Day 12: Gunshot residue expert explains ‘particles’ found on Alex Murdaugh, clothes
Alex Murdaugh, a once prominent Hampton-based attorney from a well-known politically-connected family, is on trial in the deaths of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul.
Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty. He faces life in prison without parole if found guilty. The trial started Jan. 23 with jury selection, opening arguments and the initial round of witness testimony. For now, the trial is expected to stretch at least another week, through Feb. 17.
How to watch the Murdaugh double murder trial, who to follow from The State, Island Packet
5:34 p.m. — Court adjourned until Wednesday
Prosecutors have ended their questioning of SLED forensics expert Megan Fletcher.
Shortly after, Judge Clifton Newman ended court for the day. Cross-examination of Fletcher will start at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
At the end of her testimony Tuesday, prosecutor John Meadors finally revealed why the state’s opening statements placed such emphasis on a blue rain jacket recovered from Alex Murdaugh’s mother’s house that they say tested positive for gunshot residue.
“If a recently fired firearm were wrapped up inside that jacket, would that be consistent with your findings?” Meadors asked.
“There is a possibility of that, yes,” Fletcher confirmed.
Fletcher said her examination revealed a “significant” number of particles on the inside of the rain coat, more than were found on the jacket’s exterior. She said 38 particles were “consistent” with gunshot primer residue, whereas Murdaugh’s T-shirt had three.
The particles can be spread by being close to a gunshot, touching something that already had gunshot residue on it, or someone wearing clothes and firing a gun themselves, Fletcher said.
The blue jacket was first examined in October 2021, Fletcher said. She said particles will stay on a surface until they’re “actively removed.”
A murder weapon has never been recovered.
Meadors’ questioning hints prosecutors allege Murdaugh wrapped a potential murder weapon in the coat and hauled it away to hide evidence.
The coat may have been big enough to do so. Fletcher said it had to be spread over two tables for lab employees to take samples.
Defense attorneys Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian have already established the Murdaugh family were prolific hunters and gun users, with numerous firearms strewn across the Moselle property. Paul Murdaugh and his friends would often ride ATVs around Moselle’s woods and hunt wild hogs.
Murdaugh’s defense team may rebut the state’s suggestion by pointing at how common gunfire was on the property, therefore gunshot residue likely was at Moselle.
5:04 p.m. — Alex’s clothes had particles ‘consistent’ with gun residue
SLED forensics expert Megan Fletcher said the clothes investigators seized from Alex Murdaugh the night of the murders had particles “consistent with gunshot primer residue” on them.
Two particles were identified on the right side of the white T-shirt SLED recovered, Fletcher said. She noted the shirt also smelled of laundry detergent, uncommon for lab evidence that usually smells “musty.”
Another particle was discovered on the left side of the shirt.
Fletcher also testified three particles were lifted from Murdaugh’s shorts. One particle was found on his hands, she said.
Particles can be transferred by firing a gun, being near a firearm when it’s fired, or touching something that already had gunshot residue on it.
“I can’t say which is more likely (in this case),” Fletcher said.
Friends of Paul Murdaugh’s previously testified the family had several guns on the property, and members of the family often used the guns for hunting.
When Murdaugh called police the night of Maggie and Paul’s deaths, Murdaugh told 911 that he ran to grab a gun after discovering their bodies. He was seen in body camera footage with a shotgun, which investigators seized.
Cleaning an item, exposing it to “environmental factors,” like wind and rain, or blood and debris on the item, could remove gunshot primer residue particles, Fletcher said, responding to a question from prosecutor John Meadors.
No gunshot residue particles were found on the shoes SLED analyzed, Fletcher added.
4:40 p.m. — State calls forensic scientist to stand
Ronnie Crosby has left the stand.
Prosecutors called Megan Fletcher, an agent with the State Law Enforcement Division, who specializes in gunshot residue and trace evidence analysis.
Controversy has swirled around a blue raincoat recovered from Alex Murdaugh’s mother’s home about a week after Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were murdered. Prosecutors claim the coat had gunshot residue on the inside.
Following testimony from the caretaker for Murdaugh’s mother, Mushelle Smith, defense said no witness could link the raincoat to Murdaugh and asked it not be considered as evidence.
Smith said she saw Murdaugh carrying something that looked like a blue tarp into his mother’s house, but never identified it as a blue raincoat. She later said she’d never seen the blue raincoat SLED agents recovered from the home.
Earlier Tuesday, Judge Clifton Newman said the testimony may have been difficult for her due to her emotional state when defense suggested she wasn’t a reliable witness and her testimony should be excluded.
“That is the job of the jury, to weigh the credibility of the witness,” Newman ruled.
