Day 3: Murdaugh jury seated, opening statements conclude
WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC/AP) - Opening statements from each side show vastly different interpretations of what the state is calling key evidence in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial.
The 54-year-old Murdaugh is accused of killing his wife, Maggie, 52; and their youngest son, Paul, 22; at the family’s rural hunting property in the Islandton community on June 7, 2021. He is charged with two counts of murder and two weapons charges.
Before dismissing for lunch, the state reiterated that they would pursue all four charges against Murdaugh. Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman will go over the specifics of those charges after the break.
Lawyers on both sides of the trial painted wholly different pictures of the relationship between Alex, Paul and Maggie.
Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters, in his opening statement to the jury, referenced a video sent by Paul just before the murders. In the video, Waters asserts that the voices of all three Murdaughs can be heard and are easily identifiable. He uses this to place Alex at the scene of the murders on the night of June 7, 2021.
In referencing the same video, Murdaugh attorney Dick Harpootlian says the conversation captured on the video is a normal conversation about one of their chickens getting killed.
Waters pushes that Alex was rarely without his phone so for his phone to not have any activity at the time of the murders and then come back just after 9 p.m. is out of the ordinary.
The state points to a cell phone video taken around three minutes before the murders that puts Alex at the scene.
“Three minutes after a video shows he’s at the scene with the victims and he told everybody he was never there,” Waters said.
Waters says Paul’s phone went silent at 8:49 p.m. and he never read or sent another text or made a phone. Thirty seconds later, Waters said, Maggie’s phone went silent as well.
Waters also mentions that Alex had purchased three different .300 Blackout rifles, one for each of his sons in 2016 and a third in 2018 after Paul’s was stolen. Waters says investigators were only able to locate one of the rifles at the Moselle property.
Harpootlian in the defense’s opening statement describes the killing of Paul and Maggie as brutal, execution-style murders.
He asks the jury to consider how the Murdaughs could go from a loving family to Alex murdering Paul in an hour.
“So to find Alex Murdaugh guilty of murdering his son, you’re going to have to accept they went from having a extraordinarily bonding. You can see it in the Snapchat. That he executes him in a brutal fashion,” Harpootlian said. “Not believable.”
Most of the defense’s statement to the jury revolved around what they say is a lack of forensic evidence that links Murdaugh to the crime scene and to the shootings.
“There’s no forensics tying him to the murder, when I say forensics, fingerprints, blood, whatever, tying him to shooting anybody that day,” Harpootlian said. “The cellphone records indicate that he had less than 10 minutes to kill them, get up to the house, get in the car and crank it up. He’d be covered in blood.”
After opening statements wrapped up for both sides, Newman asked the state if they were ready to call the first witness.
The state said they had been prepared to call someone who responded to the scene on the night of the murders and shown footage from the worn bodycam, but the court’s audio/visual system was not allowing sound to play out.
Unable to play out the footage, the court was put into recess until 9:30 a.m.
The morning started with 122 potential jurors reporting to the courtroom. Once roll call was completed, Judge Clifton Newman began the process of whittling down the pool to 80 jurors that would make up the final group for jury selection, which began in earnest around 12:40 p.m. with the first juror number called to be selected for service.
The defense would use the first of its strikes on the second juror presented. The remaining selections saw the state use two strikes. The defense would finish the initial selections using two additional strikes.
The selection of the six alternates for the jury would see the prosecution using one strike and the defense using both of its strikes.
The jury was then sworn in and the court was put into recess for a lunch break. The makeup of the jury is four white men, six white women and two Black women. The alternates include three white men, one Black man and two Black women.
Newman also addressed concerns about graphic photos and video of the victims issuing an order to keep those items under seal.
Newman heard a series of motions on Tuesday afternoon, ultimately deciding to wait until the issues come up at trial to decide whether jurors hear evidence about blood spatter or other crimes Murdaugh is charged with. 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.
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.
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.”
Newman told the attorneys he will decide on a case-by-case basis outside the jury’s presence.
SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases
In the blood spatter evidence, Murdaugh’s lawyers said emails turned over to them by prosecutors showed an expert, who analyzed the t-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 defense expert to do their own testing or even check the original results, the defense said.
The defense agreed to wait and see if prosecutors decide to bring that expert to the stand.
The judge denied a request Tuesday by Murdaugh’s lawyers to prevent an expert from testifying that rifle cartridges found near his wife’s body have marks indicating they may have been fired from the same gun that fired other cartridges found at a shooting range on the property. Prosecutors said a similar model gun remains missing from the Murdaugh home.
The defense said recent scientific advances show ballistics experts can’t say with 100% certainty that there are unique markings linking a gun to a cartridge. Prosecutors said this kind of evidence is allowed in courtrooms all the time. Newman said defense lawyers can question the expert during cross examination.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters asked for a ruing before the jury was seated, likely because he wants to mention the evidence in his opening statement.
Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder. He told investigators 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.
Court papers filed by the defense 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 Murdaugh 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.
State agents and prosecutors took 13 months to seek murder indictments against Murdaugh. The defense motion was the first indication authorities might have one of the two guns used. No evidence has made public about a possible confession or an eyewitness account.
The trial is expected to last up to three weeks, with prosecutors and defense attorneys providing a list of 255 potential witnesses to the judge.
Copyright 2023 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.