Here’s what happened in week three of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial
WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - Week three of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial had lots of talk about his financial misdeeds, loud objections and a bomb threat.
Murdaugh has been on trial for the June 7, 2021, killings of his 52-year-old wife, Maggie; and their 22-year-old son, Paul.
As the trial stretched to 15 days this week, prosecutors say they think they’ll rest their case Wednesday and allow the defense to call witnesses.
Murdaugh attorney Dick Harpootlian estimated their case would take about a week.
Judge allows financial evidence, attorneys clash over raincoat
Much was made about a blue raincoat during day 11 of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial.
Shelley Smith, who took care of Murdaugh’s mom, testified Monday that she saw Murdaugh at his parents’ home holding what she described as a blue tarp.
Defense attorney Jim Griffin argued against allowing the raincoat into evidence after Smith’s insistence that it was a tarp she saw Murdaugh with.
The state pushed back by bringing up Griffin’s questioning during cross examination as the defense acknowledged the raincoat’s existence.
Kristin Hall, a former SLED investigator, testified that she had collected gunshot residue tests on the raincoat as well as a white t-shirt, green cargo shorts and a pair of shoes collected from Murdaugh on the night of the killings. She also testified that she had conducted a GSR test on the seatbelt taken from Murdaugh’s Chevy Suburban.
SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases
Smith said it was uncharacteristic of Murdaugh to visit late at night and early in the morning but he was the most frequent visitor to the home.
Smith said Murdaugh came to the house on the night of the murders and stayed between 15 and 20 minutes. She said he was wearing a T-shirt, shorts and boat shoes and that she couldn’t see any blood on him or left on the bed when he was next to his mother.
After the funeral for Murdaugh’s father Randolph, Smith said Murdaugh came into the room and told her he was at Almeda for 30 or 40 minutes on the night of the murders.
Murdaugh later mentioned helping her with an upcoming wedding and finding her a new position with the school system where she worked, Smith said.
Judge Clifton Newman made a ruling on the financial evidence the state is trying to use to prove motive Monday.
“I find jury entitled to consider whether the apparent desperation of Mr. Murdaugh because of his dire financial situation, threat of being exposed from committing the crimes for which later charged with resulted in commission of alleged crimes,” Newman said.
The court has heard from several witnesses without the presence of a jury in an effort to get the testimony heard.
Significant residue on raincoat
In testimony heard Tuesday afternoon South Carolina Law Enforcement Division investigator Megan Fletcher said a blue raincoat found at Murdaugh’s parents’ house was tested on Oct. 5, 2021, and tested positive for more than 30 particles of gunshot residue on the inside.
Fletcher called the number of particles a “significant amount” and said it was consistent with someone wearing the jacket inside out.
When asked by Prosecutor John Meadors if the jacket could have been used to carry a recently fired gun she said that was also a possibility.
The defense has moved several times to either have Smith’s testimony thrown out or to block the testimony of Fletcher.
Tuesday morning Judge Clifton Newman rejected the defense’s calls and allowed the raincoat and Smith’s testimony to remain.
Fletcher also testified that gunshot residue particles were found on the t-shirt and shorts collected from Murdaugh on the night of the murders as well as a single particle on Murdaugh’s hands.
Fletcher said the seatbelt from Murdaugh’s Chevy Suburban also had gunshot residue on the buckle and noted it was probably from a transfer.
The jury heard testimony on Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes from the Chief Financial Officer of his former law firm and another lawyer from the firm.
Parker Law Group CFO Jeanne Seckinger told the court that Murdaugh’s success as a lawyer stemmed more from building relationships.
Seckinger said he could “manipulate people into settlements and clients into liking him.”
“He did it through the art of bulls---, basically,” Seckinger said.
Seckinger confronted Murdaugh on the afternoon of the murders about $792,000 in fees that were never paid to the firm and instead paid directly to Murdaugh.
Attorney Ronnie Crosby was also questioned about the missing money from the law firm.
Crosby says he was called to Danny Henderson’s house in late August or early September and was handed a folder with copies of some of the fake Forge checks.
