First week of Murdaugh’s trial a showcase of shocking violence, evidence and emotion
As the first week of the long-awaited double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh wrapped up Friday, a jury of eight women and four men, the state of South Carolina and the nation have borne witness to an evolving courtroom drama and disquieting disclosures from the witness stand.
The trial begins again Monday morning in the 202-year-old Colleton County courthouse in Walterboro, where dozens of local, state and national news media, bloggers and book writers have converged. Members of the public from the surrounding area, as well as from North Carolina, Georgia and other states, were in the audience, which grew as the week went on. The trial is also reaching a realtime nationwide audience through Court TV.
In the first two days of testimony, the prosecution has launched a fact based frontal assault in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Murdaugh was capable of committing the double murder. The defense has wage a vigorous counter offensive, undercutting some claims made by prosecution witnesses.
Nine witnesses, all members of law enforcement, have testified so far. Among the revelations elicited so far from them under questioning by prosecutors and defense lawyers:
▪ Although the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division obtained a search warrant the day after the murders of Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, 52, and his son, Paul, 22, on June 7, 2021, SLED waited until Sept. 13 of that year to search the house on the family’s 1,700-acre estate in rural Colleton County, a SLED agent testified Friday. No reason was given for the delay.
Found inside the house were numerous guns, a large gun room and much rifle and shotgun ammunition of the type — 300 Blackout rifle ammunition and 12-gauge shotgun shells — believed to have killed Paul and Maggie, SLED agent Melinda Worley testified Friday. Her cross-examination begins Monday morning.
▪ Human hairs were found in Maggie’s clenched hand, testified Colleton County detective Laura Rutland, who was called to the death scene the night of the slayings. Bruising or possible scratches were found on Paul’s cheek. Both bodies were found near dog kennels about 1,000 yards from the main family house, witnesses said.
▪ Blood was found on the steering wheel and in other places of Alex’s Chevrolet Suburban. Future prosecution witnesses are expected to tell the jury whose blood it is. SLED agents testified they took DNA from Paul and Maggie’s bodies.
▪ Alex Murdaugh gave an initial 35-minute interview with SLED agent Capt. David Owens and Colleton County detective Rutland within two hours after finding his wife and son’s bodies and calling 911. Murdaugh had a man whom he introduced as his “personal attorney,” Danny Henderson, with him. Henderson is a widely-respected longtime lawyer at Murdaugh’s former law firm, PMPED.
Among the drama:
▪ Friday morning, state prosecutor John Meadors led Rutland through through the events of the night of June 7 and early June through a recording that Rutland made and a recording of her first interview with Murdaugh.
Under Meadors’ questioning, Rutland told the jury that despite a large pool of blood and brain matter around Paul, Murdaugh’s hands and clothes appeared clean even though he claimed to have checked Paul for signs of life and tried to move his body, according to earlier witnesses who talked to Murdaugh that night.
In an effort to paint Murdaugh as a liar, Meadors led Rutland through a series of rapid questions and answers, his voice rising as he highlighted the inconsistencies.
“Is the individual in this courtroom who told you he tried to take the pulse of Maggie and Paul? Is the individual in this courtroom who told you he tried to turn Paul over?” Meadors asked, his voice rising almost to a shout as he underscored the inconsistencies. “Is the individual you described as clean from head to toe, in this courtroom?”
“Yes he is,” Rutland said.
“Please point him out for the jury,” Meadors replied.
“He’s sitting at the defense table,” Rutland said, lifting a hand to point at Murdaugh, sitting across the courtroom at the defense table with lawyers Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin.
Meadors was only hired by the Attorney General’s office in early January. That office does not normally try murder cases, and it hired Meadors because he has tried hundreds of murder cases. He is respected for having a folksy but powerful way with juries.
In cross-examining Rutland, defense attorney Griffin asked , “On that night, was Alex Murdaugh a suspect?”
