Here’s what happened during the first week of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial
WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - The first week of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial wrapped up Friday after a three-day jury selection, fiery opening statements and first responders detailing their response on the night his wife and son were killed.
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.
From 700 to 18
Three days of jury selection saw a pool of around 700 jurors get narrowed down into four groups. The groups were then qualified and 122 jurors were brought in on Wednesday to bring the final total to 12 jurors and six alternates.
Jury qualification questions by Judge Clifton Newman also provided insight into who might be called to the witness stand in the trial.
Newman 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.
In total, the witness list includes more than 200 names, though it’s not clear if all witnesses will be called.
Defense moves to block testimony
Before jury selection could begin, Murdaugh’s defense team sought to block testimony of potential blood evidence.
Murdaugh 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.
That motion and the defense’s motion to block testimony from another blood spatter expert were heard on Tuesday after the final panel of potential jurors were qualified.
Both sides agreed to hold a counsel hearing once that evidence is set to be presented and whether either expert will be called as a witness.
The argument then shifted toward a motion filed by the state to admit financial evidence as a basis for motive in the killings.
Newman argued that a motion in limine, a legal term that means “a motion at the start,” is typically used to exclude evidence from a trial rather than to add it.
“I’m not prepared to grant a motion to admit evidence in limine,” Newman said.
The state agreed to introduce the evidence as needed.
Prosecutors have argued that the murders were a cover-up for Alex Murdaugh’s financial misdeeds. Previously, the defense has said the state turned over millions of pages of documents during discovery about these financial crimes.
The defense says this motive is completely fabricated.
“His theory is, he knew the jig was up, so he went home, and butchered, blew the head off his son, and butchered his wife,” Murdaugh’s defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said. “There’s not one shred of evidence there were any problems between any of them. There’s texts, pictures, people that were with them the previous weekend at a ball game, video from that day with Paul and he’s having a good time. There is no dispute anywhere that they were the perfect family in terms of their relationships.”
Murdaugh also faces about 100 charges related to other crimes, including money laundering, stealing millions from clients, tax evasion and trying to get a man to fatally shoot him so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy. He was being held in jail without bail on those counts before he was charged with murder.
Finally, Newman ruled to allow the state to submit ballistic evidence.
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Agent Paul Greer was called to the stand. He told the court he had been called to testify in 25 cases as a forensics firearm expert.
The motion revolved around a series of bullet casings that were found around the body of Maggie Murdaugh. Those shells were then compared to shells found in another area of the property.
The state asserts both sets of shells came from a .300 Blackout rifle belonging to the Murdaugh family that was missing from the property.
During cross-examination by Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin, Greer was asked how confident he was that the mechanism markings from both sets of casings can be from the same weapon.
Greer responded that those were his findings.
Newman ruled that Greer could testify and the evidence could be submitted. He said any questions about the qualifications of Greer or the science would be heard in cross-examination and should be heard by a jury.
Murdaugh openers paint different, but graphic pictures of night of killings
Attorneys on both sides launched into fiery opening statements Wednesday afternoon.
Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters spoke first, and when he described Maggie Murdaugh being shot, Alex Murdaugh looked down and shook his head.
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.”
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 in 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.
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
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.
911 calls, emotions fill first day of testimony
Emotions, tire impressions, shoe impressions and 911 calls filled the first day of testimony in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial.
As the trial entered its fourth day, witnesses were called to the stand for the first time.
The state called six witnesses, two Colleton County deputies, the Colleton County Fire-Rescue fire chief, two E911 dispatchers and the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office’s lead investigator.
SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases
Thursday’s testimony began with Sgt. Daniel Greene taking the stand. Greene was the first person to arrive at Moselle on the night of the murders.
The court was shown Greene’s body camera footage in full. At times the footage was shielded from both Murdaugh and those inside the courtroom.
Greene is asked by the state to walk the court through the footage. He describes a grisly scene as he recalls seeing Paul and Maggie’s bodies laying in pools of blood.
The pure gruesomeness of the scene was reiterated by Colleton County Fire-Rescue Chief Barry McRoy.
McRoy describes Paul’s injuries as “substantial damage to his head” with lots of blood and says the blood around Maggie’s face was already congealed when he arrived on the scene.
Testimony from the first responders centered around evidence found at the scene on the night of the killings along with Murdaugh’s emotional state.
“In your interactions with Mister Murdaugh, was he able to understand your questions and respond appropriately to what you were asking?” Waters asked Greene.
“Yes,” Greene said.
“Was he panicking in any way?” Waters asked.
“He seemed upset, but I wouldn’t say panicky,” Greene said.
Dispatchers from Hampton and Colleton counties were also called to the stand during Thursday’s testimony. The original 911 call made by Murdaugh was routed to Hampton County. Tinish Bryson-Smith, who’s over the day-to-day operations told the court it wasn’t an unusual occurrence and the call would route to the nearest center. If that call was for another country then the center would transfer the call. The portion of Murdaugh’s 911 call from Hampton County until the time of transfer is played out in court.