SUV data and a bomb threat
The trial was delayed for nearly three hours Wednesday after a bomb threat forced an evacuation of the courtroom.
Judge Clifton Newman sent the jury away just before 12:30 p.m. before telling the courtroom that an evacuation had been ordered.
Court officials say a male voice made an anonymous call to the Colleton Co. Courthouse, saying there was a bomb in the Judge’s chambers. He quickly hung up after.
The bomb threat was confirmed by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office who searched the building before allowing everyone back into the courtroom.
Jurors heard testimony about Murdaugh’s Chevy Suburban on Wednesday. The vehicle’s “infotainment” module and the OnStar module were both removed from the vehicle.
FBI Automotive Forensics Specialist Dwight Falkofske testified that records from the vehicle’s “infotainment” system were encrypted and said he had never encountered that before.
Falkofske said it took one year to develop a way to break the encryption and analyze the data.
Data processed from the vehicle showed the car moving into and out of park several times between 9:06 p.m. and 10:13 p.m. on June 7 with the longest gap between the vehicle moving out of park and back into park being around 15 minutes.
Falkofske testified that there was no way to know if the vehicle moved or who was in the vehicle just that the vehicle had been placed in and out of park.
Jurors also heard more testimony about Murdaugh’s financial misdeeds from his former paralegal and Forge Consulting’s Michael Gunn.
Griswold testified that she had been instructed to designate checks to “Forge” and was corrected when she wrote “Forge Consulting” on the checks.
Murdaugh assured her Forge was a subsidiary of Forge Consulting, Griswold said.
Griswold told jurors Murdaugh said he would hand deliver those checks to Gunn.
Gunn said his company would never accept hand-delivered checks and that he had never opened an account for any of Murdaugh’s clients.
A break in Griswold’s testimony as Prosecutor Creighton Waters tried to introduce a text message sent from Murdaugh while in rehab was met with objection from the defense.
Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin seized the moment to try and convince Newman to toss out all testimony on Murdaugh’s financial crimes.
Griffin argued the drug use mentioned during some of the testimony was prejudicial.
Griswold testified she hoped to be wrong about the stolen money and she was scared to turn Murdaugh in about the missing $792,000 from the Ferris case because she feared losing her job if she was wrong.
“A check kind of floated like a feather to the ground and when I bent it over to pick it up, I saw the check and what it said, had on it and I instantly became very upset. Because it happened to be one of the checks from the Ferris case that ‘didn’t exist.’”
Griswold said she found one of the fee checks in September 2021 while searching for another file in Murdaugh’s office.
“When I found the check, I knew that he had lied to me and that he’d stolen that money,” Griswold said.
Defense takes another shot at tossing financials after GoFundMe donation
Questions arose from a GoFundMe account linked to Shelley Smith seemingly created by her children “for her bravery.”
Attorney Mark Tinsley, another witness in the case, made a donation of $1,000 to the account before being called to the stand Thursday afternoon.
Murdaugh attorney Phillip Barber said the donation was improper stating Tinsley had a financial stake in the outcome of the trial, but he could not find a legal reason to block Tinsley’s testimony.
Judge Clifton Newman allowed Tinsley’s testimony and said the donation would be “good fodder for cross examination.”
The defense also tried blocking the testimony of Tony Satterfield.
Satterfield, the son of former Murdaugh housekeeper Gloria Satterfield, testified that Murdaugh stole $4 million from him and his brother after the trip and fall death of their mother at the Murdaugh’s Moselle home.
“This is a murder trial, not a financial fraud trial,” Dick Harpootlian said.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters pointed to text messages between Satterfield and Murdaugh in April 2021 to show the link between the testimony and the state’s proposed motive.
“This testimony is consistent with the state’s theory,” Newman said.
Tinsley was called to the witness stand at the end of Thursday’s proceedings.
He testified that, while representing the family of Mallory Beach, he was trying to get a settlement for the family after her death in the 2019 boating accident in Beaufort County.
Jurors heard from Tinsley about how he had filed a motion to compel against Murdaugh personally because he had been told Murdaugh was broke and didn’t believe it.