3:40 p.m. — Co-worker IDs Murdaugh’s voice in kennels video
Parker Law Group attorney Ronnie Crosby, who worked alongside Alex Murdaugh for more than a decade, became the third witness to identify Murdaugh’s voice in a video his son, Paul, took at the kennels around 8:40 p.m. the day he was killed, June 7, 2021.
Crosby testified that in conversations he had with Murdaugh, after Maggie and Paul were murdered, Murdaugh specifically said he did not go to the kennels with Maggie and Paul before leaving Moselle to visit his mother.
Three voices can be heard in a video Paul took shortly before his death. Waters played it for Crosby.
“Did you recognize any voices on that video?” Waters asked after the clip ended.
“The three voices on that video are the voices of Paul Murdaugh, Maggie Murdaugh and Alex Murdaugh.”
Waters asked, “How sure are you?”
“I’m 100% sure that’s whose voices are on that audio,” Crosby said.
3:25 p.m. — Alex asked about structuring fees in 2010
Ronnie Crosby, an attorney who worked with Alex Murdaugh at what is now Parker Law Group, said Murdaugh asked him about structuring his attorney’s fees back in 2010.
Parker Law CFO Jeanne Seckinger testified earlier Tuesday that Murdaugh allegedly stole millions of dollars from his own clients’ settlements by using a fake bank account disguised as the real financial firm Forge Consulting. Forge handles structured annuities, including for beneficiaries of large lawsuit settlements.
Seckinger first became suspicious Murdaugh might be taking money from the firm when she never received $792,000 in fees from a case Murdaugh worked on with Chris Wilson, a longtime friend and fellow lawyer.
Crosby paused when lead prosecutor Creighton Waters asked what his reaction was when Seckinger and other firm partners told him Murdaugh might be structuring fees to shield money from civil discovery in a wrongful death lawsuit filed after a fatal 2019 boat crash.
“Do you want me to say what I said?” Crosby hesitated.
“You can say the sanitized version or you can say the real version,” Waters told him.
“(I said) ‘Oh, f---, no we did not,’” Crosby said.
Crosby was choked up when Waters asked if he’d known Paul Murdaugh, Murdaugh’s late son. Crosby said he knew Paul since he was born.
Buster and Paul called him “uncle Ronnie,” he said.
3 p.m. — Attorney from Alex’s former law firm takes stand
The prosecution has called Ronnie Crosby, an attorney who works for Alex Murdaugh’s former law firm, Parker Law Group.
Crosby first gave testimony on Monday, during a motion hearing without the jury present.
On Monday, Crosby said he was present at John Marvin Murdaugh’s house on June 10, 2021. John Marvin, Murdaugh’s brother, hosted Murdaugh, their family members and several Parker Law attorneys before state investigators arrived to interview people of interest in Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s deaths.
Crosby said Monday that Murdaugh spoke with his current defense attorney, Jim Griffin, at that meeting. They met privately, Crosby said, on top of conversations held “outside of attorney-client privilege.”
Others present at the meeting included Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster, and Parker Law attorneys Lee Cope and Mark Ball.
Crosby will testify on the fee structure at Parker Law Group.
1:25 p.m. — Court enters lunch recess
Parker Law Group CFO Jeanne Seckinger has left the stand.
Judge Clifton Newman sent court into recess until 2:40 p.m. The state will call its next witness when court resumes.
1:10 p.m. — Defense tries to discredit notion Alex killed to cover finances
After the deaths of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh, Parker Law CFO Jeanne Seckinger said the group stopped its probe of Alex Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes for “maybe a month.”
Defense attorney Jim Griffin nodded, pausing briefly.
“So the death of his wife and son got him 30 days reprieve from your investigation? Is that correct?” Griffin asked.
“Correct,” Seckinger said.
“And it wasn’t reported to you by Maggie Murdaugh that, ‘Hey, I think Alex is stealing money,’ was it?” Griffin continued. “Or Paul?”
Seckinger replied she’d “never had a conversation” with Maggie or Paul.
The questions were part of Griffin’s push to nullify one of prosecution’s motive arguments: that Murdaugh killed his wife and son to distract from the imminent discovery of years of financial misdeeds. Griffin suggested the short delay Maggie and Paul’s deaths offered wouldn’t justify their murders even if Murdaugh was trying to escape scrutiny.
He also cast doubt why Murdaugh might target his family, if they weren’t involved in revealing details of his alleged crimes.
12:45 p.m. — Witness: ‘I don’t think anyone’ knows the real Alex
Defense attorney Jim Griffin started cross-examination of Jeanne Seckinger, CFO of Parker Law Group, Alex Murdaugh’s ex-law firm.
Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters ended his questioning with a poignant question for jurors to ponder.
“Did you really know Alex Murdagh?” Waters asked Seckinger, who testified she’d known Murdaugh for around 40 years and worked closely with him for 20.
