WALTERBORO, S.C. –
Before testimony begins in South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial, defence lawyers will ask the judge to make a pair of key rulings this week that could strike a massive amount of evidence from the case.
Prosecutors want to present voluminous evidence of Murdaugh’s bad behaviour and the numerous other crimes he is charged with to show he killed his wife and son to buy time to prevent his other wrongdoings from being discovered. Defence attorneys don’t want the judge to admit the evidence, contending prosecutors are trying to smear Murdaugh to bolster a weak case.
When Circuit Judge Clifton Newman hears arguments after the jury is seated, Murdaugh’s lawyers also will try to convince him to refuse to admit evidence that authorities said will show blood from his slain younger son spattered on Murdaugh’s shirt. Defence lawyers said the shirt was destroyed before they could test it and there is evidence the expert examining the shirt changed his conclusions under pressure from state agents.
Murdaugh’s lawyers also want to prevent an expert from testifying that rifle cartridges found near his wife’s body have marks indicating they may have been fired from one of five guns taken from the home. The defence said recent scientific advances show ballistics experts can’t say with 100% certainty that there are unique markings linking the gun and ammunition.
Jury selection continued Tuesday as the court tries to get 900 people down to a pool of more than 100 potential jurors to select the final panel of 12, plus six alternates. The final group of potential jurors was whittled down Tuesday morning and told to return Wednesday morning for final jury selection.
Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder in the deaths of Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, 22. Murdaugh told investigators that he found their bodies outside their Colleton County home on June 7, 2021. He said he’d been gone for about an hour to visit his ailing father and mother.
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 US$10 million life insurance policy. He was being held in jail without bail on those counts before he was charged with murder.
Usually, the prosecution’s key evidence is known well beforehand in prominent South Carolina trials, whether it’s Susan Smith’s confession that she rolled her car into a Union County lake and drowned her children or surveillance footage showing Dylann Roof with his distinctive haircut enter and exit a Charleston African American church where he killed nine members in a racist attack.
But little is known about the state’s case against Murdaugh outside of the disputed blood spatter evidence, subpoenas of Google and Snapchat and mentions of videos taken at the Murdaughs’ home where the killings took place.
Court papers filed by the defence this week included a crime scene report detailing that Maggie Murdaugh was shot at least four times and appeared to be moving when she was wounded and Paul Mudaugh was shot twice, once with buckshot and once with smaller birdshot. Both were killed by shots to the head.
When asked during a preliminary hearing about what evidence they would produce, prosecutors presented a detailed timeline of how Murdaugh’s wife and son were killed the same day a paralegal at a law firm reported he might be stealing money.
They contend Murdaugh shot the two to distract attention from his financial jam and that evidence of other crimes on which he is awaiting trial is relevant to illustrate how a father and husband could commit such a horrible act.
Murdaugh’s lawyers said it defies logic for an attorney to think scrutiny of his life would decrease when his wife and son were found shot several times with two different guns. They maintain prosecutors are trying to smear him because they appear to have no other significant evidence.
State agents and prosecutors took 13 months to seek murder indictments against Murdaugh. The defence motion was the first indication authorities might have one of the two guns used. No evidence has been made public about a possible confession or an eyewitness account.
In the blood spatter evidence, Murdaugh’s lawyers said emails turned over to them by prosecutors showed an expert, who analyzed the shirt Murdaugh was wearing when he said he found the bodies, initially determined there were no blood spatter stains, only spots that could have happened when Murdaugh checked to see if his son and wife were still alive.
The expert changed his mind several weeks later after state agents flew to his home in Oklahoma, according to the emails cited by Murdaugh’s lawyers. Testing on the shirt used chemicals that made it impossible for any defence expert to do their own testing or even check the original results, the defence said.
Prosecutors said at a December hearing that there could be problems with the blood spatter work but asked to huddle with investigators. They haven’t commented on the subject in court papers or the courtroom since.
Murdaugh’s trial is expected to last up to three weeks, with prosecutors and defence attorneys providing a list of more than 200 potential witnesses to the judge.