There were, however, serious discrepancies in her varying tales. One person she’d fingered as Colette MacDonald’s killer happened to have been in prison on the day of the crime; Murtagh produced the jail records. Stoeckley told private investigators that she and her friends had come to the house to hassle MacDonald for drugs, and that when the doctor refused, the violence ensued. This claim is duly reported in “A Wilderness of Error,” but Morris doesn’t step back to consider the singular, contravening fact that Jeffrey MacDonald himself had never claimed he’d talked to the supposed intruders at all.
Morris finds it deeply suspicious that police never took Stoeckley seriously. It might have been more surprising if they had. Over time, her claims got more and more outlandish. She told one man that she now remembered she’d known both Jeffrey and Colette, had applied for a babysitting job at the house, and had once gotten high with the doctor and had sex with him.
(Over the years, the government would test crime-scene evidence against Stoeckley’s fingerprints and DNA, and the fingerprints and/or DNA of several of the men she’d most frequently named as accomplices. No matches.)
This fall’s hearing in Wilmington was held partly to consider an allegation involving Stoeckley, who died of cirrhosis in 1983. Seven years ago, a former assistant federal marshal named Jimmy Britt — also now dead — signed an affidavit for the defense saying that Helena Stoeckley unambiguously confessed to him that she had witnessed the crime, an admission made, he said, during an hours-long drive when he brought her from South Carolina to testify at the trial; the next day, he said, he saw her admit this same information to a prosecutor (not Murtagh). Britt said the prosecutor told Stoeckley that if she testified to being at the MacDonald house that he’d charge her with murder. If true, that could be considered prosecutorial misconduct, resulting in a new trial. Britt said he’d finally come forward because of a guilty conscience.
The story of the Britt affidavit was in “A Wilderness of Error” to explain why Stoeckley might have lied on the witness stand in the original trial. But in Wilmington, the allegation was convincingly refuted when prosecutors called their rebuttal witnesses.
None of what was about to come out was in Errol Morris’s book, though it was available to him in public records.
Jimmy Britt, evidence suggested, had not transported Helena Stoeckley from South Carolina at all; he’d never had hours to talk to her. The transport had been done by a tag-team succession of other marshals. Some of the paperwork still survived. Two of the transporters testified.
Had Britt lied about the whole thing? His old bosses testified he was a chronic malcontent who sought the limelight; the implication was that he might be settling old scores with a made-up disclosure embarrassing to his supervisors. But how could he have thought he’d get away with it?
Murtagh proposed an answer that was characteristically precise, nerdy, complicated and effective. He entered into evidence a document he had unearthed. It seemingly had nothing to do with the case — it was just a routine receipt mailed to the U.S. Marshals Service in 2002 for records the service had sent to be archived at the Federal Records Center. The receipt, though, contained a notation that Marshals Service records now would be destroyed after 25 years, instead of the previously standard 55. The recipient of the letter was a Marshals Service administrator who happened to be Jimmy Britt’s wife, Murtagh showed.
What did this all mean? It meant, Murtagh explains to me later, that in 2002, Jimmy Britt might have had reason to believe that by 2005, records relating to the 1979 transport of Helena Stoeckley would have been destroyed, making it almost impossible to prove one way or another which marshal had done it. After remaining silent about this for a quarter-century, Jimmy Britt waited until exactly 2005 to come forward with his affidavit. (That records survived apparently was an administrative oversight.)
Jeffrey MacDonald hates Brian Murtagh.
Outside the courthouse, Colette’s brother, Bob Stevenson, is exulting, declaring the Britt affidavit “crushed, completely demolished!” Kathryn MacDonald tells me she’s sure Britt had been telling the truth, and predicts it will become obvious to everyone when the defense answers the prosecution. She adds that the judge in the case, James C. Fox, won’t be fooled by this smoke screen, since he trusted Jimmy Britt, once even adopting a puppy from him.
But the defense never answered the prosecution on the Britt affidavit. I asked the judge’s assistant about Britt and a puppy. She checked with the judge: no puppy.