Alex Murdaugh trial starts Monday: What you need to know about the case, key players, more

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Paul and Maggie Murdaugh were shot next to the dog kennels. They died under dark pines in a far corner of the family’s sprawling 1,700-acre hunting property in Colleton County. Today, the eyes of the world are on their father and husband, Alex Murdaugh, as he goes on trial, accused of their murders.

International media, the public and legal experts have descended on the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, SC, as jury selection begins. After more than two years of speculation and rumor, hard facts should finally emerge about the brutal killings and stunning downfall of one of South Carolina’s most powerful legal families. But before the prosecution and defense can argue their case, they must choose citizens of Colleton County who will decide Murdaugh’s fate.

Jury selection

More than 900 potential jurors were were sent detailed questionnaires to determine if they were eligible for jury duty.

From this body, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office will pluck 12 jurors and several alternates who will determine whether Alex Murdaugh, the son of a Lowcountry legal dynasty, is guilty of murdering his wife and son.

Since 2019, the Murdaugh case has unfolded in a cascade of sudden twists and dark revelations. Jurors will be expected to parse a murky chain of events, with only circumstantial evidence to give shape to the most important moments in the trial.

In a case defined by unexpected drama, it’s no surprise that jury selection should also be different. The sheer scale of the potential juror pool is unusual, according to several attorneys.

“Normally in a rural county like Colleton, you’re not going to summon more than 150 people,” said 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, whose office is not involved in the trial.

But veteran judge Clifton Newman, who is overseeing the trial, has worked to streamline the selection process. He sent out an unusually specific questionnaire to potential jurors to narrow the pool as much as possible in advance.

Jurors who are summoned will then be asked a series of questions, known as voir dire, designed to tease out their knowledge of the case and any biases that might make them unfit to serve on the jury. Lawyers on both sides will jockey to select a jury sympathetic to their case.

Finding a jury in close-knit Colleton County with no knowledge or opinion on the Murdaugh case, or even a past business or personal relationship with the Murdaughs, may be nearly impossible. But that isn’t necessarily the goal,say attorneys.

“Relationships with the Murdaughs is going to be the overarching issue that comes up in voir dire,” predicted Columbia attorney Bakari Sellers. “But that’s not necessarily disqualifying.”

“The standard is ‘can the juror put those things aside and be a fair and impartial juror?’” Pascoe said.

During the Lexington County trial of Tim Jones, convicted in 2019 of murdering his five children, lawyers needed two weeks to whittle down 165 potential jurors into a final panel of 12 jurors and six alternates.

The selection process in Murdaugh’s trial is expected to go at least the rest of the week. As jurors answer questions about their backgrounds and beliefs, they can be “struck for cause” and removed from the jury pool if attorneys believe there is a legitimate reason they cannot judge the trial fairly.

Both sides also have a set number of “peremptory challenges,” which allows them to remove a potential juror without giving a reason. The prosecution is allowed five peremptory challenges, the defense has 10.

“The number one thing that could get you disqualified is standing up and saying any time the police arrest someone they must be guilty,” Sellers said.

Key players

Alex Murdaugh — A fourth generation lawyer and heir to one of the most powerful legal dynasties in South Carolina. His family controlled the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, covering Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties, for almost 100 years. At the same time, the family’s law firm, PMPED, grew into a personal injury powerhouse. Murdaugh served as a volunteer solicitor while working as a plaintiff’s attorney at the family law firm. A big man with a love of hunting, Murdaugh met his wife, Maggie, at USC. They had two sons, the younger, Paul, and his older brother, Buster.

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From left: Alex Murdaugh, his wife Maggie Murdaugh, and their sons Paul Murdaugh and Alex “Buster” Murdaugh Jr.

The defense team — Murdaugh’s lead attorneys are Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin. Harpootlian is a state senator and former 5th Circuit solicitor and deputy solicitor who prosecuted serial killer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins. The long time litigator is known for dramatic flourishes and a charismatic courtroom performance. Griffin is often described as the more reserved and cerebral of the pair, but the former assistant U.S. Attorney brings decades of experience in both criminal defense and complex civil litigation to the trial team.

Alex Murdaugh sits in the Colleton County Courthouse with his legal team including Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin as his attorneys discuss motions in front of Judge Clifton Newman on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. Murdaugh’s trial for murder is scheduled to begin Jan. 23, 2023 in Walterboro.

