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COLLETON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – Judge Clifton Newman is expected to decide Thursday whether evidence of Alex Murdaugh’s financial crimes will be admissible as proof of motive in his ongoing murder trial.
Murdaugh is accused of killing his wife Margaret and youngest son Paul at their family property in June of 2021.
ALEX MURDAUGH MURDER TRIAL: DAY 7 RECAP
Get caught up on the Alex Murdaugh investigations
On Wednesday, a digital timeline was recreated using data from Paul, Maggie, and Alex’s cell phones.
Video taken on Paul’s phone from 8:44 p.m. the night of the murders puts all three together at the dog kennels. Though no one is pictured, the voices were identified by two close friends of Paul. Murdaugh had originally told investigators the last time he saw Maggie and Paul before they were murdered was when they ate dinner earlier that night.
However, the friends both testified that Murdaugh’s relationship with his family was solid.
ALEX MURDAUGH MURDER TRIAL LIVE BLOG:
3:31 p.m. – The jury is sent to the jury room for a break.
3:06 p.m. – Defense begins cross-examination. Dick Harpootlian asks whether Chief Solicitor Duffy Stone also responded to the scene on June 8. He did.
Harpootlian asks about a briefing the morning of June 8. Hightower says there were probably around 30 people there from SLED, Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, Walterboro PD, etc. Harpootlian asks if Hightower is aware of the statement issued by SLED saying there was no threat to the community. Hightower says he is not aware.
Harpootlian asks if they didn’t know who the shooter was, why did they not put up roadblocks or search the woods or conduct any active search for a suspect? He asks if anyone indicated they believed the shooter (or multiple shooters) was at large. Hightower says he doesn’t recall anyone saying anything to that effect.
Harpootlian moves to question Hightower about Maggie’s phone. He shows a photo that appears to show twigs and straw and things on the phone. Harpootlian asks if the phone was carefully placed there, wouldn’t all the debris be below it? He also asks if anyone searched the area for footprints. Hightower says no.
Harpootlian asks if putting the phone in airplane mode prevents all data from being overridden. Hightower says it protects 99% of data from being overridden, especially from outside sources.
2:22 p.m. – Investigator Dylan Hightower with the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office is called to the stand. Part of his role is analyzing cell phone and cell phone tower information.
Prosecution asks about Murdaugh’s association with the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office. Murdaugh was a volunteer prosecutor for the office. Hightower and Murdaugh worked together on one trial.
Hightower responded to the scene the afternoon of June 8, 2021. By the time he had arrived, it was no longer an active crime scene. He said that multiple members of the PMPED law firm were there.
Hightower said he and other investigators walked around the scene and took drone video of the property.
Hightower is asked about Maggie’s phone being missing. He said that he suggested locating it using Find my iPhone. They did, and Hightower located the phone. He estimates it was about 15-20 feet off the side of Moselle Road outside the property.
Hightower extracted data from Alex, Randy, and Buster Murdaugh’s phones as well. He was supposed to get data from other phones, but as he was extracting data information came in about Murdaugh’s father’s health and the family had to go see him.
He said none of the phones took longer than an hour to download. He only removed surface information such as texts, call logs, photos, etc. Sometimes there is some location data but not always.
Hightower said he was provided with call log information from Verizon, which would provide location information.
On Murdaugh’s phone, he said his extraction only had two FaceTime calls in the call log but over 70 calls on the Verizon records. He says there could be many reasons for the discrepancy. They could’ve been deleted by the user, they could’ve been automatically deleted out of the phone’s log, etc.
1:11 p.m. – Court is in recess until 2:15 p.m.
12: 55 p.m. – Prosecution lists several other witnesses that they have prepared to testify to Murdaugh’s previous crimes, including more people from PMPED, people from Palmetto State Bank, witnesses connected to the Satterfield case, and witnesses connected to the boat crash.
Griffin points out that witness testimony could go to the end of February if all of those people are called. They also say much of Seckinger’s testimony was not relevant to this case.
Waters says that Seckinger’s testimony was meant to establish the pattern of crimes and circumstances facing Murduagh on June 7, 2021 and streamline witness testimony. He says it speaks to the perfect storm that was brewing in Murdaugh’s life.