Rutland: “On that night, everybody was a suspect...There were so many scenarios. Everybody was a suspect at that point.”
Griffin: “Including Alex?”
Rutland: “Including Alex.”
▪ In the recorded interview with Owens and Rutland in a SLED car, Murdaugh began to cry as he told about the pride and love he had for his slain son.
Despite the trauma of a 2019 boat crash and its aftermath, a crash in which many blame Paul for killing a friend, Mallory Beach, Murdaugh said, his son had handled the pressure and adversity well. “I have never been prouder of him...Paul is a wonderful, wonderful kid” who loved working on the family estate, he said. “He helped everybody with everything. This place was his absolute passion.”
▪ The courtroom stood bereft of an oil painting that had been there many years. It was a painting of Murdaugh’s grandfather, Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh, a longtime solicitor, or Lowcountry elected prosecutor, who served for nearly 50 years and was one of the most influential members of the state’s legal and law enforcement communities.
Trial Judge Clifton Newman had ordered the portrait removed for the trial so as not to exercise, by its mere presence, any sway over the jury.
The nine witnesses this week were only the first wave of what could be dozens of prosecution witnesses, including cellphone tower experts, pathologists and other experts.
Crime scene experts have already testified about how they collected DNA, gun shot residue, organic matter, shotgun shell casings, rifle casings, an SUV “black box” from a Chevy Suburban and blood-stained clothing from Alex Murdaugh.
They will likely be followed by more than a dozen witnesses testifying for the defense.
During the first two days, witnesses referred to various events that begged for more explanation:
▪ Several witnesses spoke about footprints that were found to go around a large airplane hangar structure on the Murdaugh property, a structure close to the dog kennels were Maggie and Paul were shot. The size and shape of the footprints, which were likely made the night of the killings, appeared to match sandals worn by Maggie when she was killed, witnesses said.
▪ Aside from pointing to unknown people who harbored animosity towards Paul following the boat crash, the only person the night of the murders who Murdaugh thought could be involved was Moselle handyman CB Rowe. Murdaugh told Rutland and Owen that he was planning to fire Rowe, who had damaged a field of sunflowers and told Paul a bizarre story, claiming to have joined an FBI undercover team whose aim was to assassinate radical Black Panthers.
▪ Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have elicited from witnesses the fact that there was a large pool of water around Paul, but no explanation about its significance has been forthcoming.
Week one comes to an end
The trial has proceeded faster than many onlookers expected. By 1:13 Wednesday afternoon, a jury had been sworn in. The 250 residents of Colleton County who were summoned for jury duty had been whittled down to a pool of 12 jurors and 6 alternates.
But the first week of trial has not yet produced a definitive picture of what happened at the dog kennels the night of June 7, 2021. Two full days of testimony has sketched an image that is more Rorschach test than oil portrait.
At times, the press and public’s understanding of the evidence has been hampered by Judge Newman’s order sealing “graphic exhibits.” Often only the audio of key video evidence, like the body camera footage of the first sheriff’s deputy to arrive at the scene, can be heard. Attorneys have taped curtains of paper over their computer screens, which they lift to watch body camera footage. The juror’s display is facing away from observers.
Opening statements underscored that the jury will be expected to chose between radically different interpretations of the evidence.
“Listen to that gathering storm that all came to a head on the day that he killed Maggie and Paul... start piecing it together like a puzzle,” lead prosecutor Creigton Waters urged the jury in a fiery opening statement. “Suddenly a picture emerges and it’s real simple. It’s real simple.”
But in a winding statement of his own, defense attorney Dick Harpootlian reminded the jury that they were under oath to see Murdaugh as an innocent man. Could they imagine that man blowing off the top of the head of his son, Paul — “the apple of his eye?”
“They’ve been pounding that square peg in the round hole since June 2021,” Harpootlian said, “There’s no forensics. None! I say that without any fear of contradiction whatsoever.”