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‘Murdaugh Murders’ Saga: ‘A Trial Within A Trial’

Parallel proceedings underway as double homicide trial moves into critical phase …

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Disbarred South Carolina attorney and accused killer Alex Murdaugh‘s double homicide trial spawned a “trial within a trial” on Thursday as his attorneys and prosecutors in the office of attorney general Alan Wilson battled over the admissibility of key evidence and testimony.

To recap our live blog (and livestream) of yesterday’s proceedings, click here.

Murdaugh stands accused of killing his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and youngest son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, on his family’s hunting property in Colleton County, South Carolina on June 7, 2021. He pleaded not guilty and is currently standing trial in Walterboro, S.C.

The story – which has attracted international attention – has shone a light not only on a graphic crime, but also the maze of criminality revolving around this scion of the “House of Murdaugh,” a powerful legal dynasty which ran the Palmetto State’s Lowcountry like its own fiefdom for more than a century.

That maze came to the fore on Thursday as prosecutors sought to include evidence and testimony related to the nearly 100 financial crimes of which Murdaugh currently stands accused.

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Normally, such evidence and testimony would be excluded under South Carolina law. In this case, however, prosecutors contend there is a direct nexus to this information and their theory of motive in this graphic double homicide. Prosecutors are also eager to introduce evidence and testimony tied to the 2019 boat crash case which began the unraveling of the Murdaugh empire.

Debate over the admissibility of these key areas of evidence and testimony essentially took over the trial on Thursday, leading to a lengthy in camera review involving multiple witnesses who took the stand in front of an empty jury box.

In camera is Latin for “in a chamber.” It refers to a portion of a trial which takes place outside the presence of the jury – and sometimes outside the presence of the media – to determine which witnesses and lines of inquiry will be allowed.

Presiding S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman initiated this review after previously allowing lead prosecutor Creighton Waters to aggressively raise these lines of inquiry in front of the jury during his questioning of witness Will Loving late Wednesday.

(Click to View)

S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman (Andrew Whitaker/ Pool)

According to Newman, defense attorneys opened the door for Waters when they asked Loving whether he could think of “any reason possible why Mr. Murdaugh would commit the crimes he is accused of committing.”

“That, in effect, turned the cross examination of that witness from dealing with the specific issues in the case to having that witness testify as a character witness for Mr. Murdaugh,” Newman said. “In the court’s view that opened the door for the state to respond by asking the questions as the state did.”

Newman also chided defense attorney Dick Harpootlian’s objection to Waters’ line of questioning as “totally inappropriate.”

“Objections should be made and the legal basis stated,” Newman said. “An objection of ‘totally inappropriate’ is … in effect no objection at all. That’s not a legal basis for an objection.”

Given the defense’s invocation of Murdaugh’s character as a “common thread” of its questioning of multiple witnesses, Newman ruled against Murdaugh on his attorneys’ objection under Rule 403 of the South Carolina rules of criminal procedure.

Rule 403 holds that 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.”

(Click to View)

Attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Phillip Barber confer during trial on February 2, 2023 (Andrew J. Whitaker/ Pool)

Again, according to the judge, Murdaugh’s attorneys “opened the door” to the introduction of such relevant evidence and testimony by advancing their own lines of questioning in this case.

Murdaugh’s attorneys also objected to the introduction of evidence and testimony under rule 404(b) of the South Carolina rules of criminal procedure.

According to that rule, evidence of “other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person.” However, the rule does permit such “prior bad acts” to be admitted in order “to show motive, identity, the existence of a common scheme or plan, the absence of mistake or accident, or intent.”

The debate over those objections – which, again, took place outside the presence of the jury – consumed the majority of Thursday’s deliberations. That debate is also expected to consume (at least) the first two hours of deliberations on Friday, as prosecutors continue to put forward witnesses for the court’s review regarding admissibility challenges beginning at 9:30 a.m. EST.

What evidence will Newman allow? What evidence will he exclude?

It is not clear when he intends to issue a ruling, but if Thursday’s hearing – a preview of potential testimony the jury could hear in the days to come – is any indication of where this trial is going, the defense is in serious trouble.

Among the most damning tidbits?

According to Jeanne Seckinger, the chief financial officer of the law firm where Murdaugh worked, Murdaugh glared at her on the day of the murders after she pressed him to provide details regarding attorneys’ fees in a case he worked with his childhood friend, attorney Chris Wilson of Bamberg, S.C.

(Click to View)

Jeanne Seckinger (Andrew J. Whitaker/ Pool)

“He gave me a mean look,” Seckinger said, describing the glare she received from Murdaugh on the morning ofJune 7, 2021 as an expression she “hadn’t seen from him before.”

Seckinger previously testified about confronting Murdaugh in the federal trial of convicted fraudster Russell Laffitte.

Chris Wilson also testified outside the presence of the jury, describing how Murdaugh – whom he described as his best friend – allegedly stole nearly $200,000 from him as part of one of his financial fleecings. According to Wilson, Murdaugh belatedly admitted that he had stolen money from him and others – claiming “he was addicted to opioids and that he had been addicted for twenty years or so.”

Murdaugh made this admission to Wilson during a face-to-face meeting on September 4, 2021 – just hours before he was involved in a bizarre roadside shooting incident on Old Salkehatchie Road near Varnville, S.C. 

During this meeting, Wilson said Murdaugh confessed to stealing from him – and others.

At this point, Waters asked the witness whether Murdaugh “had a particular phrase he used.”

“Shit me up,” Wilson responded.

“He said he ‘shit you up?'” Waters asked.

(Click to View)

Chis Wilson (Andrew J. Whitaker/ Pool)

“Shit me up, shit me up or shit me off – I think it was shit me up,” Wilson said. “He said that he had shit a lot of people up.”

As Waters continued to question him, Wilson broke down into tears describing the aftermath of that confrontation.

“I was so mad,” Wilson said, recalling the moment Murdaugh allegedly acknowledged his habitual deceit. “I had loved the guy for so long – and I probably still love him a little bit – but I was so mad.”

If jurors hear substantive testimony like that from either of these two witnesses, Murdaugh could be finished.

As I noted on social media yesterday, Wilson’s testimony in particular – assuming the jury gets to hear it – could be especially damning.

In the meantime, though, the extensive in camera debate over admissibility of evidence and testimony stalled significant momentum for the prosecution as it continued building its narrative against Murdaugh on the double homicides.

That momentum is expected to pick up – with a vengeance – once the ‘trial within the trial’ concludes.

Prosecutors had a huge day on Wednesday as they introduced critical cell phone evidence which provided jurors with down-to-the-second detail on the cell phone activity of Alex, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh on the night of the murders. Jurors also heard riveting testimony from Paul Murdaugh’s childhood friend, Rogan Gibson.

Most significantly on Wednesday, they saw for the first time the cell phone video taken by Paul Murdaugh just five minutes before his death – a video which shredded Alex Murdaugh’s alibi.

Defense attorneys have yet to provide the jury with any explanation as to why Murdaugh lied about his whereabouts at the time of the murders …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.

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