by JENN WOOD
On June 7, 2021 at 10:07 p.m. EDT, disgraced and disbarred former attorney Alex Murdaugh called 9-1-1 and reported that he had returned home to find the bodies of his wife and son near the dog kennels at their expansive hunting property in Islandton, South Carolina. When investigators arrived at the scene at 10:22 PM, they found 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and the couple’s younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh shot to death.
Paul Murdaugh was hit by a pair of shotgun blasts on that fateful evening – one to the head, the other to the arm and chest. Maggie Murdaugh was killed by multiple rounds from a semi-automatic rifle around the same time her son was killed. At least two of Maggie Murdaugh’s gunshot wounds were inflicted as she was lying wounded on the ground – consistent with initial reports we received of “execution-style” slayings.
Since the first day the story started appearing in news stories across the country and world, everyone has had the same questions: Why were Maggie and Paul gunned down on that hot summer night?
And who pulled the triggers?
Theories spread like wildfire on social media as the story quickly metastasized. Some speculated Maggie and Paul were killed as retribution for a 2019 boat crash in which a “grossly intoxicated” Paul was accused of causing the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach of Hampton, S.C.
The boat crash also exposed Alex Murdaugh – a named defendant in a wrongful death case filed by Beach’s family – to significant potential liability.
Others speculated Maggie and Paul could have been murdered by a disgruntled groundskeeper.
During the year that followed the murders, though, one suspect took center stage: Alex Murdaugh. A much darker, more ominous picture of the formerly prominent and respected attorney began to emerge as a flurry of indictments accused him of stealing millions of dollars from his former clients. Then, on July 14, 2022, Murdaugh was indicted on two counts of murder and two counts of possessing a weapon during the commission of a violent crime
He pleaded not guilty and is set to stand trial in just over two weeks at the Colleton County courthouse in Walterboro, S.C.
PRIOR BAD ACTS
As the trial nears, Murdaugh’s attorneys – Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin – have been busy filing pre-trial motions on his behalf. These motions provide insight into the direction of their defense as well as the evidence the state is planning to present.
The admissibility of motive in a criminal trial can be complicated. Rule 404(b) of the S.C. Rules of Criminal Procedure states that, “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,” the rule continued.
Given the voluminous indictments filed against Murdaugh over the past year, both the defense and prosecution are aware that the admissibility of Murdaugh’s alleged prior bad acts is allowed will be a critical component of their case. On December 5, 2022, Harpootlian and Griffin filed a motion asking the office of attorney general Alan Wilson to “file a bill of particulars stating the alleged motive it intends to present at trial.”
In this motion, Griffin and Harpootlian stated they were seeking this information to “adequately prepare a defense and … avoid unnecessarily extending the trial by weeks.”
As noted in our previous coverage of this motion, the prosecution is not required to prove the motive of the defendant as part of their case. Nonetheless, the state fired back on December 8, 2022 with a response motion stating it did plan to present a motive as part of its prosecution and laying out exactly how they will be incorporating it.
A MOTIVE FOR MURDER?
According to lead prosecutor Creighton Waters, the walls were closing in on Murdaugh the day his wife and son were murdered. The state’s response motion noted “in March, April, and May of 2021, State Grand Jury subpoenas about the boat case were issued for testimony or documents to various witnesses and institutions with a connection or presence in Hampton and the Fourteenth Circuit.”
To top things off, a hearing was scheduled on June 10, 2021 in the wrongful death lawsuit Murdaugh was facing relating to the boat crash his son was accused of causing which resulted in the death of Mallory Beach. This hearing was regarding a motion from Mark Tinsley, the attorney for the Beach family, demanding Murdaugh disclose his bank accounts, assets, and finances. The motion was expected to be granted and, according to the prosecution, would likely reveal “the true picture of (Murdaugh)’s finances and his years of alleged theft.”
The details of what happened on June 7, 2021 are slowly becoming clearer through court documents. While Murdaugh’s attorney, Jim Griffin, stated on a recent HBO Max documentary that his client spent “a normal workday” that Monday, the prosecution claims otherwise.
On the afternoon of the murders, the state claimed Murdaugh was in his office working on the financial disclosures for the boat crash hearing. That same day, Jeanne Seckinger – the chief financial officer of the law firm where Murdaugh worked – confronted him regarding $792,000 in missing fees from a case he worked on with another attorney. In testimony provided in November at the federal trial of convicted fraudster Russell Laffitte, Seckinger said Murdaugh claimed the fee was in the trust account of the other attorney – Chris Wilson. However, evidence showed it had actually been paid to Murdaugh directly.