Alex Murdaugh sits in the Colleton County Courthouse with his legal team including Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin as his attorneys discuss motions in front of Judge Clifton Newman on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. Murdaugh’s trial for murder is scheduled to begin Jan. 23, 2023 in Walterboro.

The prosecution — The case is being prosecuted by state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office. In the courtroom, the lead prosecutor will be Creighton Waters, the chief attorney of the state grand jury. While the state grand jury rarely considers murder cases, Waters has adeptly led its investigations into complex, multi-jurisdictional crimes like human trafficking and drug smuggling. The Murdaugh case was taken by the Attorney General’s office after Duffie Stone, the 14th Circuit Solicitor, recused himself from the case. Waters will be joined by veteran appellate lawyer Don Zelenka, who has fought numerous murder appeals in the S.C. Court of Appeals and State Supreme Court.

Attorney General Prosecutor Creighton Waters and Defense Attorney Dick Harpootlian make points about the release of evidence during a hearing before Judge Clifton Newman in Florence County on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

Attorney General Prosecutor Creighton Waters and Defense Attorney Dick Harpootlian make points about the release of evidence during a hearing before Judge Clifton Newman in Florence County on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

The judge — Clifton Newman, a veteran South Carolina judge who attended segregated schools and is now one of the most respected jurists in the state, will be overseeing the case. Soft-spoken but commanding, Newman has overseen other high profile cases. Among them was trial of Nathaniel Rowland, who murdered USC student Samantha Josephson after she got into his car believing it was an Uber.

Timeline of the case so far

A FATAL BOAT CRASH AND AFTERMATH

A photo of the Sea Hunt boat after it crashed and killed Mallory Beach on Feb. 24, 2019. The photo was released Monday as part of the S.C. Attorney General’s Office’s case file.

A photo of the Sea Hunt boat after it crashed and killed Mallory Beach on Feb. 24, 2019. The photo was released Monday as part of the S.C. Attorney General’s Office’s case file.

Feb. 24, 2019 — At 2:30 a.m. a speeding boat collides with the pilling of a bridge over Archers Creek in Beaufort County. The six passengers are thrown into the water. One of the passengers, Mallory Beach, is not found after the crash. Paul Murdaugh is accused of piloting the boat while drunk at the time of the crash. Immediately following the wreck, his father and grandfather, the former local solicitor, prevented sobriety tests being performed on Paul. Alex Murdaugh wandered the halls of the hospital, allegedly pressuring witnesses not to speak to the police.

March 3, 2019 — Mallory Beach’s body is found in a marshy area of the river.

March 20, 2019 — A wrongful death lawsuit is filed on behalf of Mallory Beach’s family in Hampton County. Paul and his father are named defendants. The Beach family is represented by lawyer Mark Tinsley.

April 18, 2019 — On what would have been Beach’s 20th birthday, Paul Murdaugh is indicted on three felony criminal charges related to the boat crash. Murdaugh hires Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian to represent his son, who pleaded not guilty on May 6 and was released on bond.

Sept. 22, 2020 — Mediation breaks down in an effort to settle the wrongful death lawsuit, according to Tinsley. A court document says that the session lasted more than eight hours before reaching an impasse.

Oct. 16, 2020 — Tinsley files a motion to compel Alex Murdaugh to disclose information about bank accounts, assets and finances. A hearing is initially scheduled for May 2021 but is moved to June 10, 2021.

JUNE 7, 2021: THE DAY OF THE MURDERS

The Murdaugh home on Moselle Road, as seen on Sept. 2, 2021, located in Islandton, S.C. On June 7, Alex Murdaugh found his wife Maggie and son Paul murdered near the dog kennels (not pictured).

The Murdaugh home on Moselle Road, as seen on Sept. 2, 2021, located in Islandton, S.C. On June 7, Alex Murdaugh found his wife Maggie and son Paul murdered near the dog kennels (not pictured).

Morning PMPED staffer confronts Murdaugh and demands “an answer that day” about missing fees.

7:56 p.m. Paul sends Snapchat video to several of his friends.

9:05 p.m. Alex Murdaugh says that he drives to visit his mother, Elizabeth “Libby” Murdaugh, in nearby Varnville. He calls his son Buster, brother John Marvin, sister-in-law, Liz Murdaugh, and Chris Wilson on the drive.

9:20 p.m. Murdaugh arrives at his mother’s house. He spends approximately 20 minutes visiting with her and her nurses aid Muschelle “Shelly” Smith.

9:45 p.m. Murdaugh drives back to Moselle. One the way he calls Chris Wilson on the cellphone.

10:00 p.m. Murdaugh arrives back at Moselle.

