Alex Murdaugh trial: How the prosecution has tried to overcome a lack of direct evidence- QHN
In opening statements of Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial, the prosecution went into a lengthy defense of the value and importance of circumstantial evidence.
“A lot of times people hear, ‘Oh, it’s just a circumstantial case,’ but the law says otherwise,” prosecutor Creighton Waters told the jury. “The law says circumstantial evidence is just as good as direct evidence.”
The lines were a preview of what has become clear through three weeks of the trial: There is no direct evidence – no witnesses, no smoking guns, no blood-soaked clothes – tying the disgraced former South Carolina attorney to the murders of his wife, Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh, and son, Paul Murdaugh.
Instead, the prosecution’s case against Alex Murdaugh has focused on circumstantial evidence about his opportunity and motive. In particular, they have tried to prove he was at the crime scene that night, worked to show he lied to investigators and painted a picture of a fraudster who killed his wife and son as a desperate bid to distract the investigations into his actions.
For the defense, that evidence amounts to little more than “speculation” and “conjecture,” attorney Dick Harpootlian argued. They have highlighted Murdaugh’s loving relationships with his family and ridiculed the prosecution’s focus on irrelevant financial misconduct.
“They’ve got a whole lot more evidence about financial misconduct than they have about a murder and evidence of guilt in a murder case,” defense lawyer Jim Griffin said in court during a debate on the relevance of this testimony.
Murdaugh, 54, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and weapons charges. Separately, he faces 99 charges for an array of alleged financial misconduct that will be adjudicated at a future trial.
Legal experts who have followed the trial told CNN the prosecution’s lack of direct evidence makes it harder to convict – though certainly not impossible.
“It does make the case more difficult,” said trial attorney Misty Marris. “But at some point, if the prosecutors have enough evidence that they can put together that story, and show motive and opportunity, it can certainly rise to the level needed to get a conviction.
Sara Azari, a defense attorney who has followed the case, has been unimpressed by much of the evidence presented.
“Jurors want science, jurors want DNA, jurors want something that’s persuasive,” Azari said. “But because (prosecutors) lack it … their focus is now on the tenuous motive and the lies after the fact, but neither of those things … substitute the evidence that they need.”
With the prosecution having wrapped its case, here’s a closer look at the prosecution’s three main arguments to convict.
Trial witness: ‘100% certain’ Murdaugh’s voice is on video made before killings
One of the prosecution’s most compelling pieces of evidence is recorded audio that they say places Murdaugh at the crime scene on the night of the murders.
A video, just short of a minute long, was filmed on Paul’s phone starting at 8:44 p.m. on June 7, 2021, just minutes before Paul and Maggie were shot dead, according to Lt. David Britton Dove, a supervisor in the computer crimes center at the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.
The video focuses on one of their dogs and appears to have been recorded at the kennels at their family home in Islandton. In the background, three different voices can be heard in the footage, and family friends identified those voices as that of Paul, Maggie and Alex Murdaugh.
Alex Murdaugh’s presence there contradicted his assertion to police that he was not at the kennels that night, prosecutors said.
Murdaugh “told anyone who would listen he was never there,” the prosecution said in opening statements. “The evidence will show that he was there. He was at the murder scene with the two victims.”
In his own opening statement, Harpootlian said the audio simply showed Murdaugh and his wife having a “normal discussion” with “no animosity.” Paul is “very happy,” Harpootlian said. “Nobody’s down there threatening him. Daddy is not pulling out a shotgun and killing him.”
In the aftermath of the murders, as seen on police body-cam footage, Murdaugh told investigators that he was asleep at his home and went to visit his mother in Alameda at the time of the killings.
The prosecution has used the video from Paul’s phone to try to disprove his assertion that he was asleep, and other testimony has also cut into his claims about how long he had been with his mother.
“It’s up to you,” Waters, the prosecutor, said, “to decide whether or not he’s trying to manufacture an alibi.”
Shelly Smith, a home care worker who was taking care of Murdaugh’s mother, testified that Murdaugh indeed visited his mother’s home for about 15 to 20 minutes on the night of the murders. A few days later, they again saw each other and Murdaugh insisted that he had been there 30 to 40 minutes on the night of the murders, she testified.
“Was he there 30 or 40 minutes that night?” asked the prosecutor.
“Not to my recall,” Smith replied.
Other evidence focused on the series of calls and texts Murdaugh made to his wife after the killings. A tech expert testified that those calls were missing from Murdaugh’s call log, indicating they had been manually deleted.
Father charged with killing his wife and son. See his interview with investigators
Finally, state prosecutors have tried to put forth an adequate explanation of why Murdaugh – described as a loving and devoted family man – would slaughter his wife and son.
A series of witnesses have accused Murdaugh of extensive financial wrongdoing at his namesake law firm and presented evidence that he had lied to nearly everyone around him in a yearslong fraud. A “day of reckoning” was coming from several different angles, so he killed his family to distract and delay those financial investigations, the prosecution has argued.
Two investigations in particular that could have exposed Murdaugh’s wrongdoing were coming to a head at the time of the killings.
For one, the chief financial officer of his law firm testified she had confronted Murdaugh about missing funds on the morning of June 7, 2021, hours before the killings. After the murders, the internal investigation into the funds took a backseat.
“We weren’t going to go in there and harass him about money when we were worried about his mental state and the fact that his family had been killed,” the CFO, Jeanne Seckinger, testified.
Second, Murdaugh was facing a lawsuit from the family of Mallory Beach, a 19-year-old who was killed in February 2019 when a boat, owned by Murdaugh and allegedly driven by Paul, crashed. A hearing in that civil case was scheduled for June 10, 2021, and had the potential to reveal his financial problems, prosecutors argued.
Indeed, that “day of reckoning” didn’t come for another three months, when his law firm again confronted him about misappropriated funds, leading to his resignation, a bizarre murder-for-hire and insurance scam plot, a stint in rehab for a drug addiction, dozens of financial crimes, his disbarment and, ultimately, the murder charges.
Though this financial evidence is not directly related to the murder charges, the judge overseeing the case ruled to allow it in, saying it was “so intimately connected” with the state’s case “that proof of it is essential to complete the story.” He has instructed jurors to only consider this financial evidence as part of the motive and not as a broader criticism of the defendant’s character.
That’s easier said than done, Marris, the legal expert, told CNN.
“There will be an instruction (to the jury) that – ‘just because he’s a liar … doesn’t mean he committed murder,’ but in real life, the jury is hearing what it’s hearing,” she said. “They’re going to be considering one of the prosecution’s key themes, is that Alex Murdaugh was lying right from the beginning of this to cover his tracks.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Alex Murdaugh’s age. He is 54.
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