Alex Murdaugh trial: Before testimony starts, judge has key rulings

FILE-Alex Murdaugh sits in court with his legal team during a judicial hearing on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. (Tracy Glantz/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Before testimony begins in South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh's murder trial, defense lawyers will ask the judge to make a pair of key rulings this week that could strike a massive amount of evidence from the case.

Prosecutors want to present voluminous evidence of Murdaugh's bad behavior and the numerous other crimes he is charged with to show he killed his wife and son to buy time to prevent his other wrongdoings from being discovered.

Defense attorneys don't want the judge to admit the evidence, contending prosecutors are trying to smear Murdaugh to bolster a weak case.

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When Circuit Judge Clifton Newman hears arguments after the jury is seated, Murdaugh’s lawyers also will try to convince him to refuse to admit evidence that authorities said will show blood from his slain younger son spattered on Murdaugh’s shirt. Defense lawyers said the shirt was destroyed before they could test it and there is evidence the expert examining the shirt changed his conclusions under pressure from state agents.

Jury selection continues Tuesday as the court tries to get 700 people down to a pool of several dozen potential jurors to select the final panel of 12, plus six alternates.

Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder in the deaths of Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, 22. Murdaugh found their bodies outside their Colleton County home on June 7, 2021. He said he’d been gone for about an hour to visit his ailing father and mother.

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Murdaugh also faces about 100 charges related to other crimes, including money laundering, stealing millions from clients, tax evasion and trying to get a man to fatally shoot him so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy.

Usually, the prosecution's key evidence is known well beforehand in prominent South Carolina trials, whether it's Susan Smith's confession that she rolled her car into a Union County lake and drowned her children or surveillance footage showing Dylann Roof with his distinctive haircut enter and exit a Charleston African American church where he killed nine members in a racist attack.

But little is known about the state’s case against Murdaugh outside of the disputed blood spatter evidence, subpoenas of Google and Snapchat and mentions of videos taken at the Murdaughs' home where the killings took place.

When asked during a preliminary hearing about what evidence they would produce, prosecutors presented a detailed timeline of how Murdaugh's wife and son were killed the same day a paralegal at a law firm reported he might be stealing money.

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They contend Murdaugh shot the two to distract attention from his financial jam and that evidence of other crimes on which he is awaiting trial is relevant to illustrate how a father and husband could commit such a horrible act.

Murdaugh's lawyers said it defies logic for an attorney to think scrutiny of his life would decrease when his wife and son were found shot several times with two different guns. They maintain prosecutors are trying to smear him because they appear to have no other significant evidence.

State agents and prosecutors took 13 months to seek murder indictments against Murdaugh. There has been no evidence made public that the guns used to the kill the victims, a possible confession, an eyewitness account or other information on the case has surfaced.

In the blood spatter evidence, Murdaugh's lawyers said emails turned over to them by prosecutors showed an expert, who analyzed the shirt Murdaugh was wearing when he found the bodies, initially determined there were no blood spatter stains, only spots that could have happened when Murdaugh checked to see if his son and wife were still alive.

The expert changed his mind several weeks later after state agents flew to his home in Oklahoma, according to the emails cited by Murdaugh's lawyers. Testing on the shirt used chemicals that made it impossible for any defense expert to do their own testing or even check the original results, the defense said.

Prosecutors said at a December hearing that there could be problems with the blood spatter work but asked to huddle with investigators. They haven't commented on the subject in court papers or the courtroom since.

Murdaugh's trial is expected to last up to three weeks, with prosecutors and defense attorneys providing a list of more than 200 potential witnesses to the judge.