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Prosecution in Alex Murdaugh murder trial rests sprawling circumstantial case

Without a confession, eyewitnesses or fingerprints directly linking Murdaugh to the fatal shootings, the defense will look to sow doubt that he murdered his family in 2021.
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South Carolina prosecutors in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh rested their case Friday after having called more than 60 witnesses over four weeks — a hodgepodge of testimony and evidence that sought to leave no doubt in jurors' minds that he fatally shot his wife and son in 2021.

Yet, the prosecution offered no hard proof — such as a confession, eyewitnesses, video or fingerprints — that Murdaugh, a once-powerful lawyer and part-time prosecutor in South Carolina's Lowcountry, had pulled the trigger.

Although the Murdaugh family owned guns, several of which were seized from their Colleton County hunting property in the investigation, the prosecution has said investigators didn't find the actual murder weapons: a shotgun and an AR-style rifle.

Creighton Waters, the chief prosecutor for the state attorney general's office, had relied heavily on circumstantial evidence to posit a motive for why Murdaugh, 54, would have wanted his wife, Margaret, 52, and their son Paul, 22, dead, and offered a timeline based on cellphone and car GPS data to show he had the opportunity.

On the day of the slayings, June 7, 2021, Murdaugh's law firm questioned him about $792,000 in missing client settlement funds, according to court testimony. Prosecutors say Murdaugh killed Margaret and Paul that evening near the hunting lodge's outdoor dog kennels to distract from the widening probe into long-running financial misdeeds, which included allegations of stealing from his clients. The chief financial officer of his law firm, which Murdaugh's great-grandfather founded more than 100 years ago, testified that she halted her investigation after the murders.

Last week, state Circuit Judge Clifton Newman gave the prosecution a pivotal win when he said the jury could hear witness testimony about Murdaugh's "dire financial situation," ruling that while the state doesn't need to prove a motive for the murders, "the state must prove malice, and evidence of motive may be used to prove it."

The defense repeatedly disagreed with the ruling in one of many instances that could form the basis for an appeal if Murdaugh is found guilty, legal observers say.

Image: Alex Murdaugh listens to testimony about cellphones during his double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse on Feb. 10, 2023, in Walterboro, S.C.
Alex Murdaugh listens to testimony about cellphones Friday at his double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C.Joshua Boucher / The State via AP, Pool

In another score for the prosecution, Newman this week also allowed jurors to hear testimony related to an incident almost three months after the murders in which Murdaugh was shot by his drug dealer on the side of a road. Authorities say Murdaugh initially lied about several details about the shooting, and he supposedly tried to have himself killed so that his oldest son, Buster, could collect on his multimillion-dollar life insurance policy.

Prosecutors routinely tried to undermine Murdaugh's credibility. But defense lawyer Jim Griffin told Newman that the state's motive is "all just a theory."

Jessica Roth, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, said the biggest hurdle for the prosecution is not having direct evidence that Murdaugh is the killer.

"It boggles the mind that, by all accounts, a father who loved his wife and adult son would brutally murder them," said Roth, a former federal prosecutor who isn't connected with the trial but has been following it.

"By being able to present evidence of the enormity of the defendant's debts, the spiraling downward and crescendo that was happening in his life, that created a compelling story, an explanation," Roth said. "But it may not be enough at the end of the day."

Pingponging testimony

Until the final day of its case, the prosecution didn't offer the jury a clear narrative of events as they rolled out their witnesses. Instead, they bounced around different aspects of the tangled timeline, primarily calling crime scene agents and forensics experts with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the FBI who could testify about cellphone and electronic evidence.

Legal observers have noted that jurors aren't allowed to take notes during the trial, hindering their ability to keep track of the witnesses' testimony, which at points has been lengthy and granular.

Jurors were also asked to consider the existence of a blue rain jacket that Murdaugh may have taken into his mother's home in the days after the murders. His mother's caretaker, Muschelle Smith, testified that she saw him holding a "blue something," like a tarp. State investigators did find a blue rain jacket in the home, which experts testified had gunshot residue consistent with it either being worn while someone used a gun or having a firearm wrapped inside of it, but otherwise the clothing had no useful DNA.

The item has been discussed several times throughout the trial to call into question Murdaugh's behavior before and after the murders. The defense downplayed Smith's testimony as confusing while suggesting the rain jacket itself isn't relevant to the case because there is "no evidence connecting Mr. Murdaugh to that rain jacket," Griffin said.

In one of many strange turns of events during the trial, which has drawn national attention for the sprawling saga surrounding the Murdaugh family, a state's witness was criticized for having donated $1,000 to a GoFundMe campaign set up for Smith in response to "her bravery" for testifying against Murdaugh.

The witness, Mark Tinsley, a lawyer who filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the parents of a 19-year-old woman killed in a 2019 boat crash involving Paul Murdaugh, gave crucial testimony that during the litigation, he had been told that Murdaugh was broke. Tinsley also testified that he thought he was going to have to drop the lawsuit if it turned out the murders were connected to Paul's involvement in the boat crash.

"If it seemed like this was retaliation, a jury wouldn't return a verdict against Alex," Tinsley said. "I would have dropped the case."

Again, the prosecution suggested, Murdaugh would have been able to escape accountability.

The state's compelling evidence

As part of one of the state's most powerful pieces of evidence, the prosecution has attempted to knock down Murdaugh's alibi for the night of the murders and scrutinize his timeline.