10:05 p.m. Murdaugh calls 911 saying that he has found his wife and son shot to death near the dog kennels.

THE CASE AGAINST MURDAUGH

Alex Murdaugh is escorted from the Colleton County Courthouse after a judicial hearing before Judge Clifton Newman on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

Alex Murdaugh is escorted from the Colleton County Courthouse after a judicial hearing before Judge Clifton Newman on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

Sept. 2, 2021 A PMPED staffer finds a missing check on Murdaugh’s desk. It is from Chris Wilson and was intended for the law firm.

Sept. 3, 2021 Members of the PMPED law firm confront Murdaugh about missing money. He agrees to resign from the firm his family founded.

Sept. 4, 2021 Alex Murdaugh calls 911 saying that someone shot him on the side of a road while he changed a tire. The bullet is said to have grazed the back of his skull. The story quickly unravels and Murdaugh admits that he attempted to kill himself with the help of Curtis Smith, a disabled former logger and distant relative of Murdaugh’s, in order to secure an insurance payout for his surviving son, Buster. Smith is arrested but later denies in a NBC interview that he conspire with Murdaugh in the shooting. Smith says the gun went off when he tried to wrestle it out of a distraught Murdaugh’s hand.

Sept. 16, 2021 Murdaugh turns himself in to police on charges of insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and falsifying a police report stemming from what authorities say is a botched staged murder attempt.

Oct. 19, 2021 — Murdaugh returns to S.C. from a rehab facility in Florida and is indicted on a charge that he stole from the estate of Gloria Satterfield, the family’s nanny who died following a fall at Moselle. He is jailed at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Richland County. In the coming months he is indicted on dozens of financial crime charges, including stealing from his own clients and tax evasion.

July 14, 2022 — Murdaugh is formally charged with the murder of his wife and son.

The prosecution’s case

As the curtain rises on the trial, there are few guarantees about what evidence the prosecution will bring against Murdaugh.

But in court appearances and motions, lead prosecutor Creighton Waters has indicated he will argue that Murdaugh was driven to kill his wife and son in a craven attempt to distract from his financial crimes.

“When this case started, a lot of people assumed this was a murder case, and then a couple of months later, some white-collar fraud thrown in there,” Waters said in court. “But what we have realized is that this is a white-collar case that culminated in two murders. This is an unbroken chain of lying, misappropriations and thefts.”

The prosecution has described Murdaugh as lurching from one criminal scheme to another after a series of bad land deals in 2008. Prosecutors will be looking to get as yet unproven allegations in front of the jury: that Murdaugh stole money from his own law firm, pilfered settlements and looted conservatorship accounts belonging to his clients in an attempt to cover his mounting debts.

On June 7, 2021, the day of the murders, Murdaugh finally ran out of road, prosecutors say. He had been subpoenaed to disclose financial information as part of a civil lawsuit over the 2019 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach. On the morning of June 7, 2021, a staff member at PMPED, the law firm that Murdaugh’s family founded, had inquired about missing payments, prosecutors say.

It was “a day of reckoning,” Waters said in court. For Murdaugh, who Waters described as having “never faced accountability in his life,” murder became his only way out.

On the night of June 7, 2021, Murdaugh used two different guns to kill his wife and son, prosecutors allege. Maggie was killed with bullets from a high powered rifle, while Paul was shot in the head and shoulder by a shotgun.

A diagram of the crime scene included in a report prepared by Dr. Kenneth Lee Kinsey showing the location of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh’s bodies relative to the kennels and storage shed.

A diagram of the crime scene included in a report prepared by Dr. Kenneth Lee Kinsey showing the location of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh’s bodies relative to the kennels and storage shed.

The prosecution has indicated that it has a video from Paul’s cellphone of Murdaugh, Paul and Maggie talking at the dog kennels shortly before the killing. The family’s guns have been tested by SLED. But perhaps most damning is the prosecution’s claim that the T-shirt worn by Alex Murdaugh the night of the murders is covered in back spatter, a pattern of droplets caused by the mist of blood when a projectile hits flesh.

Tom Bevel, a technical witness who analyzed the T-shirt, wrote in a report to SLED:

“I don’t see any other mechanism to get so many misting stains onto (Murdaugh’s) shirt other than the spatter created from the shotgun wounding (of Paul Murdaugh).”

The defense’s case

Through the avalanche of indictments against him, Murdaugh has maintained his innocence.