Newman acknowledged concern about the complexity and length of the trial, but that the court must receive important evidence. He asks prosecution and defense to come to an agreement on a path forward.
12:48 p.m. – Waters follows up, asking if there is any legitimate explanation client funds would’ve gone into Murdaugh’s Forge account. She says no.
Waters asks about partners lending money to the firm at the beginning of the year for overhead costs since they clear out the funds at the end of the year. One year, a check meant for Randy Murdaugh went to Alex. He cashed the check (twice). When he was confronted about it he said he didn’t realize it was for Randy. He paid the money back and everything was fine.
Seckinger says that there was a history of trust and brotherhood in the firm, so despite what may be red flags in hindsight, Seckinger had no reason to believe Murdaugh was stealing until things came to a head.
12:16 p.m. – Defense begins cross-examining Seckinger. Attorney Jim Griffin questions Seckinger about the Farris fees, which sparked PMPED’S investigation into Murdaugh’s finances. Griffin points out that the firm ultimately got paid the Farris fees.
Griffin asks if partners have ever structured fees before. Seckinger says once or twice in the past. She says it was not a matter of Murdaugh doing it, but doing it improperly.
Griffin asks if Murduagh told Seckinger he was just trying to move money to Maggie’s name because of the boating case. She says yes.
Griffin asks why Seckinger waited until September to see if Murduagh had misappropriated more funds. She said that she wanted to see if more missing funds needed to be accounted for before they started looking at their year-end finances.
Griffin asks if anything about the murder of Maggie and Paul prevented her from looking earlier. She says no, work and personal obligations prevented her from being able to look until then.
Griffin asks if they interviewed clients that Murdaugh stole from to establish that they did not authorize Murduagh to divert the funds. Seckinger says someone within the firm met personally with all the clients and most were very surprised to find out their funds had been misappropriated.
Griffin asks if Murdaugh specified when he called her the afternoon of June 7 that he needed his financial information for the boat case. She said she didn’t ask for specifics, but she thinks he referenced the boat case.
Seckinger says that all partners were adamant they did not want to be party to Murdaugh hiding or sheltering fees.
Griffin emphasizes that evidence of Murdaugh’s financial crimes had been in the books at the law firm since 2015.
11:53 p.m. – Court is in recess for 10 minutes.
10:27 a.m. – The jury is excused until after lunch so that the CFO of Murdaugh’s former law firm, Jeanne Seckinger, can testify. Seckinger oversaw finances at PMPED. Specifically, she balances and reconciles accounts, provides financial statements, files taxes, and handles government/census surveys and HR duties.
She explains that partners at PMPED got a base salary of about $125,000 yearly. They then got bonuses at the end of the year based on the percentage of profit brought in by each partner, minus overhead fees.
Seckinger said the majority of partners’ compensation came from the bonus at the end of the year.
They go through rules of employment, focusing on a rule that states money from cases should go to the law firm to be divided at a later date. Waters asks what if money from a case went straight to the lawyer instead of the firm, Seckinger says that would be stealing.
Seckinger says she has known Murdaugh since high school and that she has worked at PMPED for over 20 years.
Waters asks if Seckinger is familiar with the boat case. She says yes. He asks if she is aware of connected lawsuits. She says yes.
Seckinger says in late May of 2021, she and Murdaugh had a conversation about structuring fees. Murdaugh had apparently tried to send fees to a structured settlement but had done it improperly because he did not notify the firm. She said he instead sent the money directly to Forge Consulting. Seckinger clarified that she believed the money was sent to Forge Consulting, a legitimate company that does structured consulting. Murdaugh said he wanted to put some money in Maggie’s name.
Waters asks what led to the conversation. Seckinger says that some of the secretaries noticed and brought it to her attention.
She said at the time, she didn’t think Murdaugh was trying to steal money or divert client funds, but they were concerned he was trying to defer income or put money in Maggie’s name because of the boat wreck. “That would be wrong and we did not want any part of that,” she says.
Prosecution presents a settlement disbursement sheet where a client recovered over $200,000. The sheet shows what fee would’ve been taken by PMPED and how the rest of the money would’ve been disbursed among beneficiaries.
She says that when a settlement comes in, it goes into a client trust account. When fees are taken, they go to the PMPED income account.