“I don’t think I ever really knew him,” Seckinger responded. “I don’t think anybody really does.”
She told Griffin Murdaugh “managed to fool a lot of people,” including herself, and said she was hurt by his violation of trust.
Before cross-examination, Griffin asked Judge Clifton Newman to remind jurors that testimony on Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes is admissible with “limited purpose.”
“This testimony is being allowed for limited purpose in assisting the state in proving motive. You may not consider it for purposes of the character of Mr. Murdaugh, nor may you consider it as evidence he has the propensity to commit other crimes, or that it is more likely that he committed the crimes with which he is currently charged,” Newman said.
11:45 a.m. — Court reviews Alex’s ‘fake Forge’ disbursements
With Parker Law CFO Jeanne Seckinger still on the stand, lead prosecutor Creighton Waters introduced documents detailing millions of dollars in payment to a “fake Forge (Consulting)“ account, Seckinger said.
Alex Murdaugh allegedly used the account to take settlement money from clients he represented in various lawsuits.
The documents, including several canceled checks payable to “Forge” with Murdaugh’s signature, were first introduced in Feb. 2, but not in front of the jury.
Seckinger said Parker Law discovered Murdaugh was allegedly defrauding clients as early as 2013-2014. In some cases, similar to the lawsuit filed after the 2011 car accident death of Allendale resident Donna Badger, Murdaugh allegedly siphoned more than $1 million from clients’ settlements.
Parker Law has since started paying back clients who never received settlements, Seckinger testified.
Forge Consulting is a real financial firm that handles structured annuities. Beneficiaries of lawsuit settlements can use annuities to receive money over time and avoid taxation for that time, Waters said.
Michael Gunn, Forge’s senior settlement consultant, said last week the company was unaware Murdaugh had used their name in the alleged fraud. Gunn testified in motion hearings last Thursday, and is expected to testify before the jury this week.
10:50 a.m. — Alex’s law group knew about drug abuse
Parker Law CFO Jeanne Seckinger said Tuesday she and others at Alex Murdaugh’s former law firm knew Murdaugh had been “taking pills” and was “erratic” in the months leading up to and after Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s murders.
Seckinger testified Murdaugh’s co-workers were especially concerned about his “sanity” after his wife and son were killed.
Randy, Murdaugh’s brother and fellow attorney at Parker Law, previously said he and “the rest of (his) PMPED family” were shocked to learn of Murdaugh’s drug problem.
She also repeated testimony before the jury that she previously gave in motion hearings detailing her June 7, 2021, confrontation with Murdagh.
Seckinger went to Murdaugh’s office on June 7, 2021, after $792,000 in attorney’s fees from a case Murdaugh worked that year turned up missing. She said when she entered the office, Murdaugh gave her a “dirty look” that she’d never seen before, and he asked, “What do you need now?”
Seckinger told him she had reason to believe he’d taken the money for himself, and needed proof that wasn’t true. Murdaugh assured her the money was in the client trust of Chris Wilson, a longtime friend of Murdaugh’s and a fellow attorney who’d tried the missing fees case with him.
That conversation was interrupted when Murdaugh received a phone call about his father’s rapidly declining health, Seckinger said.
She didn’t see him the rest of the day, Seckinger testified. She learned around 10:30 p.m. that Paul and Maggie had been killed.
10:45 a.m. — Law firm CFO noticed suspicious checks in May 2021
Executives at Alex Murdaugh’s former law firm, now named Parker Law Group, first noticed unusual checks related to Murdaugh in May 2021, roughly a month before Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were killed.
Parker Law CFO Jeanne Seckinger testified she saw the first strange disbursement on May 17, 2021. Murdaugh had signed off on a check payable to Forge Consulting, a financial firm that handles structured annuities, totaling just over $83,000, she said.
Seckinger said it was rare for Parker Law to structure attorney’s fees into an annuity, and when it was done, the rest of the group should be made aware.
“I also told him the way he had done it (structured the fees) was not correct,” Seckinger said. “He wouldn’t be saving on the tax consequences, and he needed to set it up with the insurance company on the front side (to avoid taxation).”
Seckinger said Murdaugh said he was worried less about the tax benefits and more about “getting money in Maggie’s name.”
“That is hiding assets, and we (Parker Law) weren’t going to be part of hiding assets or any type of wrongdoing,” Seckinger said.
Seckinger’s testimony Tuesday is similar to what she shared, with the jury absent, during motion hearings last Thursday.
10:15 a.m. — Alex succeeded through ‘manipulation,’ CFO says
Under questioning by lead prosecutor Creighton Waters, Jeanne Seckinger, the CFO at Alex Murdaugh’s former law firm, asked her how she perceived Murdaugh’s success as a lawyer.
