Alex Murdaugh’s defense in his double murder trial rested its case Monday after calling up 14 witnesses over about two weeks of testimony.
Monday’s testimony was headlined by an expert in crime scene reconstruction and blood spatter analysis who testified that the evidence suggests two shooters carried out the killings of Margaret and Paul Murdaugh in June 2021.
Timothy Palmbach, a former professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven, was hired by Alex Murdaugh’s defense to review the case and analyze the crime scene.
In defending his two-shooter theory, he noted that Paul was shot by a shotgun and Margaret was shot by a Blackout rifle. He also determined the shooting of Paul came first and was from such a close range that the shooter would have been temporarily stunned by the explosive violence.
“It’s structurally difficult for the shooter to have two long (weapons) and no practical reason for that to happen,” he testified. “Add that to what I believe happened to the shooter who fired first with the shotgun, and I think it tips in favor of the probability of two shooters.”
Palmbach testified he was paid a $5,000 retainer for his work plus a fee of about $8,000.
The testimony comes just over a month into the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, the 54-year-old disbarred attorney and member of a dynastic family in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, who is accused of killing his wife and son.
He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two weapons charges in the fatal shootings at the dog kennels of their family estate in Islandton, South Carolina, on June 7, 2021. He separately faces 99 charges for alleged financial crimes that will be adjudicated at a future date.
The prosecution, which featured 61 witnesses over three weeks of testimony, said they plan to seek testimony from four or five rebuttal witnesses on Tuesday. Judge Clifton Newman also ruled jurors will be allowed to visit the family’s sprawling estate after the rebuttal witnesses but prior to closing arguments.
The 14th and final defense witness was the defendant’s brother John Marvin Murdaugh, who testified in emotional terms about cleaning up Paul Murdaugh’s remains after law enforcement released the crime scene back to the family.
“It had not been cleaned up. I saw blood, I saw brains, I saw pieces of skull,” he testified through tears. “For some reason I thought it was something that I needed to do for Paul to clean it up. It felt like it was the right thing to do. I felt like I owed him, and I started cleaning. I can promise you no mother or father or aunt or uncle should ever have to see and do what I did that day.”
The defense’s case, which began February 17, was highlighted by testimony from Murdaugh on Thursday and Friday in which he forcefully denied that he killed his wife and son.
“I didn’t shoot my wife or my son, anytime, ever,” he testified.
Yet Murdaugh also admitted under oath that he had lied to police when he said he was not at the kennels that night. And he further admitted that he had repeatedly lied to his family, his clients and his law partners and had stolen millions of dollars over the course of roughly two decades as a high-powered lawyer in the region.
Murdaugh blamed his lies to police on “paranoid thinking” related to an opioid drug addiction.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly,” he testified. “I don’t think I was capable of reason, and I lied about being down there, and I’m so sorry that I did.”
The decision to testify in his own defense was a risky but necessary one for Murdaugh, legal experts said.
That’s because the prosecution pointed to a huge question throughout the trial that he had to answer: Multiple witnesses identified Murdaugh’s voice in a video clip filmed at the family’s dog kennels, which authorities say was recorded shortly before the killings and near where the bodies were found.
The defense also worked to show that investigators had done a shoddy job with the case, particularly in securing the crime scene. Mark Ball, one of Murdaugh’s law firm colleagues, testified there were no barricades or police tape blocking the entrance to the property and said Paul’s remains were still there after investigators left.
“There was a piece of Paul’s skull about the size of a baseball laying there,” he said. “It just infuriated me that this young man had been murdered and there was still his remains there.”
That video is at the heart of the prosecution’s case against Murdaugh. There is no direct evidence – no witnesses, no smoking guns, no blood-soaked clothes – proving the disbarred attorney killed his family, so the prosecution has focused on circumstantial evidence about his opportunity and motive.
In particular, they have tried to prove he was at the crime scene that night, worked to show he lied to investigators and painted a picture of a fraudster who killed his wife and son in a desperate bid to distract the investigations into his actions.
Much of the prosecution’s evidence focused on his alleged financial wrongdoing and what they said was the suspicious timing of the killings.
Two investigations in particular that could have exposed Murdaugh’s alleged wrongdoing were coming to a head at the time of the murders. For one, the chief financial officer of his law firm testified she had confronted Murdaugh about missing funds on the morning of June 7, 2021, hours before the killings. After the murders, the internal investigation into the funds took a back seat.
“We weren’t going to go in there and harass him about money when we were worried about his mental state and the fact that his family had been killed,” the CFO, Jeanne Seckinger, testified.
Second, Murdaugh was facing a lawsuit from the family of Mallory Beach, a 19-year-old who was killed in February 2019 when a boat, owned by Murdaugh and allegedly driven by his son Paul, crashed. A hearing in that civil case was scheduled for June 10, 2021, and had the potential to reveal his financial problems, prosecutors argued, but it was delayed after the killings.
Three months after the killings, on September 3, 2021, Murdaugh’s colleagues again confronted him about the missing funds and forced him to resign. A day later, Murdaugh was shot on the side of a rural road in what he initially claimed was a random attack – but investigators eventually determined was part of a bizarre murder-for-hire plot concocted by Murdaugh.
That shooting was followed by a stint in rehab for drug addiction, dozens of allegations of financial crimes, his disbarment and, ultimately, the murder charges.
For the defense, the financial evidence amounts to little more than “speculation” and “conjecture,” defense attorney Dick Harpootlian has argued. They have highlighted Murdaugh’s loving relationships with his family and ridiculed the prosecution’s focus on what they are framing as irrelevant financial misconduct charges.
“They’ve got a whole lot more evidence about financial misconduct than they have about a murder and evidence of guilt in a murder case,” defense lawyer Jim Griffin said in court.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many witnesses testified for the defense. There were 14.