At a pivotal moment in the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial, a South Carolina judge ruled Monday that he would allow financial crimes allegedly committed by the once-powerful attorney to be admitted as evidence for the jury to hear.
The move comes after Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman obtained testimony from several witnesses, including from Murdaugh’s former law firm colleagues and bank employees, without the jury present so he could decide the relevance of the charges.
Murdaugh, 54, is charged with the fatal shooting of his wife, Margaret, 52, and their youngest son, Paul, 22, on the evening of June 7, 2021. Prosecutors allege the murders were committed to a slew of financial misdeeds by Murdaugh, who they say stole about $8.5 million from more than a dozen victims and tried to garner sympathy before being publicly exposed.
“I think the jury has a right to consider whether Mr Murdaugh’s apparent desperation because of his dire financial situation and the threat of being exposed for committing the crimes of which he was later accused led to the commission of the alleged crimes.” Newman said. “While motive is not a necessary element, the state must prove malice, and evidence of motive can be used to prove it.”
Murdaugh’s defense team objected to the judge’s ruling. His lawyers have previously said in court that his finances are being used only to defame him, and the state has provided no evidence that Murdaugh received any financial windfall from the deaths of his wife and son, such as a payout of a life insurance. nor that they knew of any alleged impropriety, which he tried to hide by killing them.
“They have much more evidence of financial misconduct than evidence of guilt in a murder case. And that’s what it’s all about,” attorney Jim Griffin said Friday.
Newman had said last week that it was the defense that “opened the door” to have Murdaugh’s financial situation assessed when they asked witnesses on the witness stand about his character and if there was any reason they could think of Murdaugh being dead. wife and son.
“Evidence of other crimes or bad deeds is needed if it is an essential part of the crimes on trial,” Newman said.
The trial, now entering its third week, has garnered attention as a sprawling story that began as an unsolved double homicide in 2021, but eventually unraveled into wider allegations of financial fraud, a hitman plot and drug addiction, and new sparked questions about other deaths linked to the Murdaughs, a prominent legal family in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh was awaiting trial for three counts of boating under the influence for a 2019 boating accident that killed a 19-year-old resident. Prosecutors say the case has only brought more scrutiny to the Murdaughs and put a financial strain on Murdaugh as the family faced a wrongful death lawsuit.
Dennis Bolt, a retired lawyer in Columbia, South Carolina, who is not involved in the case but has served on previous cases with members of Murdaugh’s defense team, said the judge’s ruling gives the prosecutor a clear advantage “because it gives the state to try to prove that if you are a thief, you are ipso facto a murderer.”
But Bolt said he doesn’t believe the financial evidence shown so far is proof that Murdaugh committed the murders.
However, should Murdaugh be found guilty, the defense could use the judge’s ruling as grounds for an appeal.
“It’s interesting for me to think about how the prosecution will use it in their closing argument,” Bolt said of the financial crime allegations. “They can’t argue anything that isn’t evidence or law. Since there’s no evidence that actually links the financial misconduct to the murders, what will they say to the jury?”
A sprawling saga surrounds Alex Murdaugh
Chief Prosecutor Creighton Waters said he expects to begin introducing the alleged financial misconduct that the jury will hear starting Tuesday.
Among those testifying Monday was Muschelle Smith, a caretaker for Murdaugh’s mother, Elizabeth. Murdaugh has said he visited his ailing mother the night of the murders as part of his alibi.
Smith testified that it was unusual for Murdaugh to visit his mother late at night, and in the days following the murders told her that “if anyone asks you, I’ve been here 30 to 40 minutes.” But she remembered he had only been there about 20 minutes.
During cross-examination, Griffin determined for the defense that Smith had not seen any evidence of blood when he visited his mother.
Also at the heart of Smith’s testimony was a blue tarpaulin she said she saw Murdaugh carry into the house in the days following the murders.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors suggested they found a blue raincoat in a closet in the home that tested positive for gunshot residue.
Griffin unfurled a blue tarpaulin for Smith to convey what she saw. “A tarpaulin like that, which might cover a car, is that right?” he asked her. “Is there any way to mistake this for a raincoat?”
Smith replied “no” and that the tarpaulin was “rolled up”.
A state law enforcement agent later testified that the raincoat was tested for blood, but nothing was found.