Inadequate investigation? Takeaways at Murdaugh murder trial
Investigators like to say the crime scene at a killing tells the story even if no one else does.
In the double murder trial of disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh, his defense lawyers want jurors to believe the crime scene can’t tell them much about the deaths of his wife and son because state agents did a poor job investigating.
Murdaugh, 54, is accused of killing his wife, Maggie, 52, and their 22-year-old son, Paul, at kennels near their home on June 7, 2021, as the once-prominent attorney’s career and finances were crumbling. Murdaugh has denied any role in the fatal shootings. He faces 30 years to life if convicted.
Here are some key takeaways from the 61 prosecution and 11 defense witnesses called so far in the five-week trial, including Murdaugh himself.
CRIME SCENE PROBLEMS
The defense has called experts who said investigators didn’t dust for fingerprints, collect and test blood, or photograph evidence with the angles or clarity needed to study it properly later.
The first officer arrived at the rural Colleton County estate 20 minutes after Murdaugh called 911 when he returned home from visiting his ailing mother. Almost immediately, the local sheriff realized he was dealing with someone whose family dominated the legal system in neighboring Hampton County for generations and turned the investigation over to the State Law Enforcement Division.
It took hours for agents from across the state to get deep into the South Carolina Lowcountry. During that time, more than a dozen family and friends walked around the scene, comforting Murdaugh. The bodies of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh were covered with a sheet, which can absorb fluid, instead of a tarp. Then the sheet wasn’t saved, meaning possible hair or DNA from a killer could have been lost. Intermittent rain fell and the runoff from the kennel roof fell on Paul Murdaugh’s covered body.
“It’s a crime scene. You don’t want water dripping all over the place. But more importantly, I thought it was pretty disrespectful,” Murdaugh’s former law partner Mark Ball testified.
When state agents arrived, they sent Murdaugh and his entourage to the home. Witnesses testified it hadn’t been searched for weapons, bloody clothes and other evidence or even checked to see if a suspect was hiding inside.
Prosecutors have little direct evidence of Murdaugh’s guilt. The weapons used in the killings have not been found. There’s no blood-spattered clothes or surveillance video.
Prosecutor John Meadors told one of the experts that the investigators did the best they could under the circumstances.
“You’re being paid to come in here and say they did a bad job,” Meadors said.
He was the 72nd witness of the five-week trial. But everyone perked up Thursday when Alex Murdaugh headed to the witness stand.
His defense team wasted no time. Their first questions were whether he killed his wife or son.
“I did not kill Maggie, and I did not kill Paul. I would never hurt Maggie, and I would never hurt Paul — ever — under any circumstances,” Murdaugh said.
Murdaugh admitted he lied for the 20 months when he told police, his family and anyone else who asked that he was not at the kennels before he found the bodies of his wife and son there. A video on his son’s iPhone, shot minutes before prosecutors think the killings happened, recorded Alex Murdaugh’s voice. It took state agents more than a year to hack into the phone and find it.
In cross-examination, Murdaugh admitted he stole from clients and his law firm, likely sealing his fate for many of the 100 other charges he faces ranging from theft to insurance fraud to tax evasion.
“I took money that wasn’t mine. And I shouldn’t have done it. I hate the fact that I did it. I am embarrassed by it. I’m embarrassed for my son. I am embarrassed for my family,” Murdaugh said.
Outside of Murdaugh and his family, no potential witness has piqued the interest of trial watchers like Curtis “Eddie” Smith.
“Cousin Eddie,” as many have taken to calling him, was the person Murdaugh said he called when he wanted someone to kill him three months after the deaths of his wife and son.
The fatal shot only grazed Murdaugh’s head. Smith told reporters that the gun fired as they wrestled over the weapon and if he had shot intentionally at Murdaugh, he wouldn’t have missed.
Smith and Murdaugh met about a decade ago when Smith needed a lawyer for a workers’ compensation case. Investigators said they ran a drug and money laundering ring together with Smith cashing checks to help Murdaugh hide money he was stealing from clients.
In the end, both prosecutors and defense attorneys appear to have decided Smith could hurt their cases as much as help them.
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said Smith had six different explanations for shooting Murdaugh “and any other information you ask him about.”
But earlier this month as prosecutors and Harpootlian discussed with the judge whether Smith would testify, the feisty defense attorney lamented Smith might not be called.
“The cross-examination of Mr. Smith is something I am looking forward to,” Harpootlian said.