Seckinger said Murdaugh often seemed “chaotic,” as if he would “get bored with details.” But, she said, he had the “gift of gab” and was talented in building rapport with clients.
Murdaugh’s success was built “not on his work ethic, but from his ability to establish relationships, and to manipulate people into settlements and his clients into liking him,” Seckinger testified.
“Through the art of bulls---, basically,” Seckinger punctuated her testimony.
Prosecutors have argued Murdaugh understood how the emotions of a case could sway judgment, and suggested part of his motivation to allegedly murder Paul and Maggie was to build sympathy as he faced a bevy of financial-related charges.
10 a.m. — CFO of Alex’s ex-law firm returns to stand
Jeanne Seckinger, the CFO for Alex Murdaugh’s former law firm, Parker Law Group, has taken the stand.
Seckinger previously testified in a motion hearing with the jury absent. She is testifying again after Judge Clifton Newman ruled Monday that evidence related to Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes can be heard by the jury in his murder trial.
In her initial testimony, Seckinger said she confronted Murdaugh early on June 7, 2021, demanding to know what happened to $792,000 in missing fees from a case Murdaugh worked on. Later that night, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were killed that evening.
9:50 a.m. — Judge denies motion to strike caretaker’s testimony
Without the jury present Tuesday morning, defense attorney Jim Griffin rose with a “rough transcript” of testimony given yesterday by Mushelle Smith, the caregiver for Alex Murdaugh’s mother.
Smith testified Monday that she saw Murdaugh for about 20 minutes on the night of the murders, and that Murdaugh later told her he was there “30 or 40 minutes.”
The controversial point the defense team objected to was Smith’s testimony that she’d never Alex Murdaugh carrying a blue rain coat into his mother’s house any time after the murders. She did say she’d seen him carrying what she said looked similar to a large blue tarp, and State Law Enforcement Investigators recovered both a blue raincoat and a blue tarp from the house during their search.
Griffin argued that the inconsistency of Smith’s testimony made it worth striking, and that Murdaugh had never been linked to the blue rain coat, which prosecution said had gunshot residue on the inside. Newman denied the motion.
“That is the job of the jury, to weigh the credibility of the witnesses,” Judge Clifton Newman said.
Newman said Smith may have been unable to “articulate her thoughts” effectively during her testimony due to her emotional state.
Smith broke into tears at several points during her testimony. She said she was upset about the murders and fall out surrounding the Murdaugh family. Smith described them as “good people” during her testimony.
9:30 a.m. — Court resumes, lawyers look at longer trial
Court is back Tuesday after a day of eyebrow raising witnesses took the stand.
The jury last heard from Jamie Hall, who in 2021 worked as a forensic technician for the State Law Enforcement Division, with training in detecting gunshot residue. She now works for the West Columbia Police Department.
The state called Hall to the stand because she did gunshot residue tests on Alex Murdaugh’s T-shirt, shorts and shoes on June 8, 2021, the day after his wife, Maggie, and youngest son, Paul, were murdered on the family’s vast Colleton County property.
Hall testified that the shirt smelled “freshly laundered” when she received it, and had “small, reddish-brown stains.” She did not say the stains appeared to be blood, and she said she had “no knowledge” of any other tests done on the shirt.
Hall noted Murdaugh’s shoes were wet and had “yard debris” on them.
The jury also heard from Mushelle “Shelly” Smith, the caregiver for Murdaugh’s mother, Libby, who has Alzheimer’s.
Murdaugh has contended that he was not home when the murders occurred, but was at his mother’s house.
Smith said on the stand Murdaugh was only at his mother’s home for about 20 minutes on June 7, 2021, though he told her later he was there around 30 to 40 minutes. Defense attorneys pressed Smith Monday on her memory, and what she had previously told SLED investigators.
There also was disagreement over a blue tarp or raincoat found at Murdaugh’s home that Smith testified Murdaugh brought to the home days later, bundled up.
Meanwhile, for the first time, the jury heard from the state’s first financial-related witness over defense objections after Judge Clifton Newman gave the OK for prosecutors to introduce a vast trove of testimony over Murdaugh’s financial situation leading up to June 7, 2021. So far, all of the financial-related witness, who include a former friend and attorneys, have testified without the jury present.
Natasha Moodie, an employee with Bank of America, was called to the stand Monday. She testified that she reviewed Bank of America’s records related to Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes, such as monthly account statements and copies of checks.
“Testimony is about to be offered that the defendant may have been involved in other criminal activity, and that evidence is not evidence or proof that he committed the offenses charged in the indictments,” Newman explained to the jury. “This testimony has been allowed ... for the limited purpose of assisting the state in proving motive.”
With the financial information allowed in, lawyers indicated the trial, scheduled to end Feb. 10, will stretch at least another week.