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Prosecutors prepare to rest case in Alex Murdaugh double murder trial

State prosecutors are expected to rest their case Friday after calling the older sister of Murdaugh's slain wife and the state's lead homicide investigator to testify.

WALTERBORO, S.C. (CN) — South Carolina prosecutors called their final witnesses this week in the double murder trial for Alex Murdaugh, the disbarred attorney accused of murdering his wife and son nearly two years ago at the family's hunting estate.

Jurors heard testimony about Murdaugh's longtime opioid addiction and the attorney's botched suicide – part of an alleged insurance fraud scheme he concocted with his longtime drug dealer several months after the murders.

Among the last witnesses was David Owen, the State Law Enforcement Division agent who led the investigation into the homicides. He testified about Murdaugh’s final interview with investigators about the murders before being grilled in cross-examination over missteps in the investigation.

Jurors also heard from Marian Proctor, the sister of Murdaugh's slain wife Maggie Murdaugh, who said it was odd that the 54-year-old defendant was not more concerned for his own safety after his wife and son were gunned down on the family's property.

“I think everyone was afraid,” she testified, pausing. “Alex didn’t seem to be afraid.”

Murdaugh called authorities shortly after 10 p.m. on June 7, 2021, to report finding the bodies of Maggie and his son Paul Murdaugh near the kennel on the family’s 1,772-acre hunting estate in Colleton County.

The 52-year-old wife was shot four or five times with an assault rifle chambered to fire .300 blackout rounds, ammunition commonly used to hunt wild hogs, according to testimony. Paul, 22, was blasted twice with a shotgun, including a devastating blow to his upper body that obliterated his skull. The young man’s brain, absent its stem, was delivered to forensic pathologist Ellen Riemer in a bucket, she testified.

Neither victim had defensive wounds to suggest a struggle took place, Riemer said. Kenneth Kinsey, a crime scene examiner, testified Thursday the shooter finished Maggie off execution-style with a close-range blast to the head. An impression on the woman’s leg was likely a tire track, he testified, which could have been left by an all-terrain vehicle on the property.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters warned jurors in his opening statement the state’s case was largely built on circumstantial evidence. While witnesses called at the trial described sometimes unusual behavior by the defendant in the days and weeks after the killings, Murdaugh has maintained his innocence. The murder weapons were not recovered and the crime was not captured on any surveillance cameras.

The ginger-haired man has often wept and rocked in his seat at the defense’s table as friends and colleagues took the stand to recount their memories of Maggie and Paul. He sometimes flashed a warm smile at the witnesses – a reminder that the charismatic personal injury attorney was no stranger to the courtroom.

Prosecutors claim Murdaugh, the scion of a century-old legal dynasty built in the state's swampy Lowcountry, committed the brutal slayings in a desperate bid to distract investigators threatening to unearth more insidious crimes lurking in his past.

Before he was a killer, the attorney was a prolific thief, prosecutors say, stealing millions of dollars from his law clients in a dizzyingly complex scheme that relied on phony bank accounts and roped in several respected colleagues.

On the day of the killings, the chief financial officer for the Murdaugh family’s Hampton law firm quizzed him about a missing $792,000 legal fee, she testified. Meanwhile, an attorney was threatening to expose his financial records in a lawsuit tied to a 2019 fatal boat crash. A hearing on the attorney’s motion to reveal his perilous finances was scheduled for later that week.

Murdaugh’s father was dying and his mother was debilitated by dementia.

All those pressures drove the attorney to kill his wife and son, prosecutors say, and while the murders did successfully distract from his other crimes for a time, it drew the nation’s attention to the macabre saga unfolding in the Palmetto State.


A shaky alibi

Murdaugh told investigators he last saw his wife and son alive at dinner time, according to testimony. He took a nap and drove to his parent’s house, where he spent 45 minutes to an hour visiting his ailing mother. He realized his wife and son were absent upon returning to the hunting estate, so he drove to the property's kennels, where he made the grisly discovery.

A caretaker for Murdaugh’s mother testified it was unusual for the son to visit so late. He arrived between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and sat with his ailing mother for no more than 20 minutes before he left the home, she said. The attorney would later insist in a conversation with the key alibi witness he was there for longer than she remembered. He then offered to help pay for her wedding, she testified.

A federal investigator cracked the passcode on Paul’s locked cellphone last March. On the device, authorities found a video the young man recorded around 8:44 p.m. of a dog kept at the kennels. A parade of family friends have been called to the stand at the trial, testifying one after the other they heard the voices of three people in the video — Paul, Maggie and Alex Murdaugh.

The son and mother would stop responding to text messages minutes after the video was recorded, according to cellphone data, suggesting they were killed soon thereafter.

Several shotguns and a .300 blackout rifle were missing from the family’s property. Witnesses testified Paul would sometimes leave his guns in the estate’s outbuildings and in unlocked vehicles.