Farris vs. Mack Truck case. Annette Griswold, one of Murdaugh’s paralegals, called and said she had something she needed to discuss. The case was disbursed by the associated attorney, Chris Wilson (Murdaugh’s longtime friend). PMPED received a check for client expenses, which Seckinger said was odd because they did not receive a fee check and they usually receive them together. They asked Wilson’s office and his office said that the fee was paid when the case was settled in August. Seckinger was concerned because the office had not received the check, so either the check was never paid or it went directly to Murdaugh. She said she was again concerned Murdaugh was trying to hide money because of the boat wreck lawsuit.
The prosecution presents a check made to Murdaugh for $192,000 for “Farris fees.”
When Seckinger found out, she went and asked partner Lee Cope what to do. To protect Griswold, they decided Seckinger would send her an email requesting the full disbursement paperwork and ledger for that case. They then sent the email to Wilson’s office, Seckinger estimates around June 2, 2021.
Murdaugh came in the next day and asked why she needed that information, reassuring her that it was in Wilson’s account and they could get it if they need it.
On June 7, Seckinger said she walked up to Murdaugh’s office and he gave her a dirty look and asked what she wanted. She said she told him that she had reason to believe that he received the check himself and she needed proof he didn’t. He reassured her that the money was in Wilson’s account and he was trying to decide what to do with it.
In the middle of the conversation, Murdaugh received a call telling him his sick father was in the hospital and was terminal. They stopped talking about money.
Murdaugh called her again around 4:00 p.m. and asked about his 401K balances. He said he needed information about his financials because there was a hearing later in the week for the boat accident. That was the last conversation they had.
Seckinger said she found out about the murders “through the rumor mill” around 10:30 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. that night but got confirmation around 2:30 a.m.
In the wake of the murders, they decided not to bring up the money to Murdaugh again. She said they had several months to clear up where the money was, so they were not too worried. Cope took over contacting Wilson. In July, Wilson sent Murdaugh an email saying the money was in his account and would be available whenever he needed it. Murdaugh forwarded the email to Seckinger and Cope. They dropped the issue for the time being.
In September, Seckinger wanted to make sure Murdaugh had not tried to defer other funds. She printed out an officer ledger and all checks made out to “Forge.” They all appeared to be endorsed by Murdaugh. She asked other partners to look at what they found, and they agreed.
One of the disbursements was “a case that could not possibly have been disbursed yet” because it was held up in court.
They called the head of Forge Consulting to ask if they banked at Bank of America and he said no.
Meanwhile, Griswold was getting something from Murdaugh’s office and moved a file. When she did, the check from Wilson for the Farris case fell out.
On September 3, the majority of the partners (minus Randy and Alex Murdaugh) and Seckinger met at Cope’s house. They discussed what they found, then informed Randy. Randy said they needed to talk to Murdaugh immediately. They confronted Murdaugh and determined that he would resign.
They didn’t announce his resignation right away because it was late on a Friday, Johnny Parker was getting married the next day, and they wanted to contact some ethics attorneys. They decided to announce it the next week.
Over the weekend, Murdaugh orchestrated his failed suicide-for-hire attempt. Seckinger said she was afraid, she wondered if it was retaliation or if Murdaugh was involved in something bigger that would put everyone else in danger.
That week, they began a forensic accounting of their files to see if Murdaugh had misappropriated other funds. They found more checks to the fake Forge account and money misappropriated by Palmetto State Bank. In Murdaugh’s office, they found checks labeled “R. Alexander Murdaugh DBA (doing business as) Forge.”
Of note, Murdaugh is accused of using his personal relationship with the then-CEO of Palmetto State Bank, Russell Laffitte, to misappropriate the funds. Laffitte was found guilty by a federal jury of six financial crimes he allegedly committed with Murdaugh. Seckinger is also Laffitte’s sister-in-law.
The firm reimbursed all clients for the over $2M funds diverted by Murdaugh into the Forge shell account.
They go through examples of the reimbursements made to the clients. In some cases, clients did not receive any money from the settlement until PMPED reimbursed them because Murdaugh diverted the funds to himself.
Waters presents packets for each client Murdaugh stole money from, going through the disbursement sheets for each one.
