First day of jury selection wraps up in Murdaugh trial, defense wants to block 3rd expert

Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 3:54 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 23, 2023 at 9:16 PM EST
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WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - Before the start of jury selection in the murder trial of former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh, his defense team had already filed a motion seeking to block testimony on potential blood evidence.

Murdaugh is charged with the June 7, 2021, murders of his wife, Maggie; and their youngest son, Paul. Murdaugh told investigators that he returned to the family’s property on Mozelle Lane in rural Colleton County to discover the bodies near dog kennels.

He was wearing a white t-shirt when he arrived at the property and that t-shirt has become a point of contention between the state and Murdaugh’s defense team after the latter has said forensic tests failed to show stains on the shirt were from human blood.

Attorneys Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian asked the court to block the testimony of Orangeburg County Chief Deputy Kenneth Lee Kinsey, a recognized expert in bloodstain evidence. The defense argues that Kinsey said after reviewing a report and analysis from Thomas Bevel, a prosecution witness, he could not form an opinion on whether the blood stains on Murdaugh’s shirt were consistent with back spatter from a gunshot.

Without such an opinion, Kinsey’s testimony would only unfairly confuse and mislead the jury. Kinsey repeated Bevel’s findings of more than 100 stains and that the smaller stains that are present after a chemical treatment appear to be high-velocity impact stains that are caused from a gunshot or high-speed machinery.

But the defense says Kinsey then pivots away from that, saying that he can’t render an opinion.

Last week, the defense filed a motion to exclude Bevel’s testimony as well. Judge Clifton Newman has not ruled on either motion so far.

Jury selection began at 9:30 a.m. Newman reversed his decision on allowing video to be streamed from the courtroom during jury selection, choosing instead to allow an audio feed, which sometimes went silent while individual jurors were interviewed in the judge’s chambers.

32 jurors qualified from first jury pool; ‘3 or 4 more’ groups to go, judge says

From the first pool of approximately 80 jurors, 32 were qualified to potentially serve.

Just before breaking for lunch, Newman told the 32 jurors to call back after 6 p.m. Monday to find out whether they would return to the court on Tuesday.

Newman instructed the jurors not to engage with anyone who may have ties to the case.

He said they had three or four more groups of jurors to talk to and hoped to narrow the pools down to one pool. From that one, the actual jurors and alternates would be selected.

Earlier in the day, the judge went through a list of potential witnesses and asked would-be jurors about any possible relationships they have with them. Notable names Newman asked jurors about included Alex Murdaugh, his surviving son, Buster; relatives Randy and John Marvin Murdaugh; former Lowcountry banker Russell Laffitte, attorney Eric Bland, and Curtis “Eddie” Smith, the man who was charged for allegedly conspiring to shoot Murdaugh during Labor Day weekend in an insurance fraud plot.

The judge asked jurors if either they or family members had been arrested or charged by the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office or SLED or has been tried by the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office or the state Attorney General’s Office. One potential juror was dismissed after she said a past dealing would affect her decisions in the case.

Another juror was dismissed after disclosing previous legal representation by Murdaugh.

Three prospective jurors — two men and one woman — were dismissed when they said they could not put aside a previously-formed opinion.

At least a dozen were allowed to push their jury duty to another trial.

Second jury pool qualifies

A second group began with fewer members and was soon taken down to around 40.

Of the 40 potential jurors, six told the court they had no prior knowledge of the case.

Thirteen of those who had heard about the case were then asked if they had already formed an opinion on the case and if that opinion would keep them from being an impartial juror. Four said yes and were asked to stay for individual meetings with Newman and the attorneys.

Three more were later dismissed, one for being employed at a connected law enforcement agency, one for being related to a potential witness and a third with charges who told the judge he would find it difficult to remain impartial.

Similar to the first pool, seven prospective jurors said they could not put aside a previously formed opinion, however they were not dismissed.

Newman also asked several other potential jurors to stay behind for further questioning.

A pool of approximately 900 potential jurors has been summoned to appear before the court.

Third jury pool qualified as day 1 comes to close

Around 5:15 p.m., Newman began the questioning of the third jury pool of the day. The pool saw the highest number of exemptions granted with 17, another 13 had their jury service transferred to a later date. Eight others were dismissed from the group.

The third pool was left with around 30 jurors with some of the prospective jurors asked to meet with Newman and attorneys in private.

As proceedings wrapped up for group three, Newman told the remaining jurors that they would be called back either late Tuesday or Wednesday morning.

One more pool of jurors is expected to be questioned Tuesday morning.

Defense looks to block “unreliable” testimony from 3rd expert

In addition to blocking two experts’ opinions regarding blood spatter found on Alex Murdaugh’s shirt the night his wife and youngest son were shot and killed, his defense filed Monday a new request to block ballistics testimony from Paul S. Greer, a forensics expert.

Greer’s testimony is regarding rifle cartridges found inside and around the bodies of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh the night of the murders.

The filing seeks to block, or at least limit, information about .300 Blackout rifle cartridges found around Maggie’s body on June 7, 2021, according to the filing. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division found several of the same cartridges on the ground at the side entrance of the Moselle property, about 300 yards from the crime scene.

Officials found additional cartridges in an area pond near Moselle Road, according to the filing, near “a field that was frequented by the Murdaugh family and guests for target practice.”

Through SLED’s Firearms Department testing the .300 Blackout rifle confiscated from the property, Greer determined some of the cartridges found near the crime scene were fired from the same rifle taken from the property, the filing states. Greer was unable to determine if they were the same cartridges found near Maggie’s body.

The document states, “the firearms analysis is neither scientifically valid nor reliable,” and is requesting Greer’s testimony be precluded from trial or that the court hold a council hearing to ensure the proffered evidence was scientifically and substantially reliable.