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GoFundMe drive that netted Murdaugh trial witness $30K raises eyebrows

Legal experts say a GoFundMe campaign created to raise money for a state witness at the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial could signal a new prejudicial threat in highly publicized cases.

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.


“I thought – how does she work so many hours?” Hoddy said. “And I felt like she was really put on the spot and scared, so I just wanted to reach out to her.”

Paula Rohde donated $25 to Smith. The California child welfare consultant said she has testified as an expert at trials – it’s a nerve-wracking experience.

“I thought she came across as a hard-working woman dedicated to her job – both at the school and as a caregiver,” Rohde said.

Nimmer, who donated $100, said Smith seemed like someone who just couldn’t bring herself to lie, even as she felt incredible pressure to do so. She just seemed like a really good person, he said.

Altogether, more than 850 people donated money to Smith.

Murdaugh defense attorney Phillip Barber brought the campaign to the court’s attention Feb. 9 — three days after Smith testified. Barber told Colleton County Judge Clifton Newman that one of the largest donations to the campaign came from another witness in the case: attorney Mark Tinsley.

Tinsley is representing the family of Mallory Beach, a 19-year-old girl killed in a 2019 boating crash. Paul Murdaugh was charged with operating the boat while intoxicated at the time of the crash, but he died before the case went to trial. The Beach family filed the wrongful death suit against the Murdaughs, among others, claiming their negligence contributed to the teen’s death.

Barber said the attorney’s $1,000 donation was inappropriate since Tinsley had a financial interest in Murdaugh’s conviction. The defense attorney asked Newman to bar Tinsley from testifying in the case.

“That would be good fodder for cross-examination,” the judge said, denying the motion.

Ultimately, the defense team chose not to impeach Tinsley about the donation. Barber asked only a single question of the combative attorney during cross-examination. The team also chose not to recall Smith to ask her about the donations.

Tinsley denied any wrongdoing in an interview. He said, like others, he was moved by the woman’s courage and work ethic.

“It wasn’t a ton of money, but I wanted to help her,” he said. “Not because of her involvement, just because of clearly what she went through in terms of being terrified and up against it.”

He said Smith's daughter asked him if she should end the campaign, but he told her not to. He said Barber didn’t impeach him because there was nothing to the controversy.

“I think that if somebody does something that somehow compromises their credibility, some good lawyer is going to find it and bring it out and make a point out of it,” he said.

Attempts to reach Smith were unsuccessful.

Smith’s campaign was not the first time GoFundMe has become embroiled in a court-related controversy. The San Diego-based company was criticized for removing campaigns to raise money for the legal defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, a teen charged in 2020 with shooting three people, two fatally, during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

After Rittenhouse’s acquittal on murder and other charges, GoFundMe lifted the ban, explaining in a post on Medium that the company had a “long-standing policy” prohibiting users from raising funds for the legal defense of individuals charged with an alleged violent crime.

Browning said the company should revisit its policies in light of Smith's campaign. He pointed out online platforms regularly update their terms of service to address public controversies, such as eBay’s decision to ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia.

The tools judges wield to maintain order and ensure fairness during a criminal proceeding — jury sequestration, contempt or trial venue changes, for instance — are frequently inadequate to address issues that arise in the digital age, experts say.

Thea Johnson, an associate professor for Rutgers Law School, said those tools have always been imperfect. She pointed to a judge’s order for jurors to disregard prejudicial evidence.

“Of course, human beings can’t do that,” she said. “We can’t disregard information that we’ve already been given.”

But modern technology has made achieving fairness far more difficult, she said. It is one thing for a judge to order a juror not to read a newspaper, but for the jury to avoid all information about a high-profile case is near impossible with the advent of smartphones.

“It’s the device in which you’re checking your email, calling your family and friends and getting directions to the courthouse that morning,” she said. “And it’s the same device that has your news and social media sites on it.”

Johnson suggested one way judges could address crowdsourcing campaigns is to instruct witnesses that they may not profit from their appearance in court.

“Potentially, you could see this becoming part of what we tell witnesses,” she said. “But I think we’re a long way off from that because, of course, this is so new.”

Another solution would be to prohibit the proceedings from being televised, she said. Criminal trials are required to be open to the public, Johnson said, but that does not mean they must be broadcast live across the country.

"I think that's a big tool the judge could use to control the circus," she said.

Browning said the fact that the GoFundMe campaign began after Smith testified gave him “less heartburn," but he could imagine a scenario where a high-profile witness’s upcoming testimony becomes tainted by a public bidding war.

“We’re living in an age where people monetize so much of their lives and their activities,” he said. “You know, you only have to look at the success of platforms like OnlyFans, where people essentially allow a certain level of digital intimacy for money. It is scary, and it does raise some concerns.”

GoFundMe’s role in the Murdaugh saga appears far from over.

On March 9, the family of a 19-year-old man whose 2015 death on a Hampton County road came under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the Murdaugh murders, announced they were raising money to exhume the teenager's remains and conduct an independent autopsy.

The campaign has shattered the family’s $15,000 goal, raising more than $81,000 as of March 21.

Categories: Courts National Technology Trials

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