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Huge loss for Alex Murdaugh defense on day 9 of double murder trial


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

During a pre-trial hearing, the judge overseeing the case dealt the defense a huge loss, saying alleged – and admitted – financial crimes by the defendant are “so intimately connected” to the state’s theory of the slayings that proof of them “is essential to complete the story.”

The 54-year-old disgraced legal scion – disbarred as the murder allegations and myriad 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.

As testimony concluded last week, jurors heard from South Carolina Law Enforcement Division witnesses who offered insight into fingerprints and the disputed “science” of ballistics analysis.

What allowed jurors to sleep in on Monday is also what took up the majority of the court’s time last Friday: a behind-the-scenes trial-in-miniature about the admissibility of evidence that Alex Murdaugh is accused of some 81 different financial and fraud-related crimes.

Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters insists those allegations are key to showing the defendant’s motive for slaughtering his son with a shotgun and his wife with an AR-style rifle in quick succession on the night of June 7, 2021 – the same day he was accused by a fellow employee of stealing some $792,000 from the now-defunct law firm his great-grandfather founded over 100 years ago.

The defense, on the other hand, says those alleged financial crimes are highly prejudicial and don’t really make much sense in terms of a motive to kill. Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian has called the state’s theory “absurd” and “ludicrous.” Defense attorney Jim Griffin made waves last week when he tried, and failed, to put an objection on the record as the state slowly crept into those murky financial waters by asking a witness if he knew about the missing law firm funds.

Judge Clifton Newman gave both sides several days to argue about whether that evidence can be used for the purpose of establishing the defendant’s motive. As of late Monday morning, the issue was still being hashed out away from jurors’ ears during a 404 hearing.

The court ultimately decided in favor of the state.


“I find that the jury is entitled to consider, whether the apparent desperation of Mr. Murdaugh, because of his dire financial situation, threat of being exposed – for committing the crimes which he was later charged with – resulted in the commission of alleged crimes,” the judge said. “While motive is not a necessary element, the state must prove malice, and evidence of motive may be used to prove it. And, in this case, since the identity of the perpetrator is a critical element that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, evidence of motive may be used in an attempt to meet that burden.”

The court went on to explain that the financial crimes allegations would not unduly influence jurors in the case.

“This evidence of other crimes is admissible and it’s non-propensatory as it does not suggest to the jury that the defendant has a tendency to commit murder,” Newman continued. “I specifically find that these other crimes will not lure the jury into declaring guilt on a different ground other than the specific charge. Thus it is non-propensatory evidence and is supported by state law.”

In response to the ruling, Griffin formally objected for the record and jurors were called in for the day.

Jurors returned to hear testimony from Shelley Smith, the caretaker for Alex Murdaugh’s mother, who suffers from dementia.

The state’s 28th witness, Smith said it was unusual for the defendant to have arrived so late on the night in question – the night of the murders. The defense has insisted there was nothing unusual about a son going to check on his ailing mother – particularly on the same day his father had just been admitted to the hospital.

At times confusing, Smith appeared to testify that Alex Murdaugh later pressured her to say, or suggested she should say, he was at his mother’s house for longer than he actually was.

[image via Sam Wolfe/The State/Pool]

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