Judge rules in favor of defense in Murdaugh case

Former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh was in a Colleton County courtroom Friday afternoon while a judge heard pending motions.
Published: Dec. 9, 2022 at 8:32 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 10, 2022 at 8:15 AM EST
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COLLETON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh was in a Colleton County courtroom Friday afternoon while a judge heard pending motions.

Murdaugh is charged in the June 7, 2021, shooting deaths of his wife, Maggie, and their youngest son, Paul.

Judge Clifton Newman said Murdaugh himself must be present for the hearing. Murdaugh appeared in the courtroom without handcuffs per the defense’s request.

The first thing Judge Newman ruled on was the evidence found on the shirt Murdaugh was wearing the night Maggie and Paul were murdered.

According to background stated in the motion, the night Maggie and Paul were killed state law enforcement agents collected the white cotton t-shirt Murdaugh was wearing when he found their bodies.

According to the motion, the murder scene was gruesome and there was a large amount of blood that transferred to Murdaugh’s hands and clothing when he was checking for signs of life.

The motion states there were multiple different types of tests done on the shirt for blood and DNA -- which resulted in multiple pieces being cut out.

In November, Murdaugh’s counsel requested the state send the shirt to an outside laboratory so photographs could be taken of the areas where the state’s expert claims blood spatter is present consistent from a gunshot.

However, after viewing the shirt and seeing its condition with multiple pieces cut out and multiple chemicals used for tests Murdaugh’s counsel filed this motion.

On Friday, the defense argued that SLED agents appeared to convince their expert to change their opinion on whether it was blood splatter evidence.

Lawyer Dick Harpootlian asked for an evidentiary hearing regarding the meeting between SLED agents and an expert witness on blood spatter. He claimed he changed his mind after meeting with them, without explanation.

Waters admitted in court that he was the one who made the decision that SLED agents visit the expert in person, not to mail the shirt, explaining the reason for the in-person visit. Waters also indicated he had not seen the report until as recently as late November, and the AG’s office is currently reviewing the findings to determine if they will be admitted as evidence

Judge Newman granted the defense’s motion to compel to produce evidence related to the altering of photographs of the blood-spattered shirt.

Judge Newman also ordered that the portrait of Alex Murdaugh’s grandfather that hangs in the courtroom be taken down.

A recent defense motion sought an order stating that Murdaugh will not have to be shackled during such hearings leading up to his trial, which is set to begin in January. That motion requested he not have to wear shackles during courtroom proceedings “in which news media are present with video cameras.”

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

The motion cites U.S. Supreme Court cases that have forbidden shackling criminal defendants during a trial without “a special need” because shackling is “an inherently prejudicial practice” and “should be permitted only where justified by an essential state interest specific to each trial.”

“There is no specific, special need to shackle Mr. Murdaugh in the courtroom,” the motion states. “He has not -- and is not alleged to have -- engaged in any behavior suggesting he is a threat to the courtroom or will somehow escape from it.”

The state’s short response stated it would “leave matters of security in the sound judgment of this court as informed by the police officers responsible for safety in the courtroom.”

A second motion, filed this week, seeks a “bill of particulars” from prosecutors about the alleged motive they intend to claim that Murdaugh would have had in the killings. Murdaugh attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin asked for “sufficient particularity to allow the defense to identify relevant inculpatory or exculpatory evidence in advance of trial,” court documents state.

The defense team argues the state should provide the information to “avoid unnecessarily extending the trial by weeks.” They based the suggestion on the extensive amounts of documents related to the financial crimes. But, they said, the murder indictment “provides no clarity whatsoever as to how these millions of pages are relevant to the murders” and said the amount of evidence “demands some guidance from the state as to relevance.”

The state, on the other hand, argues that the financial crimes are at the center of the murders.

In a 23-page answer, the state said on Thursday the court should not only deny the defense request but instead grant the motion to admit details of Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes, for which they say he faces 90 charges from 18 state grand jury indictments.

There was no ruling on whether the state could submit its millions of documents related to Alex Murdaugh’s alleged financial schemes, but lead prosecutor Creighton Waters argued you can’t have one without the other.

The distraction the murders provided, worked he said. But only until it came to light Murdaugh had asked a client to write him a personal check, which led to renewed scrutiny by his former law firm about missing money.

The defense argues that the state’s theory just doesn’t cut it and not all the financial evidence should be submitted.

“Demonstrating that fact, Murdaugh — within just over 30 seconds of beginning to speak to the first officer to arrive at the crime scene on June 7, 2021 — suggested to law enforcement the killer’s motive stemmed from the February 2019 boat wreck that resulted in the tragic death of Mallory Beach,” the document states. “In fact, Murdaugh expressed certainty and stated he knew ‘that’s what it is’ [the boat case] to the responding officer. Thus, based on his own statements, Murdaugh placed motive into issue from the outset of law enforcement’s investigation into the killings, and he tried to tie that motive to events that had occurred more than two years earlier.”

Prosecutors state that based on evidence uncovered since the killings, Murdaugh was the “only individual with a true motive to kill his wife and son.”

The state argues Murdaugh used the murders as a means to buy more time to cover his tracks and deflect looming financial and personal ruin.

They also point out, the same day Murdaugh was shot in the head in a reported suicide-for-hire plot he met with a client he allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from.

During a similar motions hearing held last Friday, the defense and prosecution agreed on a jury questionnaire that potential jurors will fill out before jury selection begins.

This hearing is the fourth pre-trial hearing since Murdaugh was indicted in the killings.

Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial is set to begin in less than two months.

The full hearing can be viewed below: