The first week of testimony in the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial drew to a close on Friday afternoon as jurors heard from prosecution witnesses who offered forensic opinions about the crime scene.
The 54-year-old disgraced legal scion – disbarred as the murder allegations and numerous alleged financial improprieties came to light – is accused of shooting and killing his wife, Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh, 52, and their youngest son Paul Murdaugh, 22, with an AR-style .300 Blackout rifle and shotgun on the family’s 1,700-plus acre hunting lodge known as Moselle.
Here are a few things you might have missed from some of the nine witnesses called during three days of testimony and exhibits.
Ammunition, Casings, and Hulls
During the state’s opening statement, lead prosecutor Creighton Waters said evidence would show that Alex Murdaugh owned a total of three AR-style Blackout rifles. One of those weapons disappeared from the defendant’s truck years ago; and another of which was used to replace the missing gun. Lead defense attorney Dick Harpootlian told jurors that the lost gun was the result of Paul Murdaugh’s chronic recklessness – and said the replacement gun was bought for him.
The prosecutor said the state had recovered shell casings from a recent recreational shooting session with the Murdaughs and some friends from elsewhere on the expansive hunting lodge’s property. Those casings found were ejected from the same “family weapon” that killed Maggie Murdaugh, Waters alleged. He also said shotgun hulls were found on the family’s property that matched the type of ammunition used to kill Paul Murdaugh.
On Friday, three witnesses provided testimony about the crime scene – at times laboriously documenting how the evidence was handled once South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents arrived. Those tedious efforts were an apparent effort to fight back against prior defense claims that the crime scene was poorly handled by law enforcement to the point that some evidence had likely been spoiled.
“I can’t tell you whether he was shot by his own weapon, or if Maggie was, but I can tell you they weren’t shot by Alex,” the defense attorney said earlier this week, referring to Paul Murdaugh.
Details of the youngest Murdaugh’s death were relayed in graphic terms by witnesses on the stand and the defense.
Content Warning: Gory Details of Paul Murdaugh’s Death
Harpootlian began the defense’s case in chief by having his client rise to greet the jury, remarking on the various pronunciations of his last name, and saying: “It’s our honor to defend Alex Murdaugh.”
He then went on to describe Paul Murdaugh’s shooting in terms that may be difficult for some readers.
Both the prosecution and the defense agree the defendant’s son was shot twice with a shotgun – with the prosecutor musing about how the victim might have survived the first. The defense did not opine on his likelihood of survival, except to note that it went under his arm and that he had shotgun “wadding” in the area of his left armpit.
The second shotgun blast, Harpootlian said, “literally exploded his head like a watermelon hit with a sledgehammer.”
He said the impact of the buckshot caused Paul Murdaugh’s brain to fly out of his head, hit the ceiling of a closet, and then land at his own feet, describing the first murder as a “horrendous, horrible, butchering.”
“His head exploded,” Harpootlian said of his client’s son. “He would be covered in blood from head to foot.”
Those details were relayed by the defense in an apparent effort to portend the unlikely, exceedingly violent, execution of a son by his father up close – and additionally noted that no bloody clothes have ever been found.
Harpootlian said that such a crime was: “Not believable. Not believable.”
On day two of testimony, Colleton County Fire and Rescue Chief Barry McRoy testified about the younger victim’s body.
“That is the body of Paul, and he is laying facedown at the entrance to the utility room at the kennels,” McRoy told jurors while describing a crime scene photo.”You can see there is substantial damage to his head. There’s a lot of blood and there appears to be his brain down there by his foot.”
Later that day, the full, unredacted 911 call made by the defendant on the night of June 7, 2021, was played for jurors.
“I can see his brain,” Alex Murdaugh could be heard saying of his son.
Something Blue and Gunpowder Residue
As the state began their case-in-chief, Waters hammered on the point that cellular phone evidence would prove crucial in understanding that Alex Murdaugh had lied about his whereabouts that night, and was guilty.
“Alex’s cellphone, Maggie’s cellphone, Paul’s cellphone,” he said – hinting at an argument that would be fleshed out later on – while promising jurors they would see a Snapchat video that would put the lie to some of the defendant’s prior statements. “This is really amazing technology that a lot of us carry around in our pockets.”
One point of evidence that has not been publicly mentioned before is the allegation that a witness told police they saw Alex Murdaugh going upstairs to his mother’s home about a week after the slayings with something that looked like a blue tarp.
On the night of the slayings, the defendant admittedly and briefly went to visit his ailing mother at her home, several minutes away from the Murdaugh family hunting lodge.
“He comes in,” Waters said. He’s carrying something in a blue tarp and he takes it upstairs. And eventually, law enforcement finds out about that, and they go upstairs and they find upstairs a wadded up very, very large raincoat, in a blue color, that could look like a tarp. And you’re going to hear evidence it was coated with gunshot residue on the inside.”
Additional gunshot residue was found on the seatbelt of Alex Murdaugh’s car, Waters alleged.
Harpootlian said these were theories and insisted that no forensic evidence ties his client to the murders.
“He didn’t kill — butcher — his son and his wife,” Harpootlian told the jury at one point during his opening statement. “And you need to put from your mind any suggestion that he did.”
The case continues Monday morning and is expected to last about three weeks.
[image via Grace Beahm Alford/The State via AP]