At Alex Murdaugh’s trial, legal teams clash over how financial crimes tie into murder case

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It was a video meant to remind jurors of a loving moment in the Murdaugh family: Over Memorial Day weekend in 2021, youngest son Paul presents his father Alex with a white cake while her mother, Margaret, looks on and the party guests sing a serenade. him with «Happy Birthday».

«Thank you very much, everyone,» Alex Murdaugh said in the short video, shown by his defense team Wednesday during his double murder trial in Colleton County, South Carolina.

Murdaugh, 54, is accused of fatally shooting his wife Margaret, 52, and Paul, 22, just days after that celebration, in an act state prosecutors say was done to cover up his series of crimes. alleged financial misdeeds and gain sympathy before being publicly exposed.

«When the hounds are at the gate, when Hannibal is at the gates for Alex Murdaugh, violence happens,» Chief Prosecutor Creighton Waters said in court.

But the defense’s effort to portray Murdaugh, a once-powerful lawyer and part-time prosecutor in Lowcountry South Carolina, as a beloved patriarch incapable of killing his wife and child also raised questions about his character. During cross-examination by the defense of a friend of Paul’s, named Will Loving, he was shown the birthday video of Paul and asked if there was any reason he might think Murdaugh would kill his wife and son. .

Alex Murdaugh is escorted by law enforcement personnel to the Colleton County Courthouse for his double murder trial on February 2, 2023 in Walterboro, South Carolina.Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP

«That, in effect, converted the cross-examination of that witness from addressing the specific issues in the case to that witness testifying as a character witness for Mr. Murdaugh,» Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman later told the prosecution. and the defense. adding that he «opened the door» for the state to bring up Murdaugh’s financial problems because «evidence of other crimes or wrongdoing is necessary if it is an essential part of the crimes at trial.»

Murdaugh’s defense team has tried to argue that his finances are only used to vilify him and are not definitive proof that he committed the murders.

«They have much more evidence of financial misconduct than evidence of guilt in a murder case. And that’s what this is all about,» defense attorney Jim Griffin said in court.

While Newman said he’s inclined to have Murdaugh’s alleged financial misdeeds entered into evidence, one question remains: Will the jury hear any of it?

Test within a test

Half a dozen witnesses have so far testified about Murdaugh’s finances, but without a jury present.

Newman has been hearing testimony, including that of Murdaugh’s former colleagues and bank associates, to ultimately decide to what extent the jury should be allowed to hear that same evidence. The decision could come as soon as Monday, at the start of the third week of the trial.

Prosecutors have said Murdaugh himself allowed his alleged financial impropriety to be the focus of the trial when he suggested to authorities, just after his wife and son were killed, that the murders might have been related to a boating accident involving to Paul.

“My son was in a shipwreck months ago; he’s been getting threats,” Murdaugh told a sheriff’s deputy in video shown in court during the first week of the trial.

In 2019, Paul was in a boating accident that resulted in injuries and claimed the life of a 19-year-old passenger, Mallory Beach. His family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Murdaughs, the ship’s owners, and the convenience store chain that allegedly sold alcohol to underage occupants.

State grand jury subpoenas were issued in the 2021 boating accident case, and at the time of the June 7 murders of Margaret and Paul, Paul was facing trial on a boating under the influence charge.

Prosecutors say Murdaugh was under immense pressure as the lawsuit and various other financial problems unraveled. Earlier on the day of the murders, Murdaugh was confronted by his law firm about $792,000 in missing funds for legal fees.

Jeanne Seckinger, chief financial officer of Murdaugh’s former law firm, testified Thursday without a jury present that the money came from a case she had worked on with another attorney, Chris Wilson.

Seckinger said Murdaugh gave her a «dirty look, one I’ve never gotten from Alex» when she began pressuring him to hand over the financial records. She said she later changed the conversation after receiving a phone call about her seriously ill father, Randolph Murdaugh III, who would end up dying three days after the murders.

With the murders of Margaret and Paul, Seckinger’s investigation into the missing funds was put on hold.

Wilson also testified Thursday in absentia from the jury, saying he trusted Murdaugh as his old friend and helped him financially by loaning him $192,000 to pay the missing $792,000. But Wilson said Murdaugh never reimbursed him, and that on the morning of September 4, 2021, when he went to confront him, Murdaugh confessed that he was an opiate addict and «had a lot of people up.»

Later that day, Murdaugh was reportedly involved in an apparent highway shooting in which authorities alleged that he arranged for a man to kill him so Murdaugh’s eldest son, Buster, could collect on a $10 million life insurance policy. .

«I was so angry. I had loved the boy for so long, and I probably still loved him a little bit,» Wilson said, fighting back tears, «but I was so angry.»

Image:
Buster Murdaugh, left, and his girlfriend Brooklynn White watch video from Buster’s brother Paul’s phone at the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, on April 1. February 2023.Andrew J. Whitaker / The Post And Courier via AP, Pool

alibi in question

Prosecutors this week sought to undermine Murdaugh’s claim that he was not at the scene where his wife and son were killed and that he had an alibi.

He told investigators that the last time he saw his family was early evening at dinner, then he took a brief nap before leaving to visit his ailing mother.

But in a video released this week taken from Paul’s cellphone, three voices could be heard talking in the background. Prosecutors said Paul was trying to capture video of a dog’s tail as voices talked about whether a dog had a chicken or guinea pig in its mouth.

The owner of the dog in the video, a close family friend named Rogan Gibson, testified Wednesday that Paul had been looking after the animal for him at the family’s Colleton County farm and that he spoke to Paul around 8 a.m. :40 pm on the night of the incident. murders

In the background, Gibson said, he heard Margaret and a male voice that he told investigators he was «99%» sure belonged to Murdaugh. (He reiterated in court that he was «sure» she was Murdaugh.)

After they hung up, Paul took the cell phone video, which was timestamped at 8:44 p.m. At 8:49 p.m., Gibson texted Paul to «see if he can get a good picture.» » of the tail, according to evidence presented at trial. . However, Gibson never got a response; he texted Paul again about an hour later, but received no response.

Prosecutors say Margaret and Paul were killed around 8:50 p.m. Their bodies were found near the kennels and both were shot multiple times with different firearms, according to evidence presented at trial.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Jim Griffin spoke to Gibson about how the guns may have been left unprotected on the family’s sprawling property for presumably anyone to use, and that there were no notable conflicts between Murdaugh and his family.

«Can you think of any circumstance that you can imagine, knowing them as you know them, where Alex would brutally murder Paul and Maggie?» Griffin asked.

Gibson replied, «Not that I can think of.»

Whats Next?

Prosecutors have called about two dozen witnesses before the jury, although the list of possible witnesses is in progress. more than 250.

Cell phone and ballistic forensics experts, along with state law enforcement officers who responded to the scene, have made up the bulk of the calls thus far. Other prominent potential witnesses in the coming days include Curtis Edward Smith, the man authorities allege Murdaugh hired to kill him, and Murdaugh’s eldest son, Buster.

It is not yet clear how any of the alleged financial irregularities will be presented to jurors.

The defense should be concerned, Laura Jarrett, a senior legal correspondent for NBC News, said on the «TODAY» show.

«The risk is that it’s going to be so damaging, that the jury will get so upset about all these alleged financial misdeeds that they’ll get so distracted that they’ll say, ‘We’re going to throw the book at him. He must be guilty of something,'» Jarrett said.

But whether or not the prosecution’s argument that Murdaugh’s spiraling financial situation caused him to take the lives of his wife and son will sway the jury «remains to be seen,» Jarrett added.

If convicted, Murdaugh could receive 30 years to life in prison.

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