May 27, 2024

Alex Murdaugh trial updates: A defense error, a best friend’s testimony

Alex Murdaugh trial updates: A defense error, a best friend’s testimony

Alex Murdaugh, the alleged perpetrator at the center of one of the most byzantine true crime cases in recent memory, is finally getting his day in court. Alongside his indictment last year for allegedly murdering his wife, Maggie, and his second son, Paul, Alex Murdaugh (pronounced “Alec Murdoch”) also faces over 100 counts of financial crimes including fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

So if you thought the trial for the 2021 murder of Murdaugh’s wife and son, which finally began on January 23, would be a routine affair, guess again. So far, the Murdaugh trial has brought us bizarre and gruesome opening statements, a “yanny/laurel” moment in the courtroom, and a head-spinning defense mistake that may explode the whole trial — and we’re just at the beginning.

Going into trial, the case against Alex Murdaugh has seemed largely circumstantial — but there’s a staggering amount of circumstances, implicating Murdaugh in not one, not two, but five suspicious deaths since 2015. (Check out our explainer on the head-turning twists in this case for the full picture.) As a member of an elite South Carolina family of high-powered lawyers, Murdaugh gained a local reputation for being able to manipulate the justice system and bend other people to his will, all with very little accountability. That all changed in 2019 with the death of Paul’s friend’s girlfriend, Mallory Beach, in a boating incident. Paul was allegedly piloting the boat while drunk.

Throughout the ensuing investigation, Alex drew scrutiny for attempting to obstruct any potential prosecution against his son, which only raised more questions about other suspicious deaths to which he had ties. These included the 2011 death of Hakeem Pinckney, a client whose insurance payout Alex allegedly stole; the 2015 death of Stephen Smith, a gay college student who was rumored to have connections to his other son, Buster; and the 2018 death of the Murdaughs’ housekeeper Gloria Satterfield from a mysterious head injury incurred at the Murdaugh estate, after which Alex allegedly embezzled life insurance money from her family. Speculation only increased following the double homicide of Maggie and Paul, which took place on the Murdaugh estate on June 7, 2021. Alex’s behavior after their deaths didn’t alleviate suspicion; he was subsequently arrested for insurance fraud after reportedly hiring someone to kill him and stage it to look like a murder.

By this point, the Murdaughs were making national headlines, so when Alex pleaded not guilty to the two murder charges in 2022, he guaranteed a media circus of a trial. But you need more than just proximity to a string of murders to secure a conviction, and with all eyes on the Colleton County Courthouse, where the trial began last week, questions about what actual evidence the state had against Alex loomed large.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Both attorneys in this case have a flair for the dramatic

Opening statements kicked off with a bang on Wednesday, January 23. After a jury selection process that winnowed a pool of over 900 candidates down to 12 jurors and six alternates, chief prosecutor Creighton Waters led by describing Maggie and Paul’s injuries — two shots for Paul with a shotgun, at least five shots with an assault-style rifle for Maggie — and actually saying, “Pow, pow!”

“It’s complicated. It’s a journey,” he told jurors, describing the whole case as a puzzle they were slowly putting together. He laid out the evidence, much of it new and much of it forensic, that the jury could expect to hear, including gunshot residue all over Murdaugh’s clothes and car, and cellphone evidence that apparently debunks Murdaugh’s alibi.

Then, with Alex Murdaugh openly weeping at parts, his defense lawyer, Richard “Dick” Harpootlian, gave quizzical instructions to the jury: “He didn’t do it, and you need to put any thought that he did from your mind,” he told them. “There’s no direct evidence. There’s no eyewitnesses. There’s nothing on camera. There’s no fingerprints. There’s no forensics tying him to the crime. None.” He also repeatedly asserted that Paul and Maggie were “butchered,” which arguably didn’t help his case.

“He didn’t do it. He didn’t kill — butcher — his son and his wife, and you need to put out of your mind any speculation that he did.”

While his theatrics may be off-putting to some trial junkies, don’t write Harpootlian off just yet: When he’s not serving in the South Carolina state Senate, the 74-year-old Harpootlian is a veteran trial attorney who’s worked as both prosecutor and defense lawyer, known for hoodwinking opponents at trial with sneaky but effective tactics. In the Murdaugh trial, he was bringing his particular dramatic flair to the courtroom long before opening statements began, attempting to overturn a protective order in August and accusing the prosecution of withholding crucial evidence from the defense. There’s no evidence that that’s true, but it does indicate that we can expect some grandstanding along the way.

