Jeffrey Robert MacDonald was an Army surgeon in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who was sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the brutal slayings of his pregnant wife Colette and their two young daughters, Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2. In February 1970, he called 911 to report four intruders attacking him and killing his family. Colette, Kimberley, and Kristen had all been beaten with a piece of lumber and stabbed dozens of times; MacDonald also sustained injuries, albeit minor ones.
Ahead of the FX true-crime docu-series about the crimes, titled A Wilderness of Error, here’s what you need to know about MacDonald’s trial and sentencing and what the show’s executive producers have to say about the whole ordeal.
MacDonald Had Both an Army Hearing and a Trial
The Army formally charged MacDonald in the slayings in May 1970. He initially had an Army Article 32 Hearing at which 17-year-old Helena Stoeckley was presented as a suspect. She was a local police informant and known drug user, according to the Fayetteville Observer. MacDonald claimed she was one of the intruders that attacked his family and she later made some comments to the police that implied she was present during the murders.
In October 1970, the charges against MacDonald were dismissed at the end of his Article 32 hearing and he received an honorable discharge from the Army. But over the years, more evidence surfaced that made it seem less likely that MacDonald was telling the truth about that night, like the fact that Stoeckley kept giving contradictory statements about the crimes, her hair and fingerprints did not match any of those found at the crime scene, and that Freddie Kassab, MacDonald’s stepfather-in-law, found numerous inconsistencies in MacDonald’s story.
Kassab filed a citizen’s complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice in 1972 and eventually, a grand jury was convened. In 1975, the grand jury indicted MacDonald on murder charges.
At the trial, the prosecution’s theory was that MacDonald argued with his wife and killed her in the heat of the moment. They thought in the altercation, Kimberley was inadvertently mortally wounded — her brain matter was found on the master bedroom doorway. So MacDonald killed Kristen as well and then gave himself wounds, invented the story of the intruders and tried to make it look as though they were patterned after the recent Mansion family murders by writing “PIG” on the wall in blood, and then called 911.
The jury deliberated for less than a day before finding MacDonald guilty of one charge of first-degree murder in Kristen’s death and two charges of second-degree murder in Colette and Kimberley’s deaths. The judge sentenced him to three consecutive life sentences and he remains incarcerated today in the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.
MacDonald has filed numerous appeals, most recently in 2018, but they have all been denied. In October 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear his case.
The Show’s EPs Aren’t Saying If They Think He’s Guilty or Innocent
Marc Smerling, executive producer and director, and Errol Morris, author of the book of the same name on which the series is based, did a virtual Q&A with the Television Critics Association in preparation for the show’s premiere. They were asked point-blank if they think MacDonald is innocent — but neither one would say for sure.
“I think we did a lot of work to present evidence and tell the story. At the end of the day, I think it’s going to be up to the people watching the series and doing their own research to decide for themselves on guilt and innocence,” said Smerling, adding, “One of the confounding things about this case is that it’s a prism. You look through it one way and you see evidence in a certain light, and you look through it another way and now evidence in another light … it’s an incredibly difficult journey to come to some sort of solid conclusion on.”
Morris added, “[You’re] hoping for some kind of definitive evidence that says it was this and not that. This case doesn’t really provide it. It provides, indeed, a nightmare of conflicting testimony against the backdrop … of a prosecution that went to extraordinary lengths to manipulate evidence and to obtain a murder conviction. Three murder convictions in this case.”
But Smerling said that they hope their show will provide some new insights into the crime.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of work we did to dig up stuff, that has not been exposed before, and it’s in found footage but also in documents and that sort of thing, and I think the viewer will get a good chance at adjudicating the evidence for themselves,” said Smerling.
A Wilderness of Error airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FX.