Both sides use trove of cell data at Alex Murdaugh trial
A state agent testifying Wednesday in Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial meticulously reconstructed activity from his iPhone and the cellphones of his son and wife the night they were killed to try to link the disgraced South Carolina attorney to the shooting deaths.
The key evidence for prosecutors is a video from the son’s phone of a dog at the kennels near where Murdaugh’s son Paul was killed with a shotgun and wife Maggie was shot several times with a rifle at the family’s Colleton County hunting lodge on June 7, 2021.
The timeline from prosecutors said the video was taken about five minutes before the killings. Two friends of Paul Murdaugh testified later Wednesday that they were certain they heard Alex, Paul and Maggie Murdaugh’s voices on it.
In interviews with police, Alex Murdaugh said he was never at the kennels that night.
Later Wednesday, Murdaugh’s defense used that same data to suggest that Murdaugh’s phone and his wife’s phone were not together when her iPhone recorded a final change in orientation between portrait and landscape mode, indicating it may have been tossed on the side of the road about a half-mile (800 meters) from the family’s property.
Murdaugh, 54, is standing trial on two counts of murder in the shootings of his 52-year-old wife and 22-year-old son. Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted.
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Court ended Wednesday with a cliffhanger. Judge Clifton Newman said he would rule Thursday morning on whether evidence of Murdaugh possibly stealing from clients and his family law firm could be admitted.
Prosecutors opened the door by asking one of Paul Murdaugh’s friends in the last question of the day if he knew anything about Alex Murdaugh “being confronted on the morning of June 7, 2021, about $792,000 of missing fees from his law firm?” The friend answered no.
Prosecutors said fear that this theft was about to be exposed led Murdaugh to kill his wife and son to get sympathy and buy time to cover up the crimes. The defense said it’s absurd to think a lawyer would believe the brutal deaths of his family would not bring more scrutiny into his life.
State Law Enforcement Division Lt. Britt Dove returned to the witness stand Wednesday on the fifth day of testimony. He specializes in retrieving and analyzing cellphone data.
Dove went over a trove of information from the cellphones of Alex Murdaugh, his wife and son. There were phone call logs and texts, steps recorded, apps asking for information, GPS locations, changes when the phone went from vertical portrait mode to horizontal landscape mode and back, and — key to the prosecution’s case — when the camera was activated.
The last time the camera on Paul Murdaugh’s cellphone came on was 8:44:49 p.m., when it took a video for under a minute, Dove said.
Someone appears in the video to be trying to get an image of a wagging dog’s tail. Voices are heard trying to get the dog to stay still and figuring out if it had a chicken or a guinea in its mouth.
The video was meant for Rogan Gibson, who testified Wednesday he considered the Murdaughs a second family.
“Can you think of any circumstances that you can envision, knowing them as you do, where Alex would brutally murder Paul and Maggie,” defense lawyer Jim Griffin asked Gibson.
“Not that I can think of,” he responded.
Paul Murdaugh read the final text on his phone at 8:48:59 p.m. and 36 seconds later another text came in that he never read. Maggie Murdaugh’s phone showed she last read a text 28 seconds later, Dove testified.
Alex Murdaugh told police the night of the killings and three days later that he was never at the kennels with his family, instead taking a short nap several hundred yards away before leaving to visit his ailing mother. Computer data from the SUV indicated he started the vehicle at about 9:06 p.m. and drove off.
At nearly the same time, Alex Murdaugh’s phone called his wife’s phone, which indicated its display came on and there was an orientation change. Defense attorney Phillip Barber suggested to Dove that the person who killed Maggie Murdaugh had her phone in their hand and was surprised at the call, throwing it out the window.
Dove said he didn’t have enough information, such as how the phone could have been thrown, to agree or disagree.
There were no more significant changes to Maggie Murdaugh’s phone until it was recovered from the side of the road the next day, Dove said.
But about five minutes after she read the final text, Maggie Murdaugh’s data indicated her cellphone camera turned on for one second. Dove told prosecutors that can happen when an iPhone is trying to detect a face to see if it is the owner wanting to unlock the phone.
The defense suggested a different scenario — that in a panic, she tried to use her phone camera to take a photo of someone.
“And if the perpetrator or perpetrators responded by shooting at her, would that explain why it went off in one second and there was a bunch of orientation changes very shorty thereafter?” Barber asked.
“There’s a lot of possibilities could happen not knowing how a person reacts,” Dove said.
Prosecutors also had Dove read where Maggie Murdaugh texted someone that she was worried about her husband’s health, and after a doctor’s appointment that day, she was heading back to the lodge in Colleton County instead of the family’s house on Edisto Island.
“Alex wants me to come home,” she texted.
Alex Murdaugh also faces about 100 charges related to accusations of money laundering, stealing millions from clients and the family law firm, 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.
Since the killings, Murdaugh’s life has seen a stunningly fast downfall. His family dominated the legal system in tiny Hampton County for generations, both as prosecutors and private attorneys known for getting life-changing settlements for accidents and negligence cases.