Murdaugh openers paint different, but graphic pictures of night of killings

Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 6:05 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 25, 2023 at 6:47 PM EST
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WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - Attorneys on both sides in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial insist the evidence will either clearly show or clearly call into question his role in the deaths of his wife and son.

Murdaugh, 54, is charged with two counts of murder and two weapons charges in the fatal shootings of Maggie Murdaugh, 52; and Paul Murdaugh, 22. The killings happened at the family’s hunting property in the Islandton community of Colleton County on June 7, 2021.

Members of the Murdaugh family were led into the courtroom to seats behind the defense table after the jury was seated. Alex Murdaugh turned around after they were all seated and acknowledged them.

Murdaugh’s sister, Lynn, and brothers Randy and John Marvin were there along with his surviving son, Buster.

But it wasn’t until his attorneys started talking about the gruesome murders that he started showing emotion. Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters spoke first, and when he described Maggie Murdaugh being shot, Alex Murdaugh looked down and shook his head.

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

Waters attempted to poke holes in Murdaugh’s alibi and says he has the evidence to prove Murdaugh is the killer.

“You’re going to hear three recorded statements on video that he gave with law enforcement and you’re going to hear how things progress about what he says and what he says he did that night,” Waters said. “Watch those closely. Watch his expressions. Listen to what he’s saying. Listen to what he’s not saying.”

Waters told the jury they will hear that about a week after the killings, Murdaugh showed up early in the morning at his parents’ home, something “uncharacteristic” of him.

“He comes in. He’s carrying something in a blue tarp and he takes it upstairs. And eventually, law enforcement finds out about that, and they go upstairs and they find upstairs a wadded up very, very large raincoat, in a blue color, that could look like a tarp. And you’re going to hear evidence it was coated with gunshot residue on the inside,” he said, adding there would be “a lot” of forensic evidence in the case.

A key piece of evidence Waters said the jury would hear is cell phone evidence as the three Murdaughs were “prolific cellphone users.”

He said evidence from cellphones will show that when Maggie Murdaugh arrived at the Mozelle Lane property at about 8:15 p.m., that Paul Murdaugh was there at the main house.

“About 15 minutes after they arrived, Paul’s phone starts moving toward the kennels,” Waters said. “You’re going to hear evidence, again, the defendant said he was never at those kennels, that he was napping after [the three ate dinner together] and that he was at the main house and never went there.”

But he said evidence of a video Paul Murdaugh recorded at the kennels just before 8:45 p.m. contained what witnesses identified as the voices of Paul, Maggie and Alex at the kennels.

Waters claimed the evidence will show Alex Murdaugh was at the kennels just three minutes before his son’s cellphone “locks forever.”

“Three minutes after a video shows he’s at the scene with the victims and told everybody he was never there,” Waters said.

READ MORE: Day 3: Murdaugh jury seated, opening statements conclude

Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian began his opening statement saying it is “an honor” to represent Murdaugh.

“I say it’s our honor because I submit to you what you’ve heard from the attorney general as ‘facts’ are not. Are not,” Harpootlian said. “They’re his theories, his conjecture.

Harpootlian asked Murdaugh to stand as he described a loving father and loving husband.

“You’re not going to hear a single witness say that their relationship, Maggie and Alex’s relationship, was anything other than loving. You’re going to hear about how they went to a baseball game the weekend before. You’re going to hear about their relationship. You’re going to see texts and emails indicating a loving relationship,” Harpootlian said. “Paul, the apple of his eye. You’re going to see a video somewhere between 7:30 and 8 o’clock the night of the murders with Paul and Alex riding around looking at some trees they planted. It’s a Snapchat that Paul sent to other people because the trees were not planted very well. They were cantilevering over. They’re laughing. They’re having a good time.”

Harpootlian then tried to poke holes Waters’ assertions about the cell phone records.

“Now the cell phone records, and you’re going to hear this from their own experts, are incomplete,” Harpootlian said.

He said they found Maggie’s cell phone the night of the killing on the side of the road about a half-mile or so away from the crime scene.

“They found it by using ‘Find My iPhone.’ And the way they did, that they had to open it or have access. Who gave them the code to open the phone? Alex Murdaugh,” he said.

Harpootlian also said cellphone data will show that at 9:06 p.m., as he cranks his car and telemetry data shows his phone connecting with his car, Maggie’s phone was being thrown on the side of the road almost a half-mile away.

“Now that is Houdini. That is magic. That is inexplicable,” he said.

‘It’s going to be gruesome’: Both sides warn jury about photos

One thing both sides did seem to agree on is the brutality of the scene captured in crime scene photos of the bodies. Both told jurors they would see those images.

“It’s going to be gruesome. No other way around it. What he did,” Waters said. “You’re gonna see crime scene photographs. You’re going to see the traumatic injuries and their suffering. We’re gonna hear from a pathologist, a doctor who will examine the injuries. It’s going to be gruesome. There’s no other way around it. On that 911 call and on the body-worn cameras. Pay attention to what he says. Look at how he’s acting.”

READ MORE: Judge orders crime scene, autopsy media into sealed evidence in Murdaugh trial

Waters said within a few minutes of the videos, Murdaugh told investigators, “This is about the boat case,” an apparent reference to the boat crash that killed Mallory Beach.

“And you’re gonna hear so well what was going on in Alex Murdoch’s life leading up to that day, stuff that happened that very day, stuff that was leading up a perfect storm that was gathering,” he said. “Listen to that gathering storm that all came to a head on June 7, 2021, the day, the evidence will show he killed Maggie and Paul.”

Harpootlian said even after having seen the crime scene photos for the last four or five months, the image still shock him.

“It’s still was tough to look at. It still bothers me,” he said. “And [Murdaugh] comes home and finds his son laying in his own blood with his brain laying at his feet, shot to hell. He walks over, he checks to see if there’s any life there. Although, I mean, he’s seen his brain laying outside his body. He knows there’s nothing there. He goes over and tries to get a pulse out of Maggie. No pulse there. He calls 911. I want you to hear that 911 tape. It is a man hysterical in grief, trying to, trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Harpootlian went on to describe Paul’s injuries in graphic detail as some jurors seemed to grimace. Alex Murdaugh had tears running down his face.

Harpootlian told the jury they will hear witnesses explain that his head “literally exploded” from the shotgun blast and that whoever fired was “probably no more than three feet away.”

“You would be covered in blood from head to foot, in blood. They seized [Murdaugh’s] clothes that night, SLED did, and they tested — well, first of all, you’re gonna see in the videos from the agent, the officers who arrived that night, there’s no blood on him. They didn’t find any blood on him,” Harpootlian said. “SLED’s testing indicated 12 different places on his shirt and pants. No human blood detected, period. You’ll see pictures, a white t-shirt. No blood on it. Those are facts. Those aren’t theories.”

Harpootlian then told the jurors Murdaugh’s behavior in videos showed a man who was hysterical at the loss of his wife and son.

“So anything he said that night is in the context of just an hour or two before, finding his wife and son butchered,” he said.

Harpootlian acknowledged that Murdaugh, feeling concerned for his own safety because of the possibility that his family’s killers may still be nearby, went to the main house to get a shotgun and returned to the kennels. But because officers arrived to see Murdaugh holding a weapon, Harpootlian suggested they decided that Murdaugh was already guilty “without forensics, without cellphones, without any of that.”

“And they’ve been pounding that square peg in the round hole for the last — since June of 2021, resulting in charges in September of 2022,” he said.

After Wednesday’s opening statements, Circuit Judge Clifton Newman excused the jury for the day.

The trial will resume Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m. with the first day of testimony.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.