Alex Murdaugh’s alibi may be a bust

In Alex’s now-infamous 911 call on the day of the murders, he claimed he arrived at his family’s dog kennels at their “Moselle” estate after spending some time with his mother, only to find the bodies of his wife and son. Prosecutors allege instead that he lured his family there (his sudden interest in getting her out to the heavily wooded house prompted Maggie to text a friend that he was “acting fishy”) and shot them with two different weapons.

To try to prove it, the prosecution opened with a never-before-seen cellphone video from Paul’s phone shortly before the murders. While at the kennels, Paul took a video of himself playing with one of the dogs. Prosecutors argue that in the background, you can hear two additional voices — implying that one of them is Maggie and the other is Alex.

Prosecutors allege that this video, which was filmed on Paul’s phone at 8:44 pm, took place roughly five minutes before the shootings, based on when Paul and Maggie stopped looking at their phones and replying to texts. That would place Alex firmly at the scene before the murders, contradicting his version of the timeline.

The prosecution’s reliance on this video is crucial, since they don’t have GPS location data from Alex’s phone on the night of the murders. Activity data from Alex’s phone, on the other hand, indicates about an hour within the time frame before the murders during which no steps were recorded, indicating Alex could have been driving a vehicle.

On the opening day of testimony, the court viewed Alex’s initial, half-hour interview with police, which occurred shortly after the murders. In that footage, Alex is wearing a shirt that appears to be completely clean, and speaks in a way that has led to questions about whether he is faking tears. Investigators on the scene were initially suspicious of Alex because of his overall calm demeanor when discussing details.

A lot of this forensic evidence is circumstantial — but that doesn’t make it any less damning

So far, direct forensic evidence has been thin on the ground. For example, on February 3, fingerprint expert Thomas Darnell testified that he couldn’t identify specific prints on the gun or phones found at the scene, so hopes of a telltale fingerprint Alex may have left behind seemed dashed.

Among the key evidence the prosecution has provided is ballistics evidence, mainly pertaining to gunshot residue found on Alex’s clothing and all over his car, including the seat and seatbelt. In his opening statement, Waters also promised the jury they would learn about a blue raincoat that Murdaugh apparently took and left at his mother’s house following the murders — which had gunshot residue all over the inside.

But gunshot residue, though compelling, is still shaky forensically — it can transfer to a person who simply holds a gun without firing it, and it can transfer easily from one person to another. The defense claims the gunshot residue is due to Alex picking up one of the guns after the murder, though it hasn’t addressed why Alex would do that.

The presence of gunshot residue, however, presents a mini-mystery: It doesn’t explain why Alex’s clothes largely appear to have no bloodstains, mud, or any dirt from contacting the victims. In Alex’s telling, he checked the bodies of his wife and son to see if they were still alive. This lack of residue could be a mark in favor of the defense (he didn’t shoot them, so he didn’t get blood on himself) or for the prosecution (he changed clothes to hide the blood or wore the raincoat to protect himself from splatter). One blood spatter expert could potentially testify that Murdaugh did have blood on his clothes, but given that this evidence is pretty shaky forensically, it’s unclear whether the prosecution will call on him.

Much of the other ballistics evidence is more damning — evidence that the defense had previously fought and failed to exclude. The prosecution claims simply that the ammunition used to kill Alex’s wife and son matched ammo found all over the Murdaughs’ considerable estate. Specifically, the 300 Blackout rounds used to kill Maggie and the 12-gauge shotgun shells used to kill Paul both matched ammunition on the estate. Examples of matching ammo included unused boxes in the family “gun room” and spent shell casings found around the estate’s hunting grounds. Witnesses have also testified that Murdaugh had a customized AR-15-style rifle made for him. This type of gun is compatible with the bullets used to kill Maggie and aligns with the evidence that Murdaugh used such a rifle to kill her.

“I” vs. “they,” and other unanswered questions

As things in the courtroom heated up on Monday, one investigator claimed on the stand that, while speaking to him through tears, Murdaugh said, “I did him so bad,” referring to the state of Paul’s body. This led to a melodramatic exchange in which the defense provided a slowed-down version of the frankly indecipherable audio in question and asked him whether he heard “I” or “they.” While the agent stuck to his original claim that he heard the word “I,” the Rorschach nature of the audio only underscored that thus far, the state’s evidentiary case has been lacking in hard evidence.