During the confrontation, Murdaugh claimed to have received a call informing him that his dad was being put in hospice care – at which point he terminated the conversation. The exact time of this confrontation is unknown, but the prosecution stated in their response motion that Murdaugh’s father, former S.C. fourteenth circuit solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, had previously loaned him money or co-signed loans for him.
If Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes were about to be revealed and his father was on his deathbed, is that enough motive for him to murder his wife and son? And more importantly, why?
“This was a white collar case which culminated in two murders,” Waters said. “A slow burn, which was heating up and heating up until June 7, 2021.”
WHAT DID MAGGIE KNOW?
Shortly after the homicides, reports emerged that Maggie Murdaugh was in the process of filing for divorce. On September 29, 2021, People published a story alleging that Maggie had met with a divorce attorney in Charleston, S.C., six weeks before she was murdered.
Citing “a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation,” People claimed “Maggie drove one hour from the family’s home into Charleston in late April to meet with a lawyer to explore her options about ending her marriage to Alex Murdaugh.”
“What happened during that exploratory consultation is not known,” the story continued, claiming Maggie “had just begun to look into the family finances to determine the state of their marital assets.”
The day after the article was published, representatives from Murdaugh’s camp released the following statement:
“The most recent allegations by People magazine regarding the state of Maggie and Alex Murdaugh’s marriage are totally inconsistent with what we have been told by friends and family members,” the statement noted. “Also, we have reviewed many years of text messages on Alex’s phone, and the conversations between Alex and Maggie portray a very loving relationship. It is our hope that the media will continue to focus on covering the investigation of the person or people responsible for the murder of Maggie and Paul and not reporting salacious stories with no credible sources connected to the Murdaugh family.”
FITNews has not been able to verify whether Maggie met with a divorce attorney, but a number of sources have stated she had hired an investigator to prepare for divorce.
Was she preparing to file for divorce by having an investigator look into their finances?
Furthermore, during the aforementioned Laffitte trial Charles Laffitte III – the top financial officer at Palmetto State bank – testified Alex Murdaugh told him he was having trouble getting Maggie to agree to an appraisal date for their jointly owned Edisto Beach, S.C. residence. Maggie Murdaugh was living in this home in the months leading up to her murder, and owned a “one-half, undivided fee-simple interest” in the property, according to county tax records.
This could point to a possible motive for Murdaugh to kill his wife – whom sources have previously told this news outlet was “lured” to the family compound by her husband on the night of her murder. Upon Maggie’s death, her assets would have defaulted to Murdaugh according to her will. As the Edisto Island home and Moselle property were all in her name, Murdaugh’s overall net worth would soar significantly if she were dead.
Maggie’s will – initially created in 2005 – listed her sister, Marian Proctor, as her personal representative. An undated and unsigned update to this will changed that designation to her father-in-law, the former solicitor. In an affidavit submitted on December 9, 2021, Proctor says she didn’t know she was listed as the person who would handle her sister’s estate until December 7, 2021. On December 13, 2021, Proctor renounced her right to handle the estate.
WAS PAUL MURDAUGH AN UNINTENTIONAL VICTIM?
Whether Paul Murdaugh’s presence at Moselle was a surprise to Alex Murdaugh – or something he knew about – is still unknown. At the time of his murder, Paul was facing multiple criminal charges in Beaufort County relating to the boat crash
According to his uncle, John Marvin Murdaugh, Paul spent the day working with him at his equipment rental business in Okatie, S.C.. When Randolph Murdaugh III needed to be transported to the hospital in Savannah, John Marvin drove his truck to his parent’s home in Almeda and took his father to Savannah in his mother’s car.
He asked Paul to retrieve his truck from his parent’s home – which is believed to be the vehicle Paul drove to Moselle on the night he was murdered. As our founding editor Will Folks reported in this article, Paul was at Moselle checking on a friend’s dog. It’s never been made clear if Paul’s presence was unexpected.
The dog – a chocolate Labrador retriever puppy belonging to Rogan Gibson – had an injured tail and Paul Murdaugh appears to have been trying to document its status for his childhood friend.
