Two murders in North Carolina, separated by 21 years and 50 miles, have recently been united by the ability of scientific testing to cast doubt on the convicted. In one case, handled by state authorities, a special commission helped exonerate the wrongfully convicted. The other, under federal jurisdiction, has seen courts view piecemeal claims of innocence and reject, until late last month, pleas to consider the evidence as a whole. Taken together, the two cases highlight the procedural hurdles of the federal system that serve to unacceptably hinder claims of innocence.

Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a Green Beret physician convicted in 1979 of murdering his wife and two daughters at his apartment near Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1970, asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit last March for a full review of the findings unearthed in the decades since his first trial — both the forensic evidence and the prosecutorial misconduct (resulting in suppressed evidence) that have put into question his conviction. After courts for decades examined one by one the steady trickle of exculpatory evidence — and rejected MacDonald’s request for a new trial each time — the 4th Circuit on April 19 ordered the long-overdue and heretofore elusive review of the “evidence as a whole.”

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