5 Convicted Murderers Who Might Actually Be Innocent

Their cases were supposedly open-and-shut – but could these famous killers be wrongfully imprisoned?

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Jeffrey MacDonald
The case of Jeffrey Macdonald (right) has been debated for decades. AP2/5

Jeffrey MacDonald

Nearly 50 years ago, Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret surgeon with the United States Army, was accused of murdering his pregnant wife Colette and two young daughters near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was exonerated by a military court in 1970, but nearly 10 years later, was convicted on criminal charges. Now he's fighting to prove his innocence based on new evidence which he claims supports the account he's given all along.

MacDonald has always said that four intruders – three men and one woman – attacked the family in February 1970, while chanting "acid is groovy; kill the pigs." His two daughters were stabbed to death in their bedrooms, while MacDonald and his wife were found in theirs. "PIG" was written in blood on the headboard. Colette had been stabbed nearly forty times with an ice pick and a knife. MacDonald had been stabbed just once which caused his lung to partially collapse.

Despite his injuries, Army investigators didn't buy MacDonald's account and charged him for the murders in May 1970. After seventy witnesses testified at the a six-week-long Article 32 hearing, the presiding colonel exonerated MacDonald and urged civilian authorities to pursue another suspect – a drug-addicted police informant named Helena Stoeckley, who matched MacDonald's description of the female intruder, and her Army-vet boyfriend, both of whom reportedly told witnesses they were involved.

For the next few years, MacDonald went on with his life, but in 1974, his once supportive stepfather-in-law, now convinced of his guilt, filed a citizen's criminal complaint that ultimately led to MacDonald being indicted for murder. Prosecutors argued that MacDonald got the idea to stage the crime scene and blame a hippie gang from an article in Esquire about the Tate-LaBianca murders, perpetrated by the Manson Family. MacDonald took the stand in his own defense, but withered under cross examination. He was convicted and sentenced to three life terms.

Since then, MacDonald's case has continued to attract attention and debate. In 1983, MacDonald was the subject of the true-crime bestseller Fatal Vision, written by Joe McGinniss, which portrayed MacDonald as a calculating sociopath and inspired a made-for-TV miniseries. (A subsequent book, Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, eviscerated McGinniss's approach and has since become a classic on journalistic ethics.) MacDonald's supporters include filmmaker Errol Morris – director of the classic 1988 wrongful-conviction documentary, The Thin Blue Line – who reexamined the case in his 2012 book A Wilderness of Error, a 500-page opus which detailed how much of the evidence was lost, uncollected, contaminated or unconvincing.

There have also been decades of failed appeals, most recently in 2014. But in January 2017, MacDonald filed a federal appeal based on new evidence, including three hairs found at the scene that don't match the family's DNA, and an affidavit alleging that the trial prosecutor intimidated Stoekley into lying on the witness stand. While the unidentified DNA is also not a match for Stoekley (who is now deceased), MacDonald's attorneys say it proves there was an intruder. It's unclear when the federal court of appeals will deliver their decision.

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