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Alex Murdaugh double murder trial gets into forensic DNA evidence on Day 14


Jurors returned to the Colleton County Courthouse late Monday morning as prosecutors continued the state’s case against attorney attorney Alex Murdaugh over the double murder of his wife and son at the family’s storied hunting lodge in June 2021.

The 54-year-old disgraced legal scion – disbarred soon after murder allegations and various alleged financial improprieties came to light – is accused of shooting and killing his wife, Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh, 52, and their youngest son Paul Murdaugh, 22.

On Friday, prosecutors neared the end of their witness list on financial crimes testimony. The defendant additionally stands accused of over 80 different financial crimes and those allegations form a key aspect of the state’s theory of motive in the murder case. Early last week,  Judge Clifton Newman dealt the defense a substantial setback, ruling that evidence of those various financial crimes by the defendant is “so intimately connected” to the state’s theory of the case that proof of them “is essential to complete the story.”

Also on Friday, the defense loudly objected to a line of questioning from the state.

As Murdaugh family housekeeper Bianca Simpson took the stand, prosecutor John Meadors asked, generally, whether Maggie Murdaugh ever confided in Simpsion about money problems – prompting the first objection from defense attorney Dick Harpootlian.

Then came a more specific ask. Meadors asked Simpson if Maggie Murdaugh ever said she was worried about money. This time, Harpootlian rose, objected, slammed a stack of papers down, and asked for a mistrial.

“You can’t unring that bell,” the defense attorney said.

The judge denied both defense requests.

On Monday, proceedings began a bit later as the court dealt with – and replaced  – two jurors who came down with COVID.

The science of DNA took center-stage on Monday.

The state’s first witness was South Carolina Law Enforcement Division forensic scientist Rachel Nguyen, who specializes in laboratory-based DNA analysis.

In her testimony, Nguyen said a lab test confirmed human blood was found on the steering wheel of a vehicle driven by Alex Murdaugh on the night Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were murdered. After what the witness termed a “presumpive test” was done by SLED officers on the scene, a “confirmatory test” in a SLED forensics lab shored up that initial result.

“I used a confirmatory test called Hematrace,” Nguyen told jurors. “On the steering wheel swab, it was positive.”

During cross-examination, Nguyen was asked about testing done on a shotgun recovered from the hunting lodge known locally as Moselle on the night in question. She said a false positive for human blood could be produced if various other substances were to come in contact with what is being tested.

“It’s not confirming the presence (of human blood),” she said of the Benelli shotgun and the presumptive test by law enforcement on the crime scene. “It’s only an indication so we can further process that stain.”

Later analysis, she said, was almost certain that a mixture of Alex and Maggie Murdaugh’s blood was on the shotgun.

Prosecutors believe Maggie Murdaugh was killed with a series of shots from close range and from far away by an AR-style weapon and that Paul Murdaugh was killed with two close shotgun blasts.

Later, SLED forensic scientist Sarah Zapata also took the stand. She described how forensic scientists create DNA profiles of potential suspects based on the evidence collected from a crime scene, swabs of their saliva, and an unrelated third person. She likened the process as comparing between “grandma’s cookie recipe,” so that when the data is entered, investigators look for similar “recipes” to reach a conclusion about a given DNA profile.

Under cross-examination, Zapata testified that unidentified male DNA had been found under Maggie Murdaugh’s fingernails.

Zapata said the small amount of male DNA under Maggie Murdaugh’s fingernails – only 3 alleles – was not considered enough to create a sample and draw a comparison, so it was not submitted to the FBI’s DNA database known as CODIS.

The day ended with a substantial amount of detailed and harrowing testimony from Dr. Ellen Riemer, who conducted the autopsies of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh. During her presentation, the defendant was visibly shaken and emotional in court.

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