A judge ruled Monday he will allow jurors to hear evidence that disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh was stealing money from his law firm and clients and committing other financial crimes long before his wife and son were killed in 2021.
Prosecutors have said those witnesses are key to their case in Murdaugh's double murder trial to show he was worried his alleged crimes were about to be discovered and that Murdaugh killed his family to get sympathy and buy time to cover up the missing money.
Murdaugh, 54, is standing trial in the shootings of his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, on June 7, 2021, at their Colleton County home. He faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
The defense argued that prosecutors want to smear Alex Murdaugh with details of his finances because they have lots of evidence he stole money but none on the killings. Murdaugh's lawyers said it is ridiculous that a lawyer would think scrutiny into his life would be diminished by the brutal deaths of his family.
In explaining his ruling, Judge Clifton Newman said the jury is entitled to consider whether Murdaugh's “apparent desperation” and “dire financial situation” resulted in the killings of his family.
Newman said he didn't think the financial crime evidence alone would persuade the jury to convict Murdaugh of murder.
The decision means jurors over the next several days will hear from witnesses who testified previously before a judge about how Murdaugh secured $4 million in settlements for the family of the longtime Murdaugh housekeeper who died in a fall. He allegedly kept the money for himself.
Other testimony includes the office manager confronting Murdaugh over almost $800,000 in missing law firm fees the day of the killings and how a key hearing in a wrongful death lawsuit that might reveal the true condition of Murdaugh's finances was scheduled for three days after his wife and son were shot. The hearing was cancelled.
Early Monday afternoon, the woman taking care of Alex Murdaugh's mother testified about how he stopped by to visit her the night of the killings. Murdaugh said he found the bodies after seeing his mother, who has dementia.
Shelley Smith testified Monday that was the first time she saw Murdaugh visit his mother during her 8 p.m. at 8 a.m. shift, although during cross-examination the defense brought up a statement Smith previously made to a state agent in which she said Murdaugh has visited late at night before and was the most frequent visitor among his siblings.
Alex Murdaugh stayed about 20 minutes or so, laying beside his mother and holding her hand, Smith said. She didn't notice any blood on him.
Smith also testified that Alex Murdaugh visited nine days after the killings at 6:30 a.m. and was carrying a blue tarp. In their opening statement, prosecutors mentioned a blue rain coat with gunshot residue on it. Defense attorney Jim Griffin spent several minutes getting Smith to say the item was big, like a tarp, not a raincoat.
The defense then asked Judge Newman to prevent any other witnesses from testifying about the raincoat, but Newman initially refused. A state agent testified Monday afternoon that a blue poncho was found in Murdaugh's mother's home by agents looking for a blue tarp three months after the killings.
Before a state agent could testify about whether anything was found on the garment, the defense asked again for the judge to prevent the witness from testifying further. Newman adjourned court without a ruling.
“They have no evidence connecting Mr. Murdaugh to that rain jacket,” Griffin said.
Newman's decision to allow evidence of Alex Murdaugh's possible financial crimes came after hearing from a potential witness Monday — a lawyer representing a family suing Murdaugh over a boat crash killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach in 2019. Alex's son Paul Murdaugh was driving the boat and faced a felony charge of boating under the influence at the time of his death.
When Alex Murdaugh called 911 and first spoke to investigators after his wife and son were killed, he mentioned people who knew Beach being angry with his son.
Beach family attorney Mark Tinsley said Alex Murdaugh and his lawyer were working hard to keep his financial information out of Tinsley's hands when the killings happened.
“Pretty quickly I recognized, the case against Alex, if he was the victim of some vigilante, would in fact be over,” Tinsley said.
He said Murdaugh's lawyer told him Alex Murdaugh was broke, but Tinsley didn't believe it given what appeared to be a successful law practice and his family's generational wealth. He said justice called for damages from Murdaugh because they could not bring Beach back.
“The Beach family stood on the causeway for eight days while their daughter's body was in the water,” Tinsley said. "I don’t know there is any amount of money somebody would willingly take to go through what they went through.”