Asking for Freedom but Not for Forgiveness
Monday, May 9, 2005
When former Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald appears at his first parole hearing tomorrow in Cumberland, Md., he will provide a detailed account of his 25 years as a model prisoner. What he will not offer is any statement of remorse for the 1970 slayings of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, because, now as always, MacDonald maintains that he is innocent.
"He is going to continue to assert his innocence, at the same time presenting the merits of why he should be released at this time," said Kathryn MacDonald, who married Jeffrey MacDonald in prison in 2002 and will be speaking on his behalf. "It is an avenue he is legally entitled to pursue. And he has a wife who loves him and a home and all the support he needs."
MacDonald, 61, whose notorious case has been the subject of several books and a television miniseries, has been eligible to apply for parole since 1991 but had refused to do so because, he said, it would involve a tacit admission of guilt. This year, he changed his mind, urged by his revamped legal team to explore all options for release. His marriage to Kathryn MacDonald, which led to his transfer from a California prison to the Western Maryland facility, also influenced the decision, she said.
His stance is unusual. The majority of prisoners coming before the U.S. Parole Commission asking for release say they are sorry for the crimes they were convicted of, commission spokesman Tom Hutchinson said. But nothing in the commission rules says that an expression of remorse is required for parole, he said.
"You evaluate a person on a whole bunch of things. You start off by evaluating the severity of the offense and the person's criminal history," Hutchinson said. "It gets dicey when a person expresses innocence -- you can't accept responsibility for it when it's something you say you never did."
Kathryn MacDonald, 44, who owns a West Laurel children's drama school, said that "even given the frustrations of being wrongly convicted, he has done everything expected of him, and more. He is an ideal candidate for parole."
But some are determined, even from beyond the grave, to see that MacDonald is not released. His former in-laws felt so strongly about his guilt that when they died in 1994, they left behind a letter and a videotape to be presented to the parole commission for review. It is not likely that the tape will be played at the hearing, but it will be included in the files given to the commission.
Bob Stevenson, 65, the only sibling of MacDonald's slain wife, Colette, said he promised their stepfather, Alfred Kassab, "on his deathbed" to fight MacDonald's parole efforts.
"The fact is, this is a sociopath, and in one moment, he destroyed his family and mine," said Stevenson, a Huntington, N.Y., resident, who will speak at the hearing. "This is a stupid game, a stupid exercise, a waste of his time. Of course, he won't get out."
MacDonald's parole hearing falls on what would have been the 61st birthday of Colette MacDonald, who was 26 when she died on Feb. 17, 1970, along with daughters Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2. MacDonald has always said that a group of intruders entered their apartment on the Fort Bragg Army post in North Carolina, stabbed and bludgeoned his family to death and left him seriously injured. An Army hearing cleared him. But a 1979 federal jury rejected his account, and he received three consecutive life sentences.
An appeal gained MacDonald his freedom, but the appeals court ruling was overturned in 1982, and he has been in prison ever since, through an array of civil suits and appeals.
The MacDonald case continues to elicit strong emotions decades later. Internet chatters weigh in daily on the most obscure details of the case, and the parole hearing has been a fiercely debated topic. Over the years, the Princeton-educated MacDonald, who had no previous criminal record, often has been the subject of news interviews, always appearing hopeful of vindication.
The parole hearing, like most such proceedings, will be closed to the news media and the public at MacDonald's request, Hutchinson said. MacDonald and his wife will speak, as will Stevenson and Brian Murtagh, who was the federal prosecutor at the 1979 trial. Murtagh declined to comment.
The hearing will be conducted by a parole examiner, who can question MacDonald and others and who will make a recommendation to the commission, Hutchinson said. A final decision probably will take several weeks, he said.
"This is not the sort of proceeding you see on TV," he said. "It's not adversarial, it's not like a courtroom. The prosecutor may be there to offer a viewpoint, but it's not a fixed role." If MacDonald is denied parole, he can apply again in two years.
As he prepares for the trip to Cumberland, Bob Stevenson said that he is "delighted" at the prospect of seeing his former brother-in-law face-to-face for the first time since a court hearing in the 1970s.
"I want him to burn with the lashing of my words," said Stevenson, who submitted a 15-page letter to the commission arguing against MacDonald's release. "Why should he get out? Because he's a nice guy? Because he's been there long enough? No, he hasn't been there long enough for the enormity of his crimes."
But Kathryn MacDonald said her husband has served his sentence "with grace and dignity."
The parole commission, she said, is "a group of professionals, and I am certain he will be given due consideration like everyone else. It's out of our hands, really, but we hope, obviously, for a favorable decision."