Judge hears motions after 2nd day of jury selection in Murdaugh trial

Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 4:06 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 24, 2023 at 5:44 PM EST
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WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC/AP) - After instructing more than 100 potential jurors to return Wednesday, the judge in the Alex Murdaugh murder case moved on to motions to suppress evidence from being heard during the trial.

Murdaugh, 54, is charged with two counts of murder and two weapons charges in the June 7, 2021, shooting deaths of his wife, 52-year-old Maggie, and their youngest son, 22-year-old Paul.

Circuit Judge Clifton Newman ruled on multiple defense motions Tuesday afternoon.

The defense wants to block testimony from two of the state’s blood spatter experts, Tom Bevel and Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Kenneth Lee Kinsey. Defense lawyers said the t-shirt Murdaugh was wearing the night he said he found the victims was destroyed before they could test it and there is evidence the expert examining the shirt changed his conclusions under pressure from state agents.

Both sides agreed to hold a counsel hearing once that evidence is set to be presented and whether either expert will be called as a witness.

Murdaugh’s lawyers also want to prevent an expert from testifying that rifle cartridges found near his wife’s body have marks indicating they may have been fired from one of five guns taken from the home. The defense said recent scientific advances show ballistics experts can’t say with 100% certainty that there are unique markings linking the gun and ammunition.

Prosecutors also said the bullets were fired through a Blackout rifle that is now missing from the Murdaugh property.

Both sides agree that a decision needs to be made on that evidence before a jury is seated.

The argument then shifted toward a motion filed by the state to admit financial evidence as a basis for motive in the killings.

Newman argued that a motion in limine, a legal term that means “a motion at the start,” is typically used to exclude evidence from a trial rather than to add it.

“I’m not prepared to grant a motion to admit evidence in limine,” Newman said.

The state agreed to introduce the evidence as needed.

Prosecutors have argued that the murders were a cover-up for Alex Murdaugh’s financial misdeeds. Previously, the defense has said the state turned over millions of pages of documents during discovery about these financial crimes.

The defense says this motive is completely fabricated.

“His theory is, he knew the jig was up, so he went home, and butchered, blew the head off his son, and butchered his wife,” Murdaugh’s defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said. “There’s not one shred of evidence there were any problems between any of them. There’s texts, pictures, people that were with them the previous weekend at a ball game, video from that day with Paul and he’s having a good time. There is no dispute anywhere that they were the perfect family in terms of their relationships.”

Murdaugh also faces about 100 charges related to other crimes, including money laundering, stealing millions from clients, tax evasion and trying to get a man to fatally shoot him so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy. He was being held in jail without bail on those counts before he was charged with murder.

Finally, Newman ruled to allow the state to submit ballistic evidence.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Agent Paul Greer was called to the stand. He told the court he had been called to testify in 25 cases as a forensics firearm expert.

The motion revolved around a series of bullet casings that were found around the body of Maggie Murdaugh. Those shells were then compared to shells found in another area of the property.

The state asserts both sets of shells came from a .300 Blackout rifle belonging to the Murdaugh family that was missing from the property.

During cross-examination by Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin, Greer was asked how confident he was that the mechanism markings from both sets of casings can be from the same weapon.

Greer responded that those were his findings.

Newman ruled that Greer could testify and the evidence could be submitted. He said any questions about the qualifications of Greer or the science would be heard in cross-examination and should be heard by a jury.

Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.

122 potential jurors to return to courthouse Wednesday

Jury selection, meanwhile, continued Tuesday morning for a second day. Newman interviewed the fourth jury panel and nearly 400 possible jurors have already appeared.

The next step is to narrow the four panels down to a single one from which 12 jurors and six alternates will be selected.

A total of 122 potential jurors are expected to return to the courthouse on Wednesday when prosecutors and the defense will begin questioning them.

One big takeaway from the case so far is just how many people have been following the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. When asked if they had heard, read or knew anything about the murder case or Alex Murdaugh himself, nearly everyone stood.

Fifteen potential jurors acknowledged having preconceived opinions in the case, all of them saying they had already made up their mind about whether Murdaugh was guilty or innocent of the crimes and would not be changing their minds. All 15 were dismissed.

Murdaugh turned and said “good morning” to the fourth panel of jurors, but for the most part kept his head down and spoke with his attorneys, a difference from Monday where he gave the potential jurors much more of his attention during the questioning process.