WALTERBORO, S.C. — On Wednesday, jurors were selected and attorneys made opening statements in the trial of Alex Murdaugh, the disbarred South Carolina lawyer charged with killing his wife and son.
Judge Clifton Newman began Wednesday’s session by whittling the pool of 122 possible jurors down to a pool of 80 from which attorneys would select the final jury of 12 jurors with 6 alternates.
Potential jurors were then put before both the defense and prosecuting teams for selection in the Colleton County courtroom. During the selection process, the State used their right to strike potential jurors and the defense team struck six potential jurors.
The 18 jurors were chosen and sworn in at 1:30 p.m. There are 12 jurors, consisting of 8 women and 4 men. There are 6 alternates, all of which appear to be white males between the ages of 30 and 60 years old.
The trial resumed at 3 p.m. with opening statements.
The State, represented by lead prosecutor Creighton Waters with the SC Attorney General’s Office, went over what the State believes happened the night of the murder.
Paul was shot twice with a shotgun; Maggie was shot five times with a 300 Blackout rifle. Neither victim had defensive wounds and were shot at extremely close range.
Waters said cell phone data will show Alex Murdaugh was at the dog pens before the murders occurred.
“Murder” is the unlawful killing of a person with malice aforethought. “Malice” is the intentional doing of an unlawful act with evil intent. Malice needs to exist only a split second before the act.
Waters said circumstantial evidence is just as good as direct evidence in this case.
Waters said a key piece of evidence in this case, in addition to firearm and DNA evidence, will be cell phone evidence. Investigators can piece together the interactions of the parties in this case through tracking cell phone usage.
Waters said there are three properties owned by the Murdaughs that might be mentioned in this case.
- Moselle in Colleton County is the main house with drive (used to be an airstrip). A 3-minute walk away is the dog kennels, where Paul and Maggie were murdered. The kennels can be seen from the main house. The kennels also have a driveway that was used as a main drive on to the 1,100-acre property.
- Edisto Beach house is where Maggie reportedly preferred to stay.
- House in Almeda is where Alex’s parents lived, and caretakers currently manage.
According to the State's timeline, Maggie arrived at Moselle 8:15 p.m. on June 7, 2021 from Edisto. Around 8:30 p.m., Paul’s phone moved toward the kennels. Alex said he was napping and never went to the kennels.
At 8:44:55 p.m., Paul recorded a video at the kennels to send to a friend. On the video, Paul’s voice, Maggie’s voice – and Alex’s voice – can be heard.
Three minutes later, Paul’s phone goes silent forever. At 8:49 p.m., Paul doesn’t answer a message from his friend. Almost a minute later, Maggie’s phone goes silent.
There is no activity from Alex’s phone between 8:02 and 9:02 p.m.
At 9:02 p.m., Alex called Maggie’s phone, his father’s phone, and texted Maggie’s phone to say he’s headed to his parents’ house.
Waters asked why he called if he can see the kennel from the house? The State says Alex placed the calls to create an alibi.
Alex Murdaugh's mother has Alzheimer’s, and he was only at her house for about 20 minutes. His father was in an area hospital. Alex made calls to friends along the drive from Almeda to Moselle, again the State says, to create an alibi.
Alex Murdaugh placed a 911 call around 10 p.m.
The State will show body cam footage of the responding officers that Waters said is “gruesome.”
Waters said Alex can be heard on the recordings saying the murders were “about the boat case.”
Waters asked the jury to listen to all of the evidence, the recordings, and listen to Murdaugh’s words and pay attention to his facial expressions.
Dick Harpootlian laid out the case for the defense, starting by saying the State’s case is theory and conjecture.
He introduced Alex Murdaugh to the jury as a loving husband and loving father.
Harpootlian said the gunshot wounds to Paul amounted to a butchering, and it is not believable that Murdaugh, being a loving father, would commit the act.
The defense said Maggie was shot while she was running and then the shooter walked up and shot her in the back of the head while she was on the ground. Again, Harpootlian said that was not the act of a loving husband.
As to the State's timeline, Harpootilan said it is perfectly reasonable for Alex to see his mother a little later than usual since his father is in the hospital.
Maggie’s phone was found a quarter mile from Moselle, according to Harpootlian. Alex gave investigators the code to open the phone so investigators could locate it through Apple’s "Find My Phone' app, not something, Harpootlian says, Alex Murdaugh would do if he had killed Maggie and Paul.
What is more believable, Harpootlian said is that Alex cames home and found his family butchered.
Harpootlian said Paul’s brain was blasted across the kennel room, and Alex couldn't find a pulse on Maggie. Alex drove back to the house and called 911, Harpootlian said.