Colleton County’s Administrative Services Captain Angela Stallings was also called to the stand. The full 911 call is played. In the call, you can hear Murdaugh say his wife and son had been shot.
The dispatcher asks if the wounds could be self-inflicted.
“Oh no, hell no,” Murdaugh said.
It’s during the initial 911 call that Murdaugh first makes mention of the Beaufort County boat crash involving Paul. He tells the dispatcher that Paul had been receiving threats and Paul knew who had been making the threats, but he did not.
Once, Greene arrived on the scene and approached Murdaugh he’s told about a shotgun that’s leaning against Murdaugh’s vehicle before Alex again mentions the boat crash and Paul receiving threats.
Murdaugh’s defense team used the first day of testimony to question the preservation of evidence by first responders.
During cross examination, Harpootlian suggested that law enforcement on the scene may have contaminated evidence. Greene testified no one was wearing protective shoe coverings but said everything deputies were shown doing in bodycam video was proper procedure.
Another witness, Cpl. Chad McDowell told Harpootlian his role was to move the sheet covering Paul Murdaugh’s body as detectives searched for a possible weapon under his body.
Harpootlian asks what Murdaugh was wearing on the night of the killings. McDowell described Murdaugh in a white shirt and shorts. McDowell testified he did not note any blood on Murdaugh and would have reported it if he had seen any.
The first interview is heard, blood on the Suburban
During the course of Friday’s testimony, jurors heard the first interview Murdaugh had with investigators just hours after his wife and son were killed.
It was also revealed in court that the black Suburban that Murdaugh was driving on June 7, 2021, had been swabbed in nearly a dozen places around the driver and passenger sides. Those swabs preliminarily tested positive for blood.
Colleton County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Laura Rutland was the first witness called Friday morning. She was the investigator who secured the search warrant for the Moselle property on the night of the murders.
Rutledge was questioned by Prosecutor John Meadors on her role on the night of the murders. Rutland, along with SLED Agent David Owen, interviewed Murdaugh around 1 a.m. while still on the scene of the shootings. Murdaugh and a man he identified as his personal attorney Danny Henderson.
The informal interview is inside Owen’s car because of the rain.
Murdaugh can be heard breaking down during the interview as he tells them about finding Paul. He says he tried to turn Paul over and says his cell phone fell out of his pocket so he picked it up and decided to place it back down “real quick.”
Murdaugh says he went to Maggie next. When asked if he touched Maggie he says yes but says he tried to be limited.
Murdaugh then tells them he called 911 and called his brothers.
Owen asks Murdaugh to describe his relationship with Maggie and Paul.
“How about yours and Maggie’s?” Owen said.
“Wonderful,” Murdaugh said. “I’m sure we had little things here and there but we had a wonderful marriage, a wonderful relationship.”
“And your’s and Paul’s relationship?” Owen said.
“As Good as it could be,” Murdaugh said.
He also described the relationship between Maggie and Paul as “wonderful.”
He’s asked about problems lately. Murdaugh brings up the boat crash again and says Paul has been punched and hit before because of the crash. He doesn’t think he knows the full story but is aware of the threats.
After listening to the interview, Meadors asks about a point when Murdaugh mentions trying to move Paul’s body and checking Maggie’s pulse.
Meadors asks Rutland how Murdaugh could have checked Paul’s pulse before asking about Murdaugh’s appearance.
Rutland remarks that Murdaugh appeared to be clean and she could not see any blood on his clothes, hands, arms or shoes.
Rutland also testifies that she didn’t see footprints or kneeprints in the blood.
“Is the individual that you describe as clean head to toe sitting in this courtroom?” Meadors said.
Rutland points out Murdaugh in the courtroom.
In cross-examination, Attorney Jim Griffin asks Rutland about Murdaugh’s appearance.
He says if Murdaugh was clean then did Rutland believe he looked like someone who had just “blew his son’s head off.”
Rutland would tell Griffin that she couldn’t make that assessment based on the information available to her.
During the redirect portion of Rutland’s questioning, Meadors again asks about Murdaugh’s appearance. This time if the clothes looked fresh, again Rutland replies with a yes.
Griffin comes back and points to a section of the interview video and asks if Murdaugh’s clothes looked fresh out of the laundry.
Rutland said yes because Murdaugh was sweating and his clothing was dry.
The state also used SLED Agent Melinda Worley’s testimony to introduce loads of evidence including more photos, items collected during the autopsies of Maggie and Paul and ammunition found around the property both fired and unfired.
The biggest evidence introduced during Worley’s testimony was nearly a dozen swabs that were taken from Murdaugh’s black Suburban. The swabs were taken in various places on the driver’s side of the vehicle including the steering wheel, front of the seat and the door handle. The swabs tested presumptive for blood. Later, agents returned to collect the entire seatbelt from the driver’s side of the vehicle.
The defense did not get a chance to cross-examine Worley on Friday with Harpootlian telling the judge that his questioning could take several hours.
The trial will continue Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. and is expected to last several weeks.
Copyright 2023 WCSC. All rights reserved.