WALTERBORO, S.C. — A called-in bomb threat temporarily halted the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh on Wednesday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of a packed courtroom of lawyers, the defendant and his family, and spectators just as a witness was about to take the stand.
Shortly before 12:30 p.m., Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman calmly told the courtroom in the Colleton County Courthouse that "we have to evacuate the building at this time. We'll be in recess until we discover what's going on."
The sudden announcement in the televised trial brought heightened drama to the court proceedings against Murdaugh, a once-powerful South Carolina lawyer and the scion of a well-connected legal family who stands accused of murdering his wife and son in 2021. Murdaugh was walked out of a back door, while members of his family, who have been sitting in rows behind the defense table, were quickly escorted out.
"Alex was taken by the police, but they grabbed the family and rushed them out ahead of us," said Marty Yates, a spectator in the courtroom. "And then we all evacuated the building and have scattered around."
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said that Colleton County Courthouse personnel received the threat, and that the agency is investigating along with the Colleton County Sheriff's Office. Police dogs were brought in to help sweep the courthouse, and court staff and attorneys were allowed back in around 2:30 p.m. after the building was cleared.
Court personnel have not identified the caller, but said it was a male-sounding voice.
Murdaugh, 54, is accused of fatally shooting his wife, Margaret, 52, and their youngest son, Paul, 22, on the evening of June 7, 2021, in a case that has captured national attention.
The sprawling saga began as an unsolved double homicide but eventually unraveled into wider allegations of financial fraud, a hired hitman plot and drug addiction, and revived questions into other deaths linked to the Murdaughs.
Since last week, the prosecution and the defense have clashed over whether the jury should be allowed to hear testimony over Murdaugh's alleged financial misdeeds. Newman ruled this week that he would permit it because it speaks to the alleged motive — prosecutors charge that Murdaugh killed his wife and son to gain sympathy and put a halt to the investigations being held by his law firm about missing funds.
The jury has heard testimony about $792,000 that had gone missing from Murdaugh's former law firm and from former colleagues who began questioning him about it, but said they suspended the inquiries once Margaret and Paul were killed.
"He's been lying this whole time. He had these funds. He lied to me," Annette Griswold, who worked as Murdaugh's paralegal for several years, testified Wednesday. "That feeling in the back of my mind was correct."
The chief financial officer of the law firm, Jeanne Seckinger, had testified Tuesday that she confronted Murdaugh about the missing funds on the morning of the murders and that he gave her a "dirty look" that she had not ever received.
She said the conversation with Murdaugh was stopped when he received a call about the health of his dying father and she didn't want to press him because she was concerned.
"He was successful not from his work ethic, but his ability to establish relationships and to manipulate people into settlements and clients into liking him," Seckinger testified. "The art of bulls----, basically."
Murdaugh's defense team contends there is no direct evidence linking him to the deaths of his wife and son, and that state prosecutors have a "whole lot more evidence about financial misconduct than they do about evidence of guilt in a murder case."
Haylee Barber, Selina Guevara and Carol Gable reported from Walterboro, and Erik Ortiz from New York.