A “humanizing” birthday video — and a major defense mistake that opened the door to a shocking timeline reveal

On February 1, the defense unexpectedly entered a short video into exhibit that showed Alex celebrating his birthday at home with family and friends. The video showed Alex smiling and laughing as a group gathers around to sing “Happy Birthday.”

But the video, which the defense introduced to show a softer side of the defendant, had an unexpected consequence: Because it introduced a character argument into the trial, it created an opening for a wealth of prosecutorial evidence that the judge had previously ruled inadmissible: Alex Murdaugh’s alleged years of financial fraud and related schemes, which were unraveling in the lead-up to the murders of his wife and son.

The sudden reintroduction of all this evidence meant that the trial has been halted several times throughout the week to allow the judge to entertain whether specific pieces of testimony will be admitted. Some of that testimony, given without the jury present, has included allegations that Alex created fraudulent bank accounts, as well as tearful testimony given on February 2 from one of Murdaugh’s former best friends, attorney Chris Wilson.

Wilson testified that despite their lifelong close friendship, Murdaugh manipulated him after their firms worked together on a lawsuit. When the time came to split the proceeds, Wilson claimed that Alex had asked him to make out a $792,000 settlement check directly to him, Alex Murdaugh, instead of to his law firm. When Wilson called him out, Murdaugh returned $600,000 to him but asked Wilson to front him the other $192,000. Wilson did, and Murdaugh never paid him back the money. Wilson’s testimony was the most emotional point of the trial thus far, with both he and Murdaugh appearing visibly moved. “I had loved the guy for so long, and I probably still loved him a little bit,” Wilson said, “but I was so mad.”

The same day, the judge heard from Jeanne Seckinger, chief financial officer of the Parker Law Group, the firm where Murdaugh worked until he resigned in September 2021. Seckinger revealed that she had confronted Alex on the morning of the murders about the missing $792,000 settlement check from Wilson — funds she believed he had kept for himself rather than turn over to the law firm. She said Alex gave her “a dirty look” and told her he had the funds and would return them soon. (Seckinger is the sister-in-law of another player in this saga — Russell Laffitte, a former bank CEO who was convicted last year of financial crimes connected to Murdaugh’s alleged financial schemes.)

This startling news puts the timeline of Maggie and Paul’s death in a new perspective. It also points toward the prosecution’s theory that Alex’s motive for the double homicide may have been to distract the firm from his alleged embezzlement and buy himself time to recover the funds. By Seckinger’s account, it worked: “Nobody wanted to harass him” after the murders, she said, describing him as “distraught and upset and not in the office much.”

It’s currently unclear if any of this evidence will be allowed into the trial; the judge is still intermittently hearing new evidence and has yet to rule on its admissibility.

That’s far from the only unsettled part of this case. With a list of 255 potential witnesses, this trial could go on for quite some time. But so far, one week into the evidence, we still have some major unknowns.

What was the motive? The prosecution has leaned into the idea that Murdaugh wanted to gain sympathy for himself by killing his wife and son, while drawing on the insurance money — and we know that he wanted that for his remaining son, Buster, because he later admitted to trying to stage his own murder to make it happen. But it seems far-fetched at best that a double homicide, timed as it was, would point scrutiny away from Murdaugh. Were there other suspects who had good reason to kill either Paul or Maggie, or to implicate Alex in their deaths?

Did he have help? Neither Paul nor Maggie had defensive wounds; it seems unlikely that Alex would have been able to kill them both with different weapons without one or both of them putting up a fight. Given that the evidence points to an “ambush,” per the prosecution’s opening statements, how would Murdaugh be able to kill them both? And if he had help, who was it from? Some have suggested Eddie Smith, the alleged drug dealer who wound up helping Alex stage his botched fake murder attempt. Alex had paid Smith more than $150,000 in the months before the murders, but we still don’t really know why.

We look forward to these questions being answered at trial. So far, though, this case has left us with more questions than answers — many of which, due to the deaths of Paul and Maggie, will remain forever unanswered.

Update, February 3, 3:15 pm ET: This story was originally published on February 2 and has been updated to include the latest developments from the trial.