Jul 18, 2023

Alex Murdaugh trial reveals a sloppy investigation

WALTERBORO, S.C. — The fourth week of Alex Murdaugh's double-murder trial began with a cheerful pathologist explaining the gruesome ins and outs of bullets and pellets as they ravaged the bodies of 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh and her 22-year-old son, Paul.

And it pivoted midweek during a devastating defense cross-examination that poked holes in the state police's murder investigation.

On Monday, pathologist Ellen Riemer of the Medical University of South Carolina expertly walked jurors through grisly photos of Paul and Maggie's wounds.

Some jury members sunk in their seats, and at least one woman seemed to struggle to remain in her chair. The killer would have been about three feet away when he blew off Paul's head with a shotgun, Riemer said, and would have been covered in blood and other biological material.

Riemer's opinions were largely supported on Thursday when forensic expert Kenny Kinsey re-created the crime scene and showed jurors photos of blood pooling and spatter, indicating where the victims were standing when first shot and where they fell.

Both victims were facing their killer, he said; neither had defensive wounds, presumably suggesting that they knew their assailant.

The week's blockbuster, however, was prosecution witness David Owen, the lead investigator from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), who was expected to weave all the evidence into a narrative that would help jurors clearly see that Murdaugh had committed the murders on June 7, 2021.

Owen seemed thorough and thoroughly competent as he presented evidence, timelines and Murdaugh's inconsistencies through three interviews.

Defense attorney Jim Griffin then conducted a cross- examination. Joe McCulloch, another trial lawyer and frequent legal commentator, remarked to lead defense attorney Dick Harpootlian that it was "poetic."

In point after point, Griffin dismantled SLED's investigation and eviscerated poor Owen, who, once released from the witness stand, fled the courtroom red-faced and upset. He apparently regained his composure and returned a few minutes later.

Among the several flaws that Griffin pointed out: Investigators didn't bother to search Murdaugh's mother's house, where Murdaugh is thought to have stashed the murder weapons — a shotgun and a .300 Blackout semiautomatic rifle — until three months after the killings.

SLED also took no DNA samples from either victim's clothing. Most egregious, Owen incorrectly told the grand jury that blood spatter had been found on the T-shirt Murdaugh was wearing the night of the murders. In fact, none had been found.

SLED tested 74 cuttings from the T-shirt and found no human blood. Owen testified that he never saw the SLED report until November 2022 — well after the grand jury had indicted Murdaugh on two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon in the commission of a violent crime.

How does the lead investigator fail to see the crucial report created by his own agency?

In other words, Murdaugh was likely indicted — at least in significant part — on the basis of, shall we say, a colossal untruth. Asked whether he had intended to mislead the grand jury, Owen said no. But he did intend to mislead Murdaugh during their third interview when he told him there was no unknown DNA at the murder scene. In fact, DNA from an unknown male was found under one of Maggie Murdaugh's fingernails.

Jurors watched a much-anticipated video of that interview showing Murdaugh as it dawned on him that he wasn't only a suspect but was The Suspect in the murders of his wife and son.

"Do you think I killed Maggie?" Murdaugh asked.

"I have to go where the evidence and the facts take me," Owen replied.

"Does that mean that I am a suspect?"

Murdaugh was the only suspect almost from the start because, as Owen claimed, there was no evidence to suggest anyone else had been at the family's hunting compound that night.

All DNA collected from the scene belonged to family members and close friends, he said, even though there was that small amount under Maggie Murdaugh's fingernail.

Owen testified that the sample wasn't big enough to test. Moreover, law enforcement officials announced right away that the community had nothing to fear.

But testimony and cross-examination revealed that SLED dropped so many balls that Murdaugh, conceivably, might not have been indicted.

Investigators apparently failed to consider any other potential suspects, including members of a local drug gang known as the Cowboys, with whom, according to Griffin, Murdaugh conducted business to the tune of $50,000 a week.

Murdaugh, a confessed opioid addict, according to his legal team, has also been charged with drug trafficking and money laundering.

Might some gang members who felt they had been underpaid have sought to teach Murdaugh a lesson? It's not a crazy question. On the failure to search Murdaugh's mother's house, Griffin asked Owen whether that might have been an opportunity missed.

Owen responded, "Probably, yes."

As the state was wrapping up its case Thursday, the prosecution might have gotten a small break from the forensic expert when he said there was no reason to check drains in the Murdaugh house for blood because human bodies shed fluids every day.

It has been seen as another oversight that SLED neglected to check those drains for blood residue that might have been left if Murdaugh had showered after the murders.

The state has maintained throughout the trial that Murdaugh's motive in the murders was to create a distraction from his serial financial crimes in which he allegedly bilked clients of his personal injury law practice of more than $8 million over a decade — a total of 99 charges yet to be litigated.

This theory seems, frankly, silly. Who kills their spouse and child as a "distraction"?

As the defense begins its case next week, it also seems doubtful that the state has created a credible nexus between Murdaugh the disbarred lawyer and crook and Murdaugh the murdering father. According to multiple witnesses, the man doted on his family. A moment of madness, perhaps? A crime of passion? This, too, seems unlikely given the scenario.

Two long guns don't just materialize at the dog kennels, where witnesses testified guns weren't usually kept, and then disappear — without a little planning.

The defense's biggest hurdle, on the other hand, is the big lie Murdaugh told about his whereabouts on the day of the murders. He wasn't napping on the couch at the Moselle house before leaving for his mother's house at precisely 9:06 p.m. He was at the dog kennels — the scene of the crime — with Maggie and Paul just minutes before the murders, according to a video found on Paul's cellphone.

At least half a dozen witnesses testified with 100 percent certainty that the three voices heard on the video belonged to Alex Murdaugh and the two victims.

Confronted with the video in his third interview on Aug. 11, 2021, Murdaugh had little to say. Owen noted Murdaugh's "distinct voice" and asked whether he could think of anyone else whose voice was so similar to his that he could have been mistakenly identified. Murdaugh could not.

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