At the center was a video taken on Paul's cellphone at 8:44 p.m. in which three voices can be heard. The video, which has been shown repeatedly during the trial, is from the estate's dog kennels; it features a dog wagging its tail and the voices discussing whether another dog has a chicken or a guinea in its mouth.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution asked witnesses, including friends and relatives of the Murdaughs, whom they heard speaking, and every person identified the voices as belonging to Paul, Margaret and Alex.

Paul and Margaret were killed some time from 8:50 p.m. to 9:06 p.m., according to investigators.

In addition, just before the video of the dog's tail was recorded, the animal's owner, Rogan Gibson, spoke to Paul on the phone. Gibson testified that before ending the call, he could hear Margaret and a male voice that sounded like Murdaugh's in the background.

In interviews with investigators just after the killings and about two months later, Murdaugh denied having been at the dog kennels. Instead, he said that the last time he saw his family was earlier in the evening at dinner and that he then took a short nap and left to visit his ailing mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.

Smith, his mother's caretaker, testified that Murdaugh did visit but that it was unusual for him to see her that late at night, and that in the days after the murders, he told her that "if somebody asks you, I've been here 30 to 40 minutes." But she recollected that he had been there for only about 20 minutes.

Murdaugh spoke with a 911 operator at 10:07 p.m., saying he had just returned home and had found his wife and son dead.

State Law Enforcement Division agent David Owen, the lead investigator, testified Wednesday that there were too many inconsistencies in what Murdaugh had told them over time and that the apparent use of family firearms in the killings — based on shell casings at the scene — and a lack of DNA to point to other suspects helped pinpoint Murdaugh as the only credible lead.

On Friday, the state's final witness, State Law Enforcement Division special agent Peter Rudofski, reconstructed the evening of the murders using cellphone data extracted from the phones of Murdaugh, his wife and son, and GPS data from Murdaugh's Chevrolet Suburban to suggest his movements became quick around the time of the killings.

Murdaugh began walking at a fast pace at 9:02 p.m., according to the data. Then five minutes later, he drove to his mother's house about 15 miles away, stayed for roughly 20 minutes and then returned home at 10 p.m. During the drive to and from his mother's house, he reached speeds that far exceeded the 55 mph limit, Rudofski testified.

Just before 10:06 p.m., Murdaugh drove to the property's dog kennels, and within 20 seconds, he attempted to dial 911 from his cellphone, according to the data. After connecting with an operator, he said he had already checked the pulses of his wife and son. (Law enforcement agents previously testified that Murdaugh had no blood on the clothes he was wearing when police arrived.)

During cross-examination, the defense suggested that Murdaugh saw that "something is horribly wrong" upon arriving at the dog kennels, and it would have been reasonable for him to act quickly.

Earlier in the trial, the family's housekeeper, Blanca Turrubiate-Simpson, testified that in the months after the murders, Murdaugh asked her whether she recalled what he was wearing that day and he said, "'I got a bad feeling.'" She said that he asked her whether she remembered the shirt he was wearing and that it was the brand "Vinny Vines," referring to the brand Vineyard Vines.

But she said she remembered only a blue polo shirt.

"In my mind, I was saying I don't remember a Vines shirt. It was the polo shirt," Simpson said. "I didn't say anything, but I was kind of thrown back, because I don't remember him wearing that shirt that day."

Under cross-examination, Simpson testified that when she cleaned them later, she didn't see blood on the khaki pants Murdaugh had been seen wearing that day.

Marian Proctor, Margaret Murdaugh's sister, also testified about interactions she had with Alex Murdaugh after the slayings that felt off.

She said that Murdaugh had told her he believed "whoever had done it had thought about it a really long time" and that he then seemed more concerned about clearing Paul's name in the boat crash case.

"I thought that was strange, because my No. 1 goal was finding who killed my sister and Paul," Proctor testified. "I know he must have wanted that, too, but I don't know how he could have thought of anything else. We were afraid. We didn't know what was going on. My family was scared. I was scared for Alex and Buster. I thought they needed protection. I think everybody was afraid. Alex didn't seem to be afraid."

On cross-examination, Proctor acknowledged that Murdaugh's desire to clear his son's name "was his way of honoring Paul when he was gone."

"I just thought his priority should have been finding out who killed Maggie and Paul," she added.

Focus on family ties

The defense has sought to push back against the prosecution's portrayal of Murdaugh as deceptive and conniving by highlighting him as a family man who had a good relationship with Margaret, his wife of almost three decades, and his sons, Paul and Buster.

Buster Murdaugh and his girlfriend, Brooklynn White, watch a video clip from the phone of Buster's brother, Paul, in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh in Walterboro, S.C., on Feb. 1.Andrew J. Whitaker / The Post And Courier via AP, Pool

On cross-examination, Simpson agreed that Murdaugh had made his wife "his all."

"He adored her," she testified. "He loved her."

Another state's witness, Dale Roger Davis, who cared for the family's dogs for four years, said the family relationship appeared strong.

"I never saw that man even raise his voice at his wife and kids," Davis said. "Anything she wanted or the boys wanted, he would try to get it for them."

The defense's case is expected to last about a week, with witnesses who may include other family members. It's unclear whether Murdaugh will take the stand.

Roth, the former federal prosecutor, said all the defense needs is "one juror to decide there's reasonable doubt" about whether Murdaugh killed his wife and son and that could trigger a mistrial.

If he is found guilty of double murder, Murdaugh would face 30 years to life in prison without parole. A separate charge, two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, could carry five more years in prison.