Alex Murdaugh murder trial: Judge rules crucial ballistics evidence is admissible.
WALTERBORO, SC - An intricate, high stakes chess game is about to be played between the State of South Carolina and the criminal defense team of accused killer Richard "Alex" Murdaugh.
Judge Clifton Newman began setting the rules of engagement and establishing the playing field during pretrial motions hearings on Tuesday afternoon.
During the hearings, Creighton Waters, lead prosecutor for the S.C. Attorney General's Office and the State Grand Jury, said that the state has "substantial evidence" and expert witness testimony to prove that mechanical "ejector" and "extractor" markings from 300 Blackout rifle cartridges found at the crime scene, near Maggie Murdaugh's body, body rifle cartridges found at a shooting range on the Murdaugh family property, Moselle, and elsewhere on the property.
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Prosecutors believe that these cartridges may been "cycled" through a rifle purchased by Murdaugh that is no longer accounted for, which his attorneys say had been stolen.
This would be crucial evidence for the state and damning for the defense, and Murdaugh's legal team had previously filed a motion seeking to exclude it from evidence, stating that the science behind it isn't 100 percent conclusive.
The state put SLED firearms ballistic expert Paul Greer, who is prepared to testify on the match, and during questioning Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin asked if he could say with "scientific certainty" that "no other gun in the universe could have made these marks?"
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Judge Newman ruled that not only was Greer to be considered an expert witness and the science he used credible, he was going to allow the ballistics evidence and testimony to be used in evidence.
Day Two of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial also continued with further jury pool elimination as the stage was being set to hear several pre-trial motions that will lay the ground rules on which this legal contest will be fought before a Colleton County jury.
On Tuesday morning, the court completed the opening rounds of jury selection, whittling down a whopping 900 prospective citizens to a potential jury pool of roughly 150 in open court, with further eliminations taking place one-on-one in judge's chambers.
Judge Newman announced that as of Tuesday afternoon, 122 jurors had been qualified for service. The final round of jury selection will take place Wed. at 11 a.m. The jury selection process revealed just how connected the Murdaugh family and its law firm were around the Lowcountry, and how highly publicized this case has become, with a many potential jurors being excused for a potential conflict of interest.
Judge Newman defers considering financial evidence, motive motions until trial starts
Judge Newman also decided that he would not, during the pretrial process, grant motions to exclude or include evidence from the state that could allegedly prove that consequences from Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes were weighing down on him, and he killed his family to gain sympathy and distract from those crimes.
Murdaugh's defense called motive a "fabrication."
"This theory is that he knew the gig was up and he went home, blew the head off his son, and butchered his wife, without one shred of evidence that anything was wrong between them," Murdaugh attorney Richard Harpootlian said.
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Newman said he would consider the admitting the alleged financial evidence, as well as admitting evidence related to a 2019 boat crash lawsuit involving Paul Murdaugh, during hearings as needed once the trial starts. "These issues will be addressed as they come up in trial," he stated.
Murdaugh's sister, possible witnesses appear in court
For the second day in a row, Murdaugh entered the courtroom smiling, but on Tuesday he had a family member in court. Murdaugh greeted his older sister, Lynn Murdaugh Goettee, by taking her hand and speaking to her during a break in the proceedings. After the court session, and before he was led away by court security officers, she bid farewell to Murdaugh and mouthed the words "I love you."
Also spotted in the courtroom were potential future witnesses: attorneys Eric Bland and Mark Tinsley, and Hampton banker Mark Altman. They were not called to testify.
While the court has set for formal schedule, Griffin told The Hampton County Guardian that he expected the final jury selection, set to begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday, to be completed quickly and opening remarks to possibly begin Wednesday around midday or early afternoon, followed by the first testimony.
Court will consider motive, blood spatter evidence later during trial process
Judge Newman ruled that he would not consider the admissibility of blood spatter evidence, polygraph data, or "third party guilt" evidence during the pretrial process, but would consider holding hearings as needed, with the jury out of the room, as they arise during the trial process. This ruling had previously been mutually agreed upon by both counsels.
Getting the jury pool down to 12 from 900
In addition to the typical jury selection questions, each of the four groups of potential jurors were asked to stand if they had heard or read anything about this murder case, and what the source was. In all four groups considered Monday and Tuesday, most of the potential jurors stood, citing that that they had heard about this case from a wide variety of media formats.
Jurors were then asked if they had formed an opinion from being exposed to this media coverage, and many jurors were excused when they said they had formed fixed opinions.
Potential jurors were also excused if they admitted to having family, social, or professional relationships with the Murdaugh family or its law firm, now known as Parker Law Group, any of the attorneys present in the court, any of the 255 potential witnesses named by the court, or law enforcement officers involved in the case - and if that relationship prevented them from being a fair and impartial juror.
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Potential jurors were also excused if they indicated they had "preformed" strong, fixed opinions of Murdaugh's possible guilt or innocence in the murders that no amount of evidence would change. In one group alone, 17 people were excused because they had formed preconceived opinions about the case or Murdaugh's guilt or innocence.
Possible jurors were also excused for a wide variety of health and other reasons that ranged from anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), sleep apnea and narcolepsy. One, a young female military veteran, was excused because she said she feared seeing graphic images or evidence would trigger her PTSD.
This first jury pool of qualified jurors was asked by Judge Newman to return to court at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, where the final cuts will be made to whittle the pool down to 12 qualified jurors and six alternates.
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Looking back at Monday's proceedings at Colleton County courthouse
The double murder trial of Richard Alex Murdaugh, charged with the 2021 murders of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, got underway Monday with the first rounds of jury selection. Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty in the killings, but the S.C. Attorney General's Office is seeking life in prison.
During the opener, a roster of 900 potential jurors was whittled down, and a lengthy list of potential witnesses was published by the court.
At the start of each jury selection group, Judge Clifton Newman asked Murdaugh to stand and face the potential jurors. "Good afternoon," greeted Murdaugh, dressed in a blue sports coat, a while shirt with no tie, grey slacks and black sneakers.
At times, Murdaugh looked like the attorney he used to be, entering the courtroom carrying a large folder of files, reviewing documents, chatting and smiling with a young blond female on the legal team. At one point, he shook his head no as the judge read the charges against him.
Judge Newman read a list of 254 potential witnesses that may be called to testify.
Several members of Maggie Murdaugh's family may be called, as well as Buster Murdaugh and John Marvin Murdaugh. At least one boat crash survivor, Morgan Doughty, may testify.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday afternoon Judge Newman is expected to begin hearing the many pretrial motions that deal with the admissibility of crucial evidence that could be deciding factors in this case.
Check back for more updates.
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This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Alex Murdaugh trial: Why potential jurors were excused from jury pool