BLOG: Judge rules on motions, jury selection continues in Alex Murdaugh trial

Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 3:00 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 24, 2023 at 5:31 PM EST

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC/AP) - A busy second day in the Alex Murdaugh trial saw the judge rule on three motions and qualify a fourth pool of jurors to return for actual jury selection.

The fourth pool of potential jurors was one of the larger pools with nearly 80 jurors being called into the courtroom.

The pool was slowly whittled away until Judge Clifton Newman asked the jurors that had already formed an opinion on the case could set that opinion aside and make a decision based on the things presented in the case. The court dismissed 15 jurors after that question.

The pool was then instructed to return at 11 a.m. Wednesday when the four pools of jurors will be combined as the court works to get the number of jurors, including alternates, to 18.

Around 15 members of pool four were asked to stay behind for a meeting in the judge’s chamber with Newman and both legal teams.

As the court returned from recess, Newman informed both sides that 123 jurors were set to be called back on Wednesday morning, but one of those jurors would be dismissed because of an emergency.

The afternoon session of the court revolved around several motions filed before the trial begins.

The first motion discussed was the exclusion of testimony from the state’s blood spatter experts. Both sides were able to reach an agreement that a decision on the testimony would be decided after a jury had been seated.

Newman also denied the state’s motion to submit piles of financial evidence against Murdaugh.

Prosecutors have argued that the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were a cover-up for Alex Murdaugh’s financial misdeeds.

The state will be able to discuss its motive but Judge Clifton Newman said he did not wish to establish a precedent by granting a motion in limine that is to include not exclude evidence.

A potential witness list we heard yesterday included many names that could speak to these allegations.

Previously, the defense has said the state turned over millions of pages of documents during discovery of these financial crimes. The defense says this motive is completely fabricated.

“His theory is, he knew the jig was up, so he went home, and butchered, blew the head off his son, and butchered his wife,” Murdaugh’s defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said. “There’s not one shred of evidence there were any problems between any of them. There’s texts, pictures, people that were with them the previous weekend at a ball game, video from that day with Paul and he’s having a good time. There is no dispute anywhere that they were the perfect family in terms of their relationships.”

Finally, Newman ruled to allow the state to submit ballistic evidence.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Agent Paul Greer was called to the stand. He told the court he had been called to testify in 25 cases as a forensics firearm expert.

The motion revolved around a series of bullet casings that were found around the body of Maggie Murdaugh. Those shells were then compared to shells found in another area of the property.

The state asserts both sets of shells came from a .300 Blackout rifle belonging to the Murdaugh family that was missing from the property.

During cross-examination by Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin, Greer was asked how confident he was that the mechanism markings from both sets of casings can be from the same weapon.

Greer responded that those were his findings.

Newman ruled that Greer could testify and the evidence could be submitted. He said any questions about the qualifications of Greer or the science would be heard in cross-examination and should be heard by a jury.

Murdaugh, a former Lowcountry attorney, is charged with killing his wife and youngest son at the family’s hunting property in June of 2021.

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More than 200 people were brought in for a first round of questioning that lasted nearly three hours, but only about 30 were qualified for the pool of potential jurors. Jury selection continues Tuesday as the court tries to get 700 people down to a pool of several dozen potential jurors to select the final panel of 12, plus six alternates.

But before testimony begins, defense lawyers will ask the judge to make a pair of key rulings this week that could strike a massive amount of evidence from the case.

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Prosecutors want to present voluminous evidence of Murdaugh’s bad behavior and the numerous other crimes he is charged with to show he killed his wife and son to buy time to prevent his other wrongdoings from being discovered. Defense attorneys don’t want the judge to admit the evidence, contending prosecutors are trying to smear Murdaugh to bolster a weak case.

When Newman hears arguments after the jury is seated, Murdaugh’s lawyers also will try to convince him to refuse to admit evidence that authorities said will show blood from his slain younger son spattered on Murdaugh’s shirt. Defense lawyers said the shirt was destroyed before they could test it and there is evidence the expert examining the shirt changed his conclusions under pressure from state agents.

FULL RECAP: First day of jury selection wraps up in Murdaugh trial, defense wants to block 3rd expert

Meanwhile, potential jurors face a battery of questions, including whether they know any of the nearly 200 law officers, friends, bankers and others on the witness list as well as whether they had heard about and followed the case.

Two other panels were screened Monday and lawyers said they hope to have a jury picked by either late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Attorney Eric Bland, who is on the list of potential witnesses and who represents some of the victims of Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes, says the case rises and falls on the jury that gets seated.

“So if you do not pick the right jury, you could be the best order in the world the best have the best evidence in the world, but if that’s a concrete block of a jury you’re talking to and they’re not receptive to it, you won’t get guilt or you won’t get innocent,” he said. “The state would like a ‘Law and Order’ type, somebody that believes in government, that believes in authority. [Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian] wants people that’ll be intellectual and question, questioning the evidence and just question what comes from the witness stand.”

Defense motions to block testimony from 2nd, 3rd experts

Murdaugh attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin filed motions asking the court to exclude testimony from two witnesses.

The first motion was filed first thing Monday morning before jury selection began. That motion sought to block the testimony of a recognized forensic expert on bloodstain evidence, Orangeburg County Chief Deputy Kenneth Lee Kinsey. The defense argues that Kinsey said after reviewing a report and analysis from Thomas Bevel, a prosecution witness, that he could not form an opinion on whether the blood stains on Murdaugh’s shirt were consistent with back spatter from a gunshot.

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

The defense then made a motion to block the testimony from forensics expert Paul S. Greer on .300 Blackout rifle cartridges found inside and around the bodies of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh on the night of the murders. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division found several of the same cartridges on the ground at the side entrance of the Moselle property, about 300 yards from the crime scene.

Officials found additional cartridges in an area pond near Moselle Road, according to the filing, near “a field that was frequented by the Murdaugh family and guests for target practice.”

Through SLED’s Firearms Department testing the .300 Blackout rifle confiscated from the property, Greer determined some of the cartridges found near the crime scene were fired from the same rifle taken from the property, the filing states. Greer was unable to determine if they were the same cartridges found near Maggie’s body.

The document states, “the firearms analysis is neither scientifically valid nor reliable,” and is requesting Greer’s testimony be precluded from trial or that the court hold a council hearing to ensure the proffered evidence was scientifically and substantially reliable.

The defense made a motion last week to block testimony from Bevel as well.

READ MORE: Alex Murdaugh’s 19 indictments and 99 financial charges explained

Prosecutors are expected to rely heavily on evidence of Murdaugh’s financial problems, which they said led him to kill to garner sympathy and buy time as he covered up his theft of clients’ settlement money and other crimes.

Murdaugh’s attorneys contend it is absurd to say Murdaugh would have thought his wife and son dying violently would reduce scrutiny into his finances.

Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder in the deaths of Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, 22.