Murdaugh will have a chance to prove it “by God and my country,” as he requested at his arraignment, invoking an ancient request for a jury trial.

In the months leading up to the trial, his formidable defense team has worked to cut the legs out from under the prosecution. They have attacked the state’s theory that Murdaugh killed his family to hide financial crimes as “illogical” and “implausible”.

“There is zero evidentiary support for this motive,” the defense wrote in a recent motion that argued the state should not be allowed to introduce the unproven financial allegations contained in 17 other indictments against Murdaugh.

In motions, the defense has portrayed the inquiry about missing fees at the PMPED law firm as inconsequential. The attorneys also say the subpoena in the Mallory Beach lawsuit would only require Murdaugh to disclose superficial financial information.

In reality, Griffin and Harpootlian argue, there was no “day of reckoning.”

Murdaugh has also offered an alibi for the night of June 7, 2021. He says that although he was at the family’s 1,700 acre hunting property, Moselle, from 8:30 until just after 9, he then drove to visit his mother in nearby Varnville. Her nurse, Muschelle “Shelly” Smith, was also present, according to the court filing.

On the approximately 15-minute drive to and from his mother’s home, he had cellphone conversations with his son, Buster Murdaugh, brother John Marvin Murdaugh, sister-in-law Liz Murdaugh, friend Chris Wilson and C.B. Rowe, who is believed to have helped around the property.

Murdaugh says he discovered the bodies when he arrived back at Moselle at 10:05 p.m., when he made a frantic 911 call.

In one of the most punishing pre-trial battles, the defense has fought to keep the bloodstained T-shirt out of the courtroom. In a filing Wednesday, the attorneys accused Bevel of engaging in a “science fair” experiment, twisted to produce a result favorable to the prosecution. Bevel’s first draft report stated that the blood on the T-shirt was not consistent with back spatter.

But after SLED agents hand delivered the shirt to him so he could inspect it again, Bevel changed his mind and wrote a report saying that he had determined that the blood stains could only have come from back spatter.

In a recent motion for sanctions, the defense argued that because the prosecution has not turned over documents that would show how Bevel reached a new determination, all testimony stemming from his analysis of the shirt, which has since been destroyed, should be banned from court.

Investigators from SLED tested the cotton T-shirt that Alex Murdaugh wore the night of the murders for blood using two different chemicals that change color in the presence of blood: Phenolphthalein, which turns pink, and leucocrystal violet, which turns blue when it reacts with hemoglobin, a protein contained in red blood cells.

Investigators from SLED tested the cotton T-shirt that Alex Murdaugh wore the night of the murders for blood using two different chemicals that change color in the presence of blood: Phenolphthalein, which turns pink, and leucocrystal violet, which turns blue when it reacts with hemoglobin, a protein contained in red blood cells.

A defense motion alleges that on Feb. 15, 2022, investigators discovered that the shirt was “destroyed” after chemicals applied to test for blood stained the entire shirt blue and sections were cut from it to test for DNA and blood stains.

A defense motion alleges that on Feb. 15, 2022, investigators discovered that the shirt was “destroyed” after chemicals applied to test for blood stained the entire shirt blue and sections were cut from it to test for TBEN and blood stains.

The defense does not need to prove that someone else committed the crime. Still, the attorneys have previously accused Curtis Smith of committing the murders.

Harpootlian and Griffin wrote in a motion that Smith “decidedly” failed a polygraph examination administered by investigators.

“The reason Smith failed the polygraph when asked if he murdered Maggie and Paul is because he in fact did commit these heinous crimes,” the defense attorneys wrote in October.

The prosecution may look to head off this argument. In recent motions they’ve asked Judge Newman to prohibit any inclusion of polygraph evidence or any mention of so-called third party guilt — evidence that someone else may have committed the crime.

Smith has also been indicted in connection with Murdaugh’s alleged embezzlement and money laundering. He allegedly received more than $1 million from Murdaugh over the years. The prosecution subpoenaed Smith to testify at trial, according to his attorney, Aimee Zmroczek.

“The State immediately decided Alex was guilty,” the defense wrote in a recent motion. “The State has offered nothing more than a fabricated motive, without any supporting evidence.”

How to follow the trial

The State will be providing daily coverage from inside the Colleton County courthouse in Walterboro, SC. You can read our coverage online at www.thestate.com

Court TV will be broadcasting the trial live. For more information about streaming online, visit www.courttv.com/trending/alex-murdaugh-family-murders/

For television viewers, visit www.courttv.com/where-to-watch/ to learn which stations carry Court TV.

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