A former law partner of Alex Murdaugh testified at his double murder trial Wednesday that more than a dozen people walked around the scene of the killings of Murdaugh’s wife and son before state-level law enforcement arrived.
After South Carolina agents arrived, they sent Murdaugh, his law partners and friends into the sprawling property’s home, which authorities hadn’t entered since Murdaugh called 911 an hour earlier to say his wife and son were shot.
“This is a pretty big farm and I don’t know who is over there. Two people have been gunned down,” attorney Mark Ball testified. “Safety is one concern. And is that house part of what has gone on here? Where does the crime scene start and stop?”
While the defense had Ball highlight what he saw as problems at the crime scene and Murdaugh’s devotion to family, prosecutors on cross examination used Ball to walk through Murdaugh’s apparent lies to police. Those allegedly include where he was just before the killings, his lack of concern for his safety or his surviving son after the shootings, and the theft of millions of dollars from the family law firm.
Murdaugh, 54, is standing trial in the deaths of his wife Maggie, 52, who was felled by four or five rifle shots, and their 22-year-old son Paul, killed by two shotgun blasts. Both died near kennels on the Colleton County property on June 7, 2021. Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted.
Alex Murdaugh may testify. Defense attorney Jim Griffin asked the judge Wednesday if he would allow Murdaugh to take his Fifth Amendment right against incriminating himself in the 100 or so other allegations he faces — including stealing from clients, money laundering, tax evasion and insurance fraud. The defense said he could testify as early as Thursday if he chooses to do so.
Judge Clifton Newman said prosecutors generally get wide latitude in cross examination.
The judge agreed with prosecutors to allow evidence of other alleged crimes to show Murdaugh killed his family to gain sympathy and buy time to hide his financial misdeeds. Prosecutors also want to show Murdaugh lied to police about his own subsequent shooting months afterward. He initially said a stranger shot him, but later said he asked a friend to shoot him so Murdaugh’s surviving son could collect $12 million in life insurance.
Ball, who arrived at the farm about 45 minutes after Murdaugh called 911, was a compelling witness for both sides Wednesday.
He described a chaotic crime scene. Police hadn’t blocked the property’s entrance and more than a dozen people not with law enforcement were walking around shell casings and pools of blood. A light rain fell intermittently and the runoff from a roof was hitting Paul Murdaugh’s body.
“It’s a crime scene. You don’t want water dripping all over the place but more importantly, I thought it was pretty disrespectful. Paul was a good young man and quite frankly it just pissed me off,” Ball testified.
Ball returned the next day once state agents said they were finished investigating the scene. He found uncollected shotgun pellets, small clumps of tissue and a large fragment of Paul Murdaugh’s skull.
“It infuriated me,” Ball said. “It was kind of like walking across a grave.”
The defense called a crime scene reconstruction expert who said the police might have lost evidence.
Kenneth Zercie testified that police should have used a tarp to cover the bodies instead of a sheet, which can absorb fluids. Zercie said agents made it worse by not holding onto the sheet, losing potential evidence such as hair or DNA from the killer.
The agents didn’t look for fingerprints and didn’t test the blood around either body for anyone else’s DNA, the expert said. “Much more could have been done.”
A cell phone data expert testified Wednesday that a possible time Maggie Murdaugh’s phone could have been tossed — it was found beside a highway near the family’s property — does not sync with when GPS data showed Alex Murdaugh’s SUV passing by.
Maggie Murdaugh’s cellphone recorded that its backlight turned off at 9:07 p.m. the night of the killings and her husband’s SUV is still in the driveway a quarter-mile (400 meters) away, Micah Sturgis said. The SUV didn’t pass the spot where his wife’s cellphone was found for nearly two minutes.
Phone backlights typically turn on when the phone detects a small amount of motion. Maggie Murdaugh’s phone light was off for the next 25 minutes, indicating it was still, Sturgis said.
Prosecutors used Alex Murdaugh’s former law partner to re-state their case. They had Ball read a list of several legal clients he had to call to tell them Alex Murdaugh lied and stole their money. Those clients were repaid with millions of dollars out of the pockets of the firm’s other attorneys, Ball said.
Ball testified he was certain he heard Murdaugh’s voice on a cellphone video along with his wife and son, played earlier in court. Phone records indicate the video was taken about five minutes before Maggie and Paul Murdaugh stopped using their phones forever.
Ball said Murdaugh told him at least three times he was not at the kennels that night, instead taking a nap before leaving to visit his ailing mother. Murdaugh said he discovered the shooting when he returned.
Murdaugh and Ball knew each other for 34 years and worked together for decades. Ball said Murdaugh appeared to be a loving father, a good lawyer who could talk to anyone and a man whose finances were solid.
“He was pretty good at hiding who he really was, wasn’t he?” prosecutor Creighton Waters asked.
“Obviously,” Ball replied.