On Wednesday, jurors watched a video of Murdaugh’s third interview with authorities. He reiterated during the Aug. 11, 2021, conversation with Owen he had not visited the kennels before finding the bodies.

Owen quizzed Murdaugh about his memory of the night. When did he leave work the day of the murders? How long did he visit his mother? How does he typically load a shotgun?

Owen then asked him directly – Did he kill Maggie? Did he kill Paul?

No, he did not kill his wife and son, he responded. And he did not know who did.

Owen testified Wednesday the disbarred attorney was the only known suspect at the time, pointing to Murdaugh’s inconsistent timeline. Investigators had not yet recovered the video from Paul’s cellphone, but the young man’s friend told them he was “99%" certain he heard Murdaugh’s voice in the background while talking to Paul on the phone at the kennels.

Missteps in the investigation

Owen’s investigation was battered during cross-examination. He told the grand jury that indicted Murdaugh in the murders that an expert found high-impact blood spatter on the attorney’s shirt, but SLED’s forensic experts had determined the stains were not blood. Owen admitted during questioning by defense attorney Jim Griffin he did not know about the negative blood results until November — only months before trial — when defense attorneys pointed out the discrepancy.

Paul was shot twice with a double-barrel shotgun loaded with birdshot and buckshot — an unusual combination for a hunting weapon. Owen told the grand jury they found other weapons on Murdaugh’s property similarly loaded, but that was also incorrect, he admitted.

Nobody searched for bloody clothes or blood in Murdaugh’s house the night of the murders. That was probably a missed opportunity, Owen acknowledged. Paul posted a video to social media the afternoon of June 7 that showed his father wearing different clothing than what he wore when first responders arrived at his house after the murders. Owen admitted investigators never asked him for those clothes.


The roadside shooting

Murdaugh’s public fall from grace would come swiftly after the Aug. 11 interview.

On Sept. 3, he resigned from his family’s law firm after he was confronted about the alleged client thefts. He told Chris Wilson, a close friend and fellow attorney, he stole to feed a decadeslong opioid addiction, according to Wilson's testimony.

The next day, Murdaugh was flown to a Georgia hospital after he was shot in the head. He initially claimed someone targeted him on the side of Old Salkehatchie Road in Hampton County, but that story quickly fell apart.

He confessed in a Sept. 13 phone interview with SLED senior agent Ryan Kelly the story was a fabrication, the agent testified Thursday. In a recording of the interview played for the jury, Murdaugh said he hired his former client and personal drug dealer, Curtis “Eddie” Smith, to shoot him as part of an attempted insurance fraud scheme. Murdaugh told Kelly he hoped to die so his eldest son could collect a multimillion payout from his life insurance policy.

“I thought it would make it easier on my family for me to be dead," Murdaugh said in the recording.

But Smith only winged him before fleeing the scene.

Investigators identified Smith as a suspect from surveillance footage near the scene of the shooting. A search of the man's Walterboro home turned up drugs, a doctor's reference guide with handwritten notes and a drug ledger, Kelly testified.

The gun was never located. Murdaugh admitted in the interview he contacted Smith from the Savannah hospital. Investigators learned the attorney also called Smith while staying in an Atlanta rehabilitation facility after the shooting, Kelly testified.

Murdaugh said he did not have any drug debts he was aware of, according to the interview recording. He did not believe there was any threat to his eldest son, Buster.

He told Kelly he had been addicted to Oxycodone, a pain medication, for roughly 20 years. Some weeks, he paid Smith $50,000 to $60,000 for the opioid, according to the interview.

A sister's tearful testimony

Proctor, Maggie's older sister, testified Tuesday their family lived in fear after the murders. She believed the killings were connected to the 2019 boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Paul Murdaugh was charged with operating the boat while intoxicated, but he died before the case went to trial. His father told investigators the young man was threatened for his alleged role in the tragedy.

The roadside shooting and thefts from the law firm made the in-laws question that theory, however.

“Then things started to change a little bit," Proctor said.

She testified her brother-in-law told her after the murders his “number one goal” was clearing Paul’s name in the boat crash. That was “so strange,” Proctor told the jury, because her number one goal was finding the killers. She believed Murdaugh cared about that, but how could he think of anything else, she wondered.

Proctor said the Murdaughs did not have a perfect marriage, but her sister was happy. Her testimony echoed what others – colleagues, friends and former employees – said about the family: They appeared to be close-knit and loving.

It wasn’t all perfect, however. The family had a nickname for Paul: “The Little Detective,” Proctor testified. That’s because the young man would snoop around the house to make sure his father was not taking unprescribed pain pills, she testified.

Proctor testified her sister was also concerned about Murdaugh’s addiction.

Murdaugh's defense attorneys are expected to begin their presentation Friday. Attorney Dick Harpootlian previously said it would last about a week. Court will not be in session Monday due to Presidents Day.

Categories:Criminal, Regional, Trials

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