CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — A caretaker for Alex Murdaugh’s mother testified that the disbarred attorney offered her a generous wedding gift when they disagreed on how long he spent at his mother’s house on the night his wife and son were fatally shot.
Mushelle "Shelley" Smith told the jury at Murdaugh’s murder trial Monday that the defendant spent no more than 20 minutes at the house visiting with his mother, who had Alzheimer's disease. It was unusual for him to visit so late, she testified.
After his wife and son were gunned down at the family’s hunting estate, Murdaugh told the employee: “I was here for 30 to 40 minutes,” according to Smith’s testimony, and offered to help pay for the woman's wedding.
Smith told investigators for the defense last fall that the prominent Lowcountry lawyer went even farther, telling her: “If someone asks you, I was here for 30 to 40 minutes,” according to a transcript of the interview.
The defendant’s directive was so concerning Smith testified she called her brother — an assistant police chief in Varnville.
“I was nervous,” Smith testified.
The explosive testimony came as Murdaugh’s trial entered its third week. South Carolina prosecutors allege the 54-year-old defendant murdered his wife, Maggie, and their son Paul on June 7, 2021, at the family’s 1,770-acre estate in Colleton County.
The brutal slayings shined a national spotlight on the prominent Lowcountry family, which for three generations had prosecuted cases as elected solicitors for the 14th Judicial Circuit while simultaneously running a high-powered law firm. At the time of the murders, Murdaugh was litigating personal injury cases for the family firm and moonlighting as a part-time prosecutor.
The defendant’s work was lucrative, but he remained mired in debt, according to prior testimony, and his career was in peril as multiple investigations threatened to reveal a decadeslong fraud scheme he allegedly perpetrated against former legal clients.
Judge Clifton Newman heard testimony from multiple witnesses last week regarding the disbarred attorney’s finances to determine whether it should be admitted as evidence of motive. The defendant’s attorneys argued the allegations were prejudicial and failed to provide an explanation for why the man would kill his wife and son.
On Monday, the judge ruled the evidence will be admitted. There was a “logical nexus” between the bad acts, he said, as “the looming exposure of financial crimes provided motive for the murders and is evidence of malice — an essential element of the crime of murder.”
Among the witnesses jurors will hear from in the coming days is Mark Tinsley, an attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family of a 19-year-old girl killed in a 2019 boat crash. Paul Murdaugh was charged with operating the boat while intoxicated, but died before the case went to trial.
Tinsley testified outside the jury’s presence Monday that he believed Alex Murdaugh was hiding money from his clients, so he filed a motion seeking the attorney’s bank records. If a judge ruled in his favor, Murdaugh’s messy finances would have been laid bare, potentially revealing that he had stolen millions of dollars from the settlement accounts of his former clients, prosecutors argue.
A hearing was scheduled to take place on June 10, 2021, but it was canceled because of the murders. The hearing wasn’t quite “Judgment Day” for Murdaugh, Tinsey testified, “but he would know it was beginning to unravel.”
Murdaugh was also questioned on the day of the murders by his law firm’s chief financial officer about a missing $800,000 legal fee, according to prior testimony.
Smith’s testimony was a respite from the dizzying financial evidence that has dominated the trial in recent days.
The woman told the jury she spent her nights caring for Libby Murdaugh, Alex’s mother, and worked in food service for a local school district during the day. She said she took naps when she found the time.
She said she had just begun her shift June 7 when Murdaugh called to say he was outside the Almeda residence. Murdaugh’s father was in the hospital at the time and would die days later.
Smith estimated it was between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. when Murdaugh arrived there. He sat with his mother and held her hand. Her worsening dementia made a conversation impossible, she testified.
He left 15 or 20 minutes later, she said. It was unusual for him to visit that late, but he visited more often than his other siblings. He seemed “fidgety,” but he was usually like that.
Smith told the jury she learned of the murders the next morning. After Randolph Murdaugh’s funeral, the family held a visitation at the parent’s house, where she met the defendant again.
Smith began to cry as state prosecutor John Meadors questioned her about the conversation. Murdaugh told her he visited his mother for “30 to 40 minutes” on the prior evening, she said. He offered to help pay for her wedding and said he knew the principal at the school where she worked.
Smith was interviewed in October by investigators hired by Murdaugh’s defense attorneys. In that interview, she quoted Murdaugh as saying: “If someone asks you, I was here for 30 to 40 minutes,” according to a transcript read by Meadors.
“I’m sorry this happened,” she tearfully testified. “They were a good family.”
Murdaugh would later visit the house during the early morning. Smith testified she saw the defendant carry a blue tarp into the home and place it on a chair in his mother’s room.
In September 2021, SLED investigators executed a search warrant at the residence. They found a blue tarp stored along with some dishes in an upstairs bedroom closet. Agents also seized a blue raincoat from a coat closet.
State prosecutor Creighton Waters told the jury in his opening statement the inside of the blue raincoat testified positive for gunshot residue. On cross-examination, Smith said that she saw Murdaugh carrying a blue tarp — not a raincoat.
The trial is expected to continue into next week.
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