As Folks reported on September 28, 2021 – nearly four months after the murders – Rogan Gibson was one of the last people to speak with Paul Murdaugh prior to his death. Gibson’s name was included (albeit redacted) on a dispatch log released by SLED shortly after the killings.
Paul’s death wouldn’t have stopped the civil litigation resulting from the boat crash, but it did end the criminal case against him. Paul’s estate listed no assets – and there has never been proof a life insurance policy was ever taken out on him.
DEATH AS A DISTRACTION
While the prosecution contends Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes are a key component of his motive to murder his wife and son, the motion they filed indicates that they believe Paul and Maggie’s deaths provided Murdaugh with something he needed most – time.
“In the time the aftermath of the murders gave him, Defendants set about covering his tracks,” the filing alleged. “He borrowed money to cover enough of the bypassed fees so that Chris Wilson could send them to (his law firm) as if they had been there all along.”
Murdaugh also borrowed money from one of his law partners, Johnny Parker.
The borrowed money was another key component in the Laffitte trial. While the community was mourning the deaths of his wife and son, Murdaugh secured loans through the bank and from a law partner to cover the fees stolen from the case with Chris Wilson. This alleged theft was all but in the rearview mirror until September 2, 2021 when the staff at Murdaugh’s firm discovered a copy of one of the fee checks Chris Wilson had written to Murdaugh directly in his office.
He was confronted with this discovery on September 3, 2021 and resigned.
The motion proceeds to offer a glimpse into how prosecutors plan on incorporating the bizarre roadside shooting involving Murdaugh that took place on September 4, 2021. According to the state, Murdaugh met that day with Chris Wilson on the front porch of his parent’s home in Almeda regarding the $192,000 portion of this fee that was still missing. Within hours of this meeting – “as accountability started to fall upon Alex Murdaugh again, (he) suddenly became the ‘victim’ of a shooting on the side of the road on Old Salkahatchie.”
“People initially rallied to his aid again,” prosecutors noted. “Only this time the facts came to light a lot quicker.”
Thanks to FITSNews’ reporting, of course.
THE LEGAL BATTLE
Multiple motions have been filed since Murdaugh’s attorneys submitted their request for a Bill of Particulars on December 5, 2022. Prosecutors assert other prior bad act evidence regarding his financial crimes establishes motive for the killings on Murdaugh’s part.
“It constituted relevant-and critical evidence falling within Rule 404(b)’s motive exception with a logical connection to the charged crimes,” the wrote.
The defense responded on December 16, 2022 – calling the theory that Murdaugh killed his wife and son to divert attention from his financial misdeeds and gain sympathy “illogical and implausible” and accusing the state of presenting “zero evidentiary support for this motive.” They further pointed out a lack of evidence suggesting the law firm was questioning any of his transactions beyond the one linked to the Chris Wilson matter – or that the disclosure of this transaction would have led to the exposure of Murdaugh’s broader alleged fleecings.
The defense also pushed back against the looming boat crash court date on June 10, 2021 – arguing the potential disclosure of Murdaugh’s finances in the wrongful death case was not a motive as “prejudgment discovery into a tort defendant’s financial situation is limited to net worth and their ability to pay a punitive damages award.”
In other words, they claimed Murdaugh would not have been compelled to provide much in the way of detailed financial information at the June 10 hearing.
Prosecutors fired back on December 23, 2022 – deftly rebutting the claims made by the defense. According to their filing, Murdaugh’s law firm was indeed looking at other questionable transactions – including a particular case which had just come to their attention. According to the state, Murdaugh’s former firm had reviewed another file– “The Estate of Hershberger”– which found a check made out to his front company. They say the confrontation on June 7, 2021 actually occurred in the context of having had to recently inquire about the Hershberger fees.
“The Chris Wilson fee matter not only had the potential to start the process to unravel everything and expose (Murdaugh) for what he was to the world including nearly one hundred white-collar felonies, it in fact did unravel everything,” they wrote.
S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman has yet to rule on whether or not Murdaugh’s alleged prior bad acts will be admissible, but it’s clear his alleged financial crimes will play a starring role in the state’s case against him. It’s also clear the defense is ready to push back against that theory.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is the director of research at FITSNews. She is also a producer on our Cheer Incorporated podcast and our resident expert on the ‘Murdaugh Murders‘ crime and corruption saga. Wood is a wife and mother of two residing in Louisiana, but she will be in the Palmetto State for the duration of the upcoming double homicide trial.
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