In one of the cases, they found documentation that Murdaugh billed a client for a private flight. They had to reimburse the client for that as well.
Waters asks if this was going on in a lot of cases Murdaugh handled. Seckinger says no, they handle a lot of cases and these were sprinkled throughout over decades. “Wherever there’s an opportunity it happens?” Waters asks. Seckinger agrees.
They review documents from cases in which Murdaugh misappropriated funds using Palmetto State Bank. The cases date back further than the Forge cases, which started in 2015.
Specifically, they review funds stolen around 2010, when Murdaugh had multiple big cases like the Arthur Badger and Hakeem Pinckney/Natarsha Thomas cases. Those cases yielded multi-million dollar settlements.
PMPED had to reimburse Arthur Badger alone over one million dollars which had been stolen by Murdaugh.
Waters circles back to June 7, 2021. He asks if she tried to confront him about missing funds, but that inquiry got pushed aside because of the murders. Seckinger says that is correct. Waters asks if inquiries about Murdaugh’s finances related to the boat case also got pushed aside because of the murders. Seckinger again says yes.
10:14 a.m. – Heidi Galore, a representative from Snapchat takes the stand. She explains that she responds to law enforcement inquiries and explains what Snapchat is and how it keeps records. She confirms that records from Paul Murdaugh’s Snapchat entered into evidence are true and accurate.
Galore confirms the video Paul sent Will Loving of him and his dad riding around looking at trees was sent on June 7, 2021 at 7:56 p.m.
Defense cross-examines Galore, asking brief questions about whether Paul’s friends would’ve had access to his location via Snapchat. She said it is possible.
9:55 a.m. – Prosecution asks for time to re-configure their planned witness list for the day. They had previously planned to bring in some witnesses, like Jeanne Seckinger, the CFO of Murdaugh’s former law firm who confronted him about missing money the day of the murders. Since her testimony would relate to previous crimes, it will have to be heard first without the jury present.
9:42 a.m. – State prosecutor Creighton Waters says they planned to introduce a witness from Snapchat today and introduce witnesses from Murdaugh’s former law firm, but the law firm witnesses will not be allowed to testify before the jury because Newman has to rule what evidence they present will be admissible.
At issue are Rules 403 and 404, which are defined by the South Carolina Judicial Branch as the following:
RULE 403: EXCLUSION OF RELEVANT EVIDENCE ON GROUNDS OF PREJUDICE, CONFUSION, OR WASTE OF TIME
- Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.
RULE 404: CHARACTER EVIDENCE NOT ADMISSIBLE TO PROVE CONDUCT; EXCEPTION; OTHER CRIMES
- (a) Character Evidence Generally. Evidence of a person’s character or a trait of character is not admissible for the purpose of proving action in conformity therewith on a particular occasion, except:
- (1) Character of Accused. Evidence of a pertinent trait of character offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the same;
- (2) Character of Victim. Evidence of a pertinent trait of character of the victim of the crime offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the same, or evidence of a character trait of peacefulness of the victim offered by the prosecution in a homicide case to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor;
- (3) Character of Witness. Evidence of the character of a witness, as provided in Rules 607, 608, and 609.
- (b) Other Crimes, Wrongs, or Acts. Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible to show motive, identity, the existence of a common scheme or plan, the absence of mistake or accident, or intent.
Newman goes through Rule 404, identifying several areas where evidence of prior crimes may be relevant to this case, specifically to speak to the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crimes.
9:35 a.m. – Court is in session.
Judge Newman began by overruling defense’s objection Wednesday night to prosecution’s questioning of Will Loving, asking if he was aware of Murdaguh’s financial troubles.
Newman said that because defense previously asked a witness if he could think of any reason Murdaugh would murder his wife and son, they veered into character witness territory, thus opening the door for the state to bring up facts that Loving may have been unaware of.
Newman says that objecting on the grounds of being “totally inappropriate” is not sufficient because “totally inappropriate” has no legal basis.
Newman says the main argument the defense has been making is that Murdaugh has such a good character, he could never do such a thing. Therefore, testimony about his reputation will be admitted as well.
He also says the defense brought up the boating case yesterday, which opens the door for evidence from that case to be brought in as well.
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