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Takeaways from Murdaugh trial: Three weeks, dozens of witnesses

The defense hopes to start its case in middle of next week and had planned a week of testimony

Alex Murdaugh listens to testimony about cellphones during his double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in Walterboro, S.C.
Alex Murdaugh listens to testimony about cellphones during his double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in Walterboro, S.C.Joshua Boucher (AP)

Three weeks into disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial, prosecutors have called dozens of witnesses offering wide-ranging – and sometimes disjointed – testimony.

Jurors have heard from the investigators who found the bodies of Murdaugh’s wife and son, and technicians who found gunshot residue, cracked open cellphones to get videos and tested dozens of ammunition casings.

They’ve heard from betrayed law firm employees, heartbroken friends of Murdaugh and his family, and a man whose insurance settlement was stolen after his mother, the Murdaughs’ housekeeper, died in a fall at their home.

But witnesses have been called in disorganized groups and tantalizing scraps of evidence have been introduced but not explained. The defense hopes to start its case in middle of next week and had planned a week of testimony but is rethinking that because of the trial’s length.

Here are some key takeaways from the trial so far.

Financial crimes

Murdaugh, 54, is charged with murder in the deaths of 52-year-old Maggie, shot several times with a rifle, and their 22-year-old son, Paul, shot twice with a shotgun at kennels near their Colleton County home on June 7, 2021. He faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted.

The disbarred lawyer also faces about 100 other charges ranging from stealing money from clients to running a drug and money laundering ring.

Much of the week’s testimony focused on whether Murdaugh stole money from his family’s law firm and clients. Prosecutors contend Murdaugh thought he was about to get caught stealing and killed his wife and son to buy time to cover up the money trail.

The office manager from the family law firm said Murdaugh stole millions in fees and client settlements. A law school buddy said Murdaugh took advantage of his trust and left him to pay $192,000 to keep his client trust fund balanced. The son of the Murdaughs’ housekeeper and nanny who died in a fall testified Murdaugh promised to get them a hefty insurance settlement for the death but kept more than $4 million collected for himself.

The defense objected to each witness, saying there was no evidence linking the killings to financial misdeeds.

“This is piling on. This is more trying to prejudice the jury into believing somehow someone who steals a bunch of money in any way whatever would commit a murder,” Murdaugh lawyer Dick Harpootlian said.

Disjointed case

Prosecutors have called 47 witnesses in 12 days of testimony, but at times there has been little rhythm to the order.

This week, the caretaker of Murdaugh’s mother testified about a blue jacket Murdaugh might have held when he visited but then other witnesses testified about financial crimes before the state forensic scientist who tested the jacket for blood and gunshot residue took the stand.

Long, tedious testimony has focused on cellphone data between Paul Murdaugh’s friends.

Some intriguing evidence has been introduced but never explained to jurors, who do not have notebooks to keep track of testimony.

A crime scene technician put into evidence a receipt with a $1,021.10 item from Gucci circled, but it hasn’t been brought up since. An FBI technician gave the times Murdaugh’s SUV was shifted into and out of park the night of the killings without interpretation.

The accused

A courtroom camera is trained on Alex Murdaugh every moment he is in court. Several cameras wait for him as he gets in and out of a prison van each day.

At the beginning of the trial, Murdaugh cried and rocked in his chair several times as crime scene photos of his wife and son were shown and described. Prosecutors and defense have said the aftermath of the shooting was gruesome. Agents testified Paul Murdaugh’s brain was detached from his skull with a close range shotgun blast.

Murdaugh has adamantly denied killing his wife and son. His lawyers said he was visiting his ailing mother the night of the murders and police wrongly focused on him from the start.

Murdaugh cried Thursday as the defense showed video of a family birthday party weeks before the killings.

But during the financial crimes testimony, Murdaugh has been much more stoic, listening and occasionally speaking to his lawyers.

Technological wizardry

Within weeks of the killings, state agents wanted data from the SUV Alex Murdaugh drove to visit his mother the night of the killings and from Paul Murdaugh’s cellphone.

But both devices were encrypted and impossible to crack in 2021.

Advancements in hacking allowed agents to get into Paul Murdaugh’s iPhone data last year and they found one of the key pieces of evidence so far – a video he took of a dog at the family’s kennels about five minutes before investigators said the killings took place. Several witnesses have said all three Murdaughs can be heard in the video taken near where the bodies were found.

Alex Murdaugh told police both right after the bodies were found and again a few days later he was never at the kennels.

A FBI agent testified he worked for a year to crack the encrypted data from the computer entertainment and information console on the SUV the family law firm provided Murdaugh.

Along with other information, he extracted the times the vehicle was shifted into and out of park, although he couldn’t tell if the vehicle was in motion or someone had their foot on the brake. The agent said he also could tell when the windows were raised or lowered, but never said if that happened during Murdaugh’s 20-minute ride to his mother’s home the night of the killings.

Maggie Murdaugh’s cellphone was recovered from the side of a road the day after the killings.

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