March 23, 2010 -- The infamous "Fatal Vision" case could be thrust back into the national spotlight as the legal team of convicted murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald got about 45 minutes in court today to prove he deserves a new trial.
However the family of one of MacDonald's alleged victims is holding out hope he will remain in prison for the rest of his life.
It's been 40 years since MacDonald's wife, Colette, and their two young daughters were brutally murdered in their home in Fort Bragg, N.C., and 31 years since MacDonald, a former army surgeon, was convicted in their murders. He claimed that a group of people, high on drugs, attacked him and murdered his wife and children.
The murders came just six months after the Charles Manson killings and immediately captivated an already shocked nation, spawning the book and TV miniseries "Fatal Vision."
MacDonald's lawyer, Joseph Zeszotarski, argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., that MacDonald deserves a new trial, based primarily on statements made by people tied to the case that had not previously been heard and new DNA findings that MacDonald's team wants submitted to the court.
"MacDonald asserts that evidence submitted shows that he is actually innocent, and shows that his trial was infected with constitutional error," his appeal says.
"I think that the judges listened very carefully to our argument," Hart Miles, another of MacDonald's lawyers told ABC News. "I think they will give it very serious consideration, and hopefully they'll agree all evidence needs to be reviewed, including the DNA evidence."
"Katherine and Dr. McDonald are obviously anxious, but also hopeful. They are looking forward to seeing what the Fourth Circuit decides and moving forward from there."
Prosecutors declined to comment on the appeal.
'Fatal Vision': Jeffrey McDonald Seeks New Trial
"Jeff is basically on a fifth appeal," Kathryn MacDonald, his wife of nine years, told The Associated Press. "I can't think of any other case like this one, where 40 years after the fact it's being litigated as to whether the person is factually innocent or not."
She said today after the hearing that she was "encouraged" by the appeals court's questioning.
Robert Stevenson, Colette MacDonald's only sibling, and his wife, Vivian, said they hope the appeal will be denied.
"I see no reason why he should get out, his excuses are miserable," Vivian Stevenson told ABC News. "He did it, he's a mass murderer. We've got our fingers crossed the judge will see it that way."
A ruling on whether or not MacDonald will get an appeal is expected in the next few weeks.
MacDonald, who was an army captain and surgeon assigned to Fort Bragg, said in his trial that on the night of Feb. 17, 1970, he was attacked and knocked to the ground by a group, including a woman with long blond hair, a floppy hat and brown boots, holding a candle.
As he was trying to get back on his feet, MacDonald, who was 26 at the time of the killings, said he overheard the woman saying, "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs," according to court documents.
Helena Stoeckley, a self confessed drug addict, came forward after the murders and claimed to investigators she may have been involved and was the woman MacDonald had seen in his house.
When she was called to testify, however, Stoeckley denied she had any memory of the four-hour period during which the murders took place.
The government's theory was that MacDonald had "got into a fight with his pregnant wife because his youngest daughter, Kristen, had wet the bed; that he picked up a club to strike his wife and accidentally struck and killed his daughter, Kimberley, who was trying to intervene; and that then, in order to cover up his accidental misdeed, killed his wife and then mutilated and killed his youngest daughter and tried to make it look like a cult slaying," court papers said.
'Fatal Vision' Killings: New Questions About MacDonald Case
Prosecutors argued that the wounds MacDonald suffered, including stab wounds and a punctured lung, were either self-inflicted or the result of his struggle with Colette.
MacDonald was found guilty and sentenced the three life sentences for the murders.
Statements made by Stoeckley's mother and by a former U.S. deputy marshal are two key pieces of evidence the defense said they would like to have examined in this appeal.
Stoeckley's mother, Helena, swore in a 1997 affidavit before she died that "on two separate occasions, my daughter confided in me that she was present in the MacDonald house on February 17, 1970."
She also said her daughter told her they decided to go to MacDonald's house originally to intimidate him because they felt he was being too hard on drug users in the Fayetteville, N.C., area.
MacDonald was known to counsel and see drug users in his position as medical officer at Fort Bragg, and in his private practice in the Fayetteville area, according to court documents.
Did the Prosecution Pressure Helena Stoeckley?
Jimmy Britt, who was a U.S. marshal at the time of the trial, underwent a polygraph test in 2005 when he stated that he overheard the prosecutor during the trial, Jim Blackburn, pressure Stoeckley to change her testimony, including telling her she would be indicted for murder if she testified she was inside the MacDonald home at the time of the killings.
The polygraph administrator found no deception evident in Britt's statements, according to court papers.
Another retired deputy, Lee Tart, said in an 2005 affidavit that Britt told him in the fall of 2002 something that had been troubling him about the MacDonald case.
"He said Helena Stoeckley told him that she had been in the MacDonald house on the night of the murders. He said Helena Stoeckley told Jim Blackburn, the prosecutor, the same things during his interview with her," Tart said.
"Mr. Britt told me thereafter Jim Blackburn told Helena Stoeckley that if she testified to these things in the courtroom he would indict her for murder," Tart said.
Britt and Stoeckley are both dead, however, and prosecutors said in court papers that allowing those statements without live testimony would be "improper."
The government also argued that the DNA crime scene evidence MacDonald wants allowed should be excluded, because it is not among the items authorized for appeal.
MacDonald did not attend the hearing today, remaining in a federal prison in Maryland, but his wife told the AP he would like his medical license back if he is exonerated and freed.