Tinsley said he was seeking $10 million from Murdaugh and was told Murdaugh might be able to get $1 million together.
The hearing for the motion to compel was scheduled for June 10, 2021, just three days after the murders.
Murdaugh’s former best friend Chris Wilson testified earlier in the day that Murdaugh stole $192,000 from him after he was confronted by his law firm about missing fees from a case the two had tried together.
Wilson said he had written the attorney’s fees checks out to Murdaugh personally instead of the law firm because he was told the firm was aware and had authorized the fees to be written to Murdaugh personally.
Murdaugh said the fees were going into separate annuity accounts as protection in response to him being named in a lawsuit that came out of the 2019 Beaufort County boat crash that killed Mallory Beach, Wilson said.
Wilson said Murdaugh contacted him in the middle of July about the fees and told him he was having problems getting the annuities set up and would need to send the money back to Wilson to put in his trust account and pay to Murdaugh’s law firm.
Murdaugh only sent $600,000 and left Wilson to front the other $192,000 with his own money that he was never repaid, Wilson said.
Sparks fly in court over former housekeeper’s testimony in Murdaugh trial
The Murdaugh family’s former housekeeper testified Friday in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial that Maggie Murdaugh was worried about money because of litigation the family was facing with the boat crash.
The testimony led to tempers flaring between defense attorney Dick Harpootlian and prosecutor John Meadors.
Harpootlian raised an objection to hearing about a conversation from a few months prior to the murders between Blanca Simpson and Maggie Mrudaugh.
During the objection, Meadors continues into a question about the family’s financial situation causing Harpootlian to slam folders down on the defense table and move for a mistrial.
“I would move for a mistrial, I don’t think even if you give this jury an instruction, you can’t unring the bell,” Harpootlian said.
Both the objection and the motion for mistrial were denied by Newman.
Simpson said Maggie told her she was anxious about the amount of money being sought in the 2019 boat case.
“She knew the amount of money they were asking, she thought Alex wasn’t being truthful with her with that lawsuit,” Simpson said. “She said he doesn’t tell me everything.”
Simpson told jurors she got a phone call from Alex Murdaugh on the morning of June 8, 2021, and he said, “B, they’re gone. They’re gone.”
Simpson said she thought he meant they had gone to the Edisto Beach house and he said, “No B, they’re dead.”
Simpson was asked to go to Moselle after going to see Alex and Buster Murdaugh at Almeda.
Pots that would have normally been on the stove from the night before were placed in the refrigerator with the lids on, Simpson said.
She also noted other unusual things in the home like a puddle of water next to a pair of khakis by the shower and a damp towel in the closet.
Maggie’s pajamas were neatly folded in the doorway to the laundry room, Simpson said.
Simpson said she was asked to stay in the Moselle house with her husband until Murdaugh “decided what he wanted to do with it.”
Murdaugh had asked Simpson to meet with him at the home he was staying in after the murders and the shirt he was wearing on the day of the killings was brought up, she said.
Murdaugh began that conversation, she said, by saying he “had a bad feeling” and knew about the video.
Simpson said it didn’t sound like he was asking about it.
“It felt more like he was trying to convince me of the shirt that he was wearing,” Simpson said.
One of Paul’s lifelong friends, Nathan Tuten, testified about his time working as a courier for Murdaugh’s former law firm.
Tuten testified he would often cash checks for Murdaugh and take him the cash but that stopped just a few weeks before the murders.
Murdaugh also told him he was trying to clear Paul’s name and beat the boat case as Tuten was taking him to the airport around July 4, 2021, for a vacation, Tuten testified.
FBI Special Agent Matthew Wilde testified about cell phone data collected from the phones of Alex, Maggie and Paul on June 7, 2021, that gave investigators insight into each of their movements that day.
Wilde testified he was not able to find location data for Maggie and Alex.
Wilde said that based on cell tower data Murdaugh would have been near Moselle until approximately 9:10 p.m. before his phone shows movement towards and around Almeda until 9:46 p.m. when he starts back to Moselle.
Court is scheduled to resume in Colleton County at 9:30 a.m. Monday.
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