CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Carl Nimmer isn’t a big true crime fan, but the Bluffton sod farmer couldn’t resist tuning in to watch the double murder trial against Alex Murdaugh, a lurid saga that thrust his South Carolina community into the national spotlight.
And like hundreds of others, he found one witness so sympathetic he was moved to help her.
Mushell “Shelley” Smith was a star witness for the state, raising significant doubts about the disbarred attorney’s alibi the night his wife and son were brutally murdered.
Among the experienced trial experts and polished attorneys who testified at the trial, the grandmother in the red turtleneck and frilly black cardigan stood out for her vulnerability, becoming a favorite among those dissecting the proceedings on social media.
“She just kind of touched me,” Nimmer said. “I was sitting there watching her testimony, and I felt like not only could she use the money, but it felt like she had gotten preyed upon.”
But the woman became the center of a novel controversy after her daughter started an online campaign on GoFundMe, a crowdsourcing platform, to raise money for her mother’s “bravery and honesty” after her Feb. 6 testimony.
Legal experts said they had never heard of a crowdsourcing site being used to raise funds for a witness in the midst of trial, but they raised concerns it could represent a new prejudicial influence in highly publicized proceedings.
John G. Browning, a Texas attorney and the author of a book on legal ethics and social media, said modern technology has created a host of challenges for the justice system, but the crowdsourcing campaign was a new and troubling development.
“This is the first, but it’s not the last time, that we’re going to hear about something like this,” Browning said.
A spokesman for GoFundMe declined to answer questions about the campaign, except to say it did not violate the company’s terms of service.
Smith testified that she worked a 12-hour night shift caring for Murdaugh’s ailing mother at the time of the murders while working a day job for the local school district. The exhausting schedule prompted veteran prosecutor John Meadors to ask Smith when she found time to sleep.
“I took little cat naps every now and then,” she explained.
Murdaugh told investigators he was visiting his ailing mother when his wife, Maggie, and son Paul were fatally shot the night of June 7, 2021, at the family’s hunting estate in Colleton County. The disbarred attorney claimed he was at his parents’ house for 30 or 40 minutes, but Smith, a caretaker for Murdaugh’s mother, told the jury it was less than 20 minutes.
Later, Murdaugh offered to pay for Smith’s wedding while insisting he visited his mother longer than she believed was true, she testified. Smith’s mascara ran down her cheeks and she took long pauses as she answered questions about the conversation, which so troubled her she called her brother, a police officer, afterward to discuss it.
Smith’s testimony turned her into a social media darling as viewers of the livestreamed trial applauded her brave testimony against the formerly respected attorney whose family once wielded significant power in the region.
That public affection would quickly turn into a $30,000 windfall for Smith.
After she testified, Smith’s daughter, Rachelle Buckner, created the GoFundMe drive to raise donations for her mother. Money poured in from across the country as the campaign circulated on social media.
Janet Hoddy, a New York City nurse, donated $20 to the campaign. Hoddy said in an interview she felt a kinship with her fellow health care worker.