BLOG: Day 9: Judge hears testimony in Murdaugh trial without jurors present

Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 3:00 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 2, 2023 at 5:54 PM EST
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WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - Some of the testimony in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial Thursday was heard without the jury being present.

Murdaugh is charged with two counts of murder in the June 7, 2021, shooting deaths of his wife, Maggie, and their youngest son, Paul. But Murdaugh is also facing about 100 charges related to accusations of money laundering, stealing millions from clients and the family law firm, tax evasion and trying to get a man to fatally shoot him so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy. He was being held in jail without bail on those counts before he was charged with the two killings.

Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman excused jurors to hear testimony from an employee of the law firm Murdaugh once worked for as he decides how much information the jury will hear about the nearly 100 financial crime charges Murdaugh also faces during the trial.

Jeannie Seckinger testified on the pay structure of the law firm, noting that lawyer fees were paid to the firm instead of individual partners.

Seckinger told Prosecutor Creighton Waters that the fees were placed into an account and later distributed as bonuses. The bonuses started with a base rate of 7.5% and then additional money was added to the bonus based on the amount of fees brought in by each lawyer.

Seckinger said Murdaugh had been confronted about $782,000 on June 7, 2021, that was not in the company account. She said the conversation was cut short because Murdaugh received a call about his father’s health.

Seckinger said a September investigation of company records showed Murdaugh had diverted settlement funds from a company called Forge Consulting and into a personal account named “Forge.”

Some records of Murdaugh’s theft from the company went back to 2015 and totaled more than $2 million, Seckinger said.

Seckinger also testified that Murdaugh spoke to her about trying to have his fees and other payments diverted to his wife’s accounts because he was worried about a wrongful death lawsuit filed against him, his son and others over a 2019 fatal boat crash where Paul Murdaugh was charged with felony boating under the influence. A hearing in the case was postponed after the killings.

After Seckinger’s testimony Thursday morning, Newman said he would allow the state to call witnesses to testify how Murdaugh allegedly stole money as long as they can show it is convincing evidence and linked to the killings.

Newman will hold hearings without the jury to determine if they can testify much like Seckinger’s testimony Thursday.

Newman did not make a ruling on the jury hearing Seckinger’s testimony.

Newman said he is inclined to allow the evidence of financial misdeeds because it can complete the story of why the crimes were committed with immediate context.

From the beginning, prosecutors have argued that Murdaugh killed his wife and son as a distraction to avoid coming clean about his financial misdeeds.

READ RECAP: Cellphone videos played, son’s best friends take stand in Murdaugh trial

They believe that one of the pressures was an upcoming hearing in June in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from the 2019 boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Paul Murdaugh was charged in the crash for allegedly operating the boat under the influence when it crashed into a bridge. The hearing for the lawsuit, prosecutors claim, would have exposed Alex Murdaugh’s finances.

One of Paul Murdaugh’s closest friends, Will Loving, was the first witness prosecutors asked about the boat crash, which may open the door for the state to attempt to prove its motive theory.

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

Earlier in the day on Wednesday, a state agent meticulously reconstructed activity from his iPhone and the cellphones of his son and wife the night they were killed to try to link the disgraced attorney to the shooting deaths.

The key evidence for prosecutors is a video from the son’s phone of a dog at the kennels near where Murdaugh’s son Paul was killed with a shotgun and wife Maggie was shot several times with a rifle.

The timeline from prosecutors said the video was taken about five minutes before the killings. A friend of Paul Murdaugh testified later Wednesday that he was certain he heard Alex, Paul and Maggie Murdaugh’s voices on the video when he saw it nearly 18 months later and told police the day after the killings he was 99% sure he heard all three during a phone call to his friend at nearly the same time.

In interviews with police, Alex Murdaugh said he was never at the kennels that night.

Later Wednesday, Murdaugh’s defense used that same data to suggest that Murdaugh’s phone and his wife’s phone were not together when her iPhone recorded a final change in orientation between portrait and landscape mode, indicating it may have been tossed on the side of the road about a half-mile from the family’s property.

In his opening statement last week, prosecutor Creighton Waters waved his phone at jurors and said cellphone information would be vital to linking Murdaugh to the killings in a case without much direct evidence.

State Law Enforcement Division Lt. Britt Dove returned to the witness stand Wednesday on the fifth day of testimony. He specializes in retrieving and analyzing cellphone data.

Dove went over a trove of information from the cellphones of Alex Murdaugh, his wife and son. There were phone call logs and texts, steps recorded, apps asking for information, GPS locations, changes when the phone went from vertical portrait mode to horizontal landscape mode and back, and — key to the prosecution’s case — when the camera was activated.

The last time the camera on Paul Murdaugh’s cellphone came on was 8:44:49 p.m., when it took a video for under a minute, Dove said.

Someone appears in the video to be trying to get an image of a wagging dog’s tail. Voices are heard trying to get the dog to stay still and figuring out if it had a chicken or a guinea in its mouth.

The video was meant for Rogan Gibson, the dog’s owner and a close friend of Paul Murdaugh. Gibson testified Wednesday he considered the Murdaughs a second family. Gibson said he was with the family several days after the killings and told Maggie Murdaugh’s mother that the last time he heard her voice, Alex Murdaugh was also there in the kennels. Alex Murdaugh was nearby and didn’t contradict him, Gibson said.

Paul Murdaugh read the final text on his phone at 8:48:59 p.m. and 36 seconds later another text came in that he never read. Maggie Murdaugh’s phone showed she last read a text 28 seconds later, Dove testified.

Alex Murdaugh told police the night of the killings and three days later that he was never at the kennels with his family, instead taking a short nap several hundred yards away before leaving to visit his ailing mother. Computer data from the SUV indicated he started the vehicle at about 9:06 p.m. and drove off.

At nearly the same time, Alex Murdaugh’s phone called his wife’s phone, which indicated its display came on and there was an orientation change. Defense attorney Phillip Barber suggested to Dove that the person who killed Maggie Murdaugh had her phone in their hand and was surprised at the call, throwing it out the window.

Dove said he didn’t have enough information, such as how the phone could have been thrown, to agree or disagree.

There were no more significant changes to Maggie Murdaugh’s phone until it was recovered from the side of the road the next day, Dove said.

But about five minutes after she read the final text, Maggie Murdaugh’s data indicated her cellphone camera turned on for one second. Dove told prosecutors that can happen when an iPhone is trying to detect a face to see if it is the owner wanting to unlock the phone.

The defense suggested a different scenario — that in a panic, she tried to use her phone camera to take a photo of someone.

“And if the perpetrator or perpetrators responded by shooting at her, would that explain why it went off in one second and there was a bunch of orientation changes very shorty thereafter?” Barber asked.

“There’s a lot of possibilities could happen not knowing how a person reacts,” Dove said.

Prosecutors also had Dove read where Maggie Murdaugh texted someone that she was worried about her husband’s health, and after a doctor’s appointment that day, she was heading back to the lodge in Colleton County instead of the family’s house on Edisto Island.

“Alex wants me to come home,” she texted.

Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted.