Two jurors in Murdaugh murder trial dismissed after testing positive for COVID, state details gruesome killings

Day 16: Judge decides trial to continue as normal after two jurors test positive for COVID
Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 8:35 AM EST

WALTERBORO, S.C. (WIS) - The fourth week of the Alex Murdaugh double trial began with another twist, as two jurors tested positive for COVID-19.

They were replaced with alternate jurors who have heard the first three weeks of testimony.

Both the defense and the prosecution expressed concerns about the effect this could have on the remainder of the trial and suggested delaying proceedings for a few days to ensure that there is not a larger COVID-19 outbreak among jurors.

Presiding Judge Clifton Newman ultimately ruled that the trial would move forward this week as scheduled.

The trial began with 12 jurors and six alternates. Three have now been dismissed after an alternate juror was dismissed for a medical emergency last week.

Newman said that in addition to the two jurors who tested positive, the clerk of clerk has covid as well.

One of the jurors is experiencing symptoms, and the other is asymptomatic.

The remaining jurors and alternates tested negative for COVID-19 and will be tested again on Wednesday.

Murdaugh defense attorney Dick Harpootlian, who immediately put on a mask after hearing this news, expressed worries that there could be a mistrial if jurors end up infecting each other

“My only concern is that we don’t create a trainwreck for this jury that’s testing negative now,” Murdaugh defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said.

Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters also suggested limiting the number of people in the packed, 200-person gallery.

Despite the COVID-19 scare, Newman forged ahead.

“We just have to take precautions, as we all do as we navigate through life during this period of time,” he said. “We need 12 to deliberate so that’s the goal. That’s why you have alternates. Of course, anytime you have a protracted trial, that goes on and on and on and on, then you run the natural risk of attrition, which we are experiencing now, be it COVID or some other problem. The longer we stay here, the longer something will happen to various folks involved.”

Newman encouraged all those in the courtroom to mask up but did not impose a mask mandate or any social distancing requirements.

A court official could be seen passing out masks to attendees, but not all were wearing them.

This is not the first disruption to the trial. Last Wednesday, a bomb threat that was phoned into the courthouse delayed proceedings for three hours. The threat was deemed to be a hoax.

During testimony Monday, the state called in a pair of DNA analysts with SLED who tested items found at the crime scene.

There were several key takeaways, including: blood was found on the steering wheel of Alex Murdaugh’s Suburban, and DNA from Alex, Maggie, and Paul was found on the white t-shirt Alex was wearing the night of the murders.

A preliminary test found blood on that shirt, but further testing was inconclusive.

This is a fact that the defense wrote on an easel for the jury to observe during cross-examination.

Rachel Nguyen, a DNA analyst with SLED, testified that Maggie’s DNA was found on a recovered shotgun, but it’s important to note that neither of the murder weapons has been found.

Sarah Zapata, another SLED DNA analyst, testified that Maggie and Paul’s DNA were found on the steering wheel of Alex’s SUV.

She also testified various spots on Alex’s white T-shirt also tested positive for Maggie and Paul’s DNA.

The defense, on cross-examination of Zapata, established that an unidentified male’s DNA was found under Maggie’s fingernails.

Maggie did get her nails done earlier that day, however.

“It’s possible that somewhere at the nail salon there was DNA that she picked up under her fingernails,” Zapata said. “We can’t really tell you how or when the DNA got there. But at any point in time between getting her nails done and arriving home, she could touch an object, and potentially DNA from that object could be under her fingernails, or she can touch an individual and their DNA be under her fingernails in that way.”

Additionally, DNA testing done on the blue raincoat retrieved from the home of Alex’s mother after the killings, which had a significant amount of gunshot residue on it, was also inconclusive.

Much of the testimony was very tedious, foundational, and largely inconclusive, with explanations of probabilities in the octillions.

This left analysts, court watchers, and journalists searching for meaningful details, connections, or telling contradictions.

One pattern did emerge, however, as DNA evidence collected from the scene appeared to all but eliminate victims of the 2019 boat crash involving Alex’s son Paul that killed Mallory Beach, and C.B. Rowe, the groundskeeper at Moselle, from being involved in the murders.

This is significant because Alex pointed to those parties as possible suspects in his first interview with law enforcement on the night of the murders.

The afternoon featured testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. Ellen Riemer of MUSC, who walked jurors through the graphic details of the catastrophic injuries Maggie and Paul suffered in their violent deaths.

Riemer said she has conducted over 5,500 autopsies and has served as an expert in 250 trials.

On Monday afternoon, she detailed how Paul was killed with two shotgun blasts: one to the shoulder, and another fatal shot to the head.

She further testified that Maggie was shot five times in the wrist and abdomen, with another execution-style shot to the back of the head.

While listening to the description of the wounds, Alex was crying, as he has throughout the trial whenever the wounds are discussed.

The photos are so gruesome that they will not be released to the media or the public.

Riemer said Paul and Maggie Murdaugh were both shot at close range.

A key moment came when prosecutor Waters asked Riemer if there was any way Paul’s hands were up when he was shot.

Waters said in his opening statement a few weeks ago that neither Paul nor Maggie had what is known as “defensive wounds.”

On Monday, Riemer’s testimony confirmed that.

Prosecutors maintain neither saw this attack coming and did not appear to defend themselves, possibly indicating a familiarity with their attacker.

“In your expert opinion, having done 5,500 autopsies, is there any way Paul’s hands were up when he suffered that shotgun wound you’ve been talking about?” Waters asked.

“No,” Reimer said. “The autopsy answers that question that his arm was down by his side at the time he sustained this injury.”

Cross-examination of Riemer is expected to begin on Tuesday morning.

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Previous coverage:

Murdaugh family housekeeper testifies that Maggie had concerns about money in months leading up to murders

Alex Murdaugh’s best friend testifies against him in his double murder trial, details betrayal and stealing

Alex Murdaugh’s former paralegal details alleged financial crimes as bomb threat disrupts murder trial

To keep updated with the trial, click the link here.

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