. At her drama school and theater, in a small shopping center on Route 29, she holds acting seminars, stages pajama parties and writes all the plays her students perform; the recent Christmas production involved confused Halloween characters who wandered into the wrong holiday.

Early in her correspondence with MacDonald, she was touched, she said, by the kindness and advice he offered as her mother struggled with a terminal illness. And she found "that we could talk to each other about everything."

"As time went on, we were completely committed to each other," she said. "He said, 'I want to get married, I want to have that lifelong commitment and I want that with you, but I don't ever want to put you in a situation where your life is not as good as it could be because of my situation.' "

It was hard for others to understand. When she decided to marry MacDonald, a lawyer friend of her deceased parents whom she calls "the dad figure in my life" was concerned. "Once a week, he would bring it up -- 'Have you reconsidered this?' He said: 'All I want is what is best for you. I know you love him. I know he's a good man . . . but why can't you just wait until he's exonerated?' And I said I didn't want to be telling Jeff, 'When everything is perfect -- and it's never going to be perfect -- then I'll marry you. Until that day, I'm keeping my options open.' That's not total commitment."

She said the friend, as well as her sister, who had expressed similar concerns, have come around. "Those are the first people who say now, 'You know, I've never seen you happier, despite the hardships.' They were just worried, that's all."

The wedding took place in another prison visiting room in California. It took nine months of red tape to pull off, she said, including finding a minister willing to perform the ceremony and to stand in for Jeffrey as they applied for a marriage license. Although several of Kathryn's girlfriends offered to accompany her on the trip, "I wanted to go alone," she said.

The couple wrote their vows, she in the rental car on the drive to the prison, while her husband-to-be labored over his words for days. Another inmate, who was authorized to take photographs, snapped the couple's picture as they embraced, then tossed a few kernels of rice he had managed to sneak in. "That was his present to us," she said.

Later, Kathryn MacDonald returned to her hotel room. There was a gift basket waiting from her friends. She decided to save the bottle of wine, she said, "for when Jeff comes home."

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