Defense tries to toss financial evidence in Murdaugh murder trial
WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - Alex Murdaugh’s defense team on Thursday tried unsuccessfully to prevent two witnesses from taking the stand in the Murdaugh murder trial.
Murdaugh is charged with the 2021 murders of his wife and youngest son at the family’s Colleton County property.
Questions arose from a GoFundMe account linked to Shelley Smith seemingly created by her children “for her bravery.”
Attorney Mark Tinsley, another witness in the case, made a donation of $1,000 to the account before being called to the stand Thursday afternoon.
Murdaugh attorney Phillip Barber said the donation was improper stating Tinsley had a financial stake in the outcome of the trial, but he could not find a legal reason to block Tinsley’s testimony.
Judge Clifton Newman allowed Tinsley’s testimony and said the donation would be “good fodder for cross examination.”
Smith was the former caretaker of Murdaugh’s mother, Libby. She testified Monday that Murdaugh had visited with his mother for 15 - 20 minutes on the night of the murders and had been told by Murdaugh that he was there for 30-40 minutes.
Smith also testified that Murdaugh came to the house holding a blue tarp and later identified a raincoat that was found balled up in a closet at the home.
The defense tried unsuccessfully to get that testimony taken out of the court record.
The defense also tried blocking the testimony of Tony Satterfield.
Satterfield, the son of former Murdaugh housekeeper Gloria Satterfield, testified that Murdaugh stole $4 million from him and his brother after the trip and fall death of their mother at the Murdaugh’s Moselle home.
“This is a murder trial, not a financial fraud trial,” Dick Harpootlian said.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters pointed to text messages between Satterfield and Murdaugh in April 2021 to show the link between the testimony and the state’s proposed motive.
“This testimony is consistent with the state’s theory,” Newman said.
Satterfield testified he was informed of the settlements in June 2021 after the murders.
“At any time did he ever pay you one penny?” Waters said.
“No,” Satterfield said.
Tinsley was called to the witness stand at the end of Thursday’s proceedings.
He testified that, while representing the family of Mallory Beach, he was trying to get a settlement for the family after her death in the 2019 boating accident in Beaufort County.
Jurors heard from Tinsley about how he had filed a motion to compel against Murdaugh personally because he had been told Murdaugh was broke and didn’t believe it.
Tinsley said he was seeking $10 million from Murdaugh and was told Murdaugh might be able to get $1 million together.
The hearing for the motion to compel was scheduled for June 10, 2021, just three days after the murders.
Tinsley’s testimony was cut short after an objection from the defense led to Newman sending the court into recess for the day.
Murdaugh’s former best friend Chris Wilson testified earlier in the day that Murdaugh stole $192,000 from him after he was confronted by his law firm about missing fees from a case the two had tried together.
Wilson said he had written the attorney’s fees checks out to Murdaugh personally instead of the law firm because he was told the firm was aware and had authorized the fees to be written to Murdaugh personally.
Murdaugh said the fees were going into separate annuity accounts as protection in response to him being named in a lawsuit that came out of the 2019 Beaufort County boat crash that killed Mallory Beach, Wilson said.
Wilson told Waters that he trusted Murdaugh and said the two were best friends and had been roommates while in law school together.
Wilson testified he spoke with Murdaugh almost every day.
“One of your best friends?” Waters said.
“Yes sir, very much,” Wilson said. “Not just my best friend, Mr. Waters. Our families were close. Our kids. Our wives were close.”
Wilson said he first learned of the missing fees on June 2, 2021, when he was added to an email between his paralegal and Murdaugh’s paralegal.
Wilson and Murdaugh had won two cases against Mack Trucks for around $5.5 million with Murdaugh set to receive $792,000 in fees from the case.
That’s when Murdaugh asked Wilson to make the checks out to him personally and the law firm knew about it and the money had been added to the book, Wilson testified.
Wilson said Murdaugh contacted him in the middle of July about the fees and told him he was having problems getting the annuities set up and would need to send the money back to Wilson to put in his trust account and pay to Murdaugh’s law firm.
Murdaugh only sent $600,000 and left Wilson to front the other $192,000 with his own money that he was never repaid, Wilson said.
Wilson said he went to Moselle on the night of the murders and arrived around 1 a.m. and was directed to the home and not the kennels
“I walked in, hugged his neck and cried,” Wilson said.
Wilson testified he was concerned about Murdaugh’s mental state after the murders and was worried he might try to harm himself.
Murdaugh signed a promissory note to pay back the money owed to Wilson in August 2021. Wilson said he wanted to make sure he could get the money if something had happened to Murdaugh.
Wilson said he received a call from one of the partners at Murdaugh’s law firm on Sept. 3, 2021, and was told about Murdaugh stealing from the firm and clients and that he was going to be forced to resign.
Wilson said he met with Murdaugh on Sept. 4 on the front porch of Murdaugh’s parents’ house at Almeda.
Wilson said he confronted Murdaugh about the theft and he admitted to stealing the money and also to a 20-year opioid addiction.
Wilson said he wanted to know if he had been involved in any of Murdaugh’s other schemes.
Wilson said, during the confession, Murdaugh told him: “I’m sorry. I’ve s--- you up. I’ve s--- a lot of people up.”
Wilson said he left feeling angry and had no meaningful interactions with Murdaugh since.
“Did you ever get that $192,000 back?” Waters said.
“No sir,” Wilson said.
The defense tried to downplay the state’s motive theory in the cross examination of Palmetto State Bank CEO Jan Malinowski.
Jim Griffin asked about the bank’s relationship with Murdaugh prior to the murders and if they had any reason to scrutinize Murdaugh’s accounts.
Malinowski testified that they had completed a financial audit of Murdaugh’s relationship with the bank in 2020 and saw no reason to change anything about the relationship.
Still, prosecutors asked about Murdaugh’s finances around June 7, 2021, and were told Murdaugh’s debt to the bank was $4.2 million and he had two lines of credit that were almost maxed. They pointed to a $750,000 loan taken out in July 2021 that didn’t hit the books until August of that year.
In cross examination, Malinowski said things like that had happened before.
The trial was originally supposed to last three weeks but at the end of day 14 Harpootlian raised the question of when the state will rest its case and allow the defense to call witnesses.
“At some point in this case the defense will have the opportunity to call witnesses,” Harpootlian said. “I’m not sure when that will be.”
Waters argued that he had been open with the defense about witnesses that would be called each day.
“He wants to know, when are you gonna be through,” Newman said.
Waters said he believed the state would be finished by the middle of next as Harpootlian noted the defense would take at least a week for their case.
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