Harpootlian said you can hear Alex was hysterical on the 911 call – he goes in and out – and the call should be taken in context. He went back to the house to get a gun for protection and misloaded the gun because he was traumatized.
Defense attorney said there was no gun shot residue found on Alex. If Alex had shot Paul, Harpootlian said he would have been covered with blood, DNA, and brain matter.
The Murdaughs had a lot of guns, according to Harpootlian.
In 2017, Alex bought two 300 blackouts – one for Paul and one for Buster. Paul’s was allegedly stolen and Alex replaced it. The guns are gone and cannot be tied to the murders, the defense said.
Harpootlian said police decided the night of the murders that Alex committed the crime – without evidence.
It doesn’t matter if Alex was in the dog kennels that night, Harpootlian said, because he would have had to have executed both of them using two different firearms, changed clothes at the house, get in the car and crank it up to head over to his parents' house in about 10 minutes.
Harpootlian said there are no eye witnesses, no forensic evidence tying Alex him to the crime.
He posed a few question to the jury. Was there one shooter or two? Who was Maggie running from? Was there enough time to kill Paul, find the 300 Blackout and shoot Maggie?
Harpootlian sais Alex didn’t kill his wife and son and the State has to prove it. He must be presumed innocent and found guilty on the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
THE KILLINGS AND EVIDENCE
Murdaugh, 54, told police he found Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, 22, dead outside their Colleton County home on June 7, 2021. He said he'd been gone for an hour to visit his ailing father and mother.
Authorities released little information about the killings beyond saying that Maggie Murdaugh was killed with a rifle and Paul Murdaugh with a shotgun.
Prosecutors have not detailed direct evidence linking Murdaugh to the deaths. So far, they have filed no confession or witness statements about the killings with the court and there is no evidence that either gun has been found.
Video from Paul Murdaugh's phone timestamped not long before the killings shows the three talking without indication of anger. Alex Murdaugh's lawyers said he has never denied being at his home.
Prosecutors say there is DNA from the victims on Alex Murdaugh's shirt, but his defense said that came from checking for signs of life when he found their bodies.
The defense and prosecution are fighting over whether to allow an expert to testify that the blood splattered onto Murdaugh’s shirt when his son was shot. Defense lawyers contend the expert testing the shirt is lying and destroyed it before the defense could conduct its own tests.
Prosecutors are expected to rely heavily on evidence of Murdaugh's financial problems, which they said led him to kill to garner sympathy and buy time as he covered up his theft of clients' settlement money and other crimes.
Murdaugh's attorneys contend it is absurd to say Murdaugh would have thought his wife and son dying violently would reduce scrutiny into his finances.
The murder charges are only two of about 100 criminal counts Murdaugh faces. He also is on trial on two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime.
Still hanging over his head are a broad range of dozens of state charges. They include stealing millions of dollars from clients, diverting a wrongful death settlement from the family of his longtime maid to himself, running a drug and money laundering ring, evading taxes and committing fraud from what police said was an attempt to have someone kill him so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy.
Murdaugh also faces a number of civil suits from former clients and a 2019 boat crash that killed a teen. Police said Paul Murdaugh was driving the boat while grossly intoxicated and he faced criminal charges when the teen died. The family of the teen was aggressively trying to get information about Murdaugh family finances at the time of the 2021 killings.
The Murdaugh name is well-known in judicial circles in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Alex Murdaugh worked for the family law firm that had been in business in tiny neighboring Hampton County for a century, winning a number of multimillion-dollar settlements for fatal accidents and workplace injuries.
Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were the elected prosecutors for 87 years straight in Colleton, Hampton and three other counties.
Typically, a portrait of Murdaugh's father hangs in the Colleton County Courthouse. Judge Clifton Newman ruled that it be removed for his son's trial.
SMALL TOWN, BIG TRIAL
Murdaugh's downfall has attracted media from around the world and dozens of true crime podcasts and other coverage. It's probably the most sensational trial in South Carolina since Susan Smith was convicted of killing her children and sentenced to life in 1995 in tiny Union County.
The Murdaugh trial is taking place at the historic Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro in South Carolina's Lowcountry. The large, old Southern courtroom can seat nearly 250 people, or about 5% of Walterboro's population of 5,500.
Walterboro calls itself “The Front Porch of the Lowcountry” as a gateway to South Carolina's popular beaches. It sits along busy Interstate 95 with a drag of fast food restaurants and a smattering of chain hotels along its two highway exits.
The city has asked food trucks to help downtown restaurants handle lunchtime crowds and residents have offered their homes or businesses to media outlets to use as a base to cover the trial.