Opening statements given in former South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial

WALTERBORO, S.C. — Prosecutors in a double murder trial involving a prominent former South Carolina attorney delivered opening arguments Wednesday claiming that a barrage of evidence would persuade jurors that Alex Murdaugh murdered his wife and son.

Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters alleged a “perfect storm” was brewing before Murdaugh, 54, killed his wife, Maggie Murdaugh, and son, Paul Murdaugh, in June 2021. Dick Harpootlian, Murdaugh’s defense attorney, stressed Murdaugh’s innocence until proven guilty to the jury and disputed the reliability of the state’s evidence as “theories.”

Attorneys have listed more than 200 potential witnesses who may be called to testify after opening statements. The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office is seeking life in prison if Murdaugh is convicted.

Prosecutor: Family weapon was used to kill wife

In his opening statement Wednesday, Waters walked the jury through a minute-by-minute timeline of the family’s movements the night of the killings and forensic evidence the state will present, including cellphone data, ballistic evidence, video statements from Alex Murdaugh and body-worn camera footage from the crime scene.

Waters said that although Murdaugh claimed he was never at dog kennels at the family’s estate, the voices of Murdaugh, his wife and his son can be heard on cellphone video taken by Paul Murdaugh around 8:45 p.m. on June 7, 2021 near where the alleged murders took place. He said minutes after that video was taken, Murdaugh shot his son with a shotgun and then shot his wife with a rifle inflicting “catastrophic damage.”

Waters said ballistics evidence would show a “family weapon” was used to kill Maggie Murdaugh. He said Alex Murdaugh purchased three AR-style rifles, two of which are missing.

He said Murdaugh’s phone did not show any activity from around 8 p.m. until just after 9 p.m. when he called his wife twice before driving to Alameda to visit his mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. Murdaugh returned home just after 10:00 p.m. and called 911 to report the killings, Waters said. 

After the killings, gunshot residue was found on Murdaugh, the seatbelt of his vehicle and a rain coat found at his parent’s home, according to Waters.

“You are going to see what he did to Maggie and Paul, and it is going to be gruesome,” Waters said. “This has been a long, exhaustive investigation, but you will reach an inexcusable conclusion, that he murdered Maggie and Paul.”

‘He is innocent:’ Defense attorney says in opening statement

Defense attorney Harpootlian began his opening statement by describing Murdaugh as a loving husband and father. Harpootlian said a Snapchat video taken by Paul Murdaugh an hour before the killings showed the pair having a good time and it is “not believable” that Murdaugh could have killed him a short time later.

Harpolitan told the jury there were no eye witnesses to the shootings and no forensic evidence such as fingerprints or blood tying him to the scene. He graphically described the injuries Paul Murdaugh suffered and said the perpetrator would have been covered in blood, but none was found on Murdaugh’s clothes from the night of the killings.

He also refuted Water’s claims about ballistic evidence, saying prosecutors can’t conclusively tell where the fatal shots came from because they do not have the weapons used.

Harpolitan questioned whether there was enough time for Murdaugh to have killed his family, gotten rid of evidence and began driving to his parent’s home. He said given that two different guns were used, it’s “much more likely there were two people” responsible. He did not identify another possible suspect in the killings.

“He didn’t do it. He is innocent,” Harpolitan concluded. “He would require a verdict of not guilty from you. That’s the law. That’s your oath.”

Judge rules on some key evidence in pretrial hearing

During pretrial hearings Tuesday, Circuit Judge Clifton Newman said he would consider admitting alleged financial evidence and evidence related to a 2019 boat crash lawsuit involving Paul Murdaugh during hearings once the trial starts.

Newman also decided he would wait until the trial starts to consider admitting blood spatter evidence, polygraph data, or “third party guilt” evidence.

Newman did decide to allow ballistics evidence and expert testimony be used in evidence, which could be crucial for the state.

Who is on the jury?

The jury consists of four white men, six white women and two Black women. The alternates include two white men, one white woman, one Black man and two Black women. 

Attorneys completed the final round of jury selection Wednesday morning, narrowing down a list of 900 residents to a potential jury pool of roughly 150 in open court and making further cuts in judge’s chambers. 

What is Alex Murdaugh charged with?

More than a year after the killings, Murdaugh, a member of a prominent South Carolina legal family, was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Murdaugh told police he found their bodies after returning home from visiting his ailing mother. He has pleaded not guilty. 

Murdaugh has also been indicted on more than 100 charges related to alleged crimes including money laundering, tax evasion, stealing millions from clients, drug trafficking and a botched life insurance scheme.

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Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact Breaking News Reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at nyanceybra@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg