Murdaugh’s defense floats 2 shooter theory, as prosecutors take aim at alibi
Over the course of a week, South Carolina prosecutors have told a Colleton County jury that only one man could have been capable of brutally murdering his wife and son in June 2021: Alex Murdaugh.
But on Monday, during a grinding cross-examination of Melinda Worley, a special agent with the State Law Enforcement Division, defense attorney Dick Harpootlian posed a different scenario. Could two people, not one, have murdered Paul and Maggie Murdaugh on the family’s rural Colleton County estate the night of June 7, 2021?
“One reasonable explanation was two shooters?” Harpootlian asked Monday, as he sought to poke holes in the double-murder investigation.
“One explanation,” responded Worley, who was called first by the state last Friday to testify about tire and foot tracks and the trajectories of bullets from an assault rifle.
Court resumed for its second week on Monday, with nearly all of the 234 courtroom seats filled.
Crowds of onlookers packed into wooden pews to view testimony that alternated between the tedious recitations of physical evidence and feisty exchanges by attorneys.
Hours into the trial Monday, prosecutor Creighton Waters questioned SLED senior special agent Jeff Croft, who testified about two crucial pieces of evidence and introduced a potentially new alibi given by the former Hampton County attorney.
Playing a video recording to the jury of an interview between SLED agent David Owen and Murdaugh on June 10, 2021, two days after the killings, Murdaugh told Owen he last saw Maggie and Paul at dinner — not the dog kennels, as prosecutors hope to prove.
In that same interview, Murdaugh told Owen and another SLED agent that he had dinner with Paul and Maggie the night of their killings, then took a nap and finally drove to his ailing mother’s house.
Except, in his opening statement to the jury last week, Waters said investigators had records of Murdaugh’s cellphone moving toward the kennels around 8:30 p.m. on June 7, 2021. Around 8:44 p.m., Paul sent a friend a video from the kennels, where both of his parents can be heard talking in the background, Waters said.
That video has not yet been introduced into evidence, but would likely show Murdaugh’s interview with SLED has locked him into a version of events that prosecutors will try to disprove.
In the recording Monday, Murdaugh can be heard telling agents that he only saw his wife and son when he returned to the family estate and found them dead in pools of blood in the area of the kennels, about 1,000 yards from house. Murdaugh, in the video, told investigators he loved his wife and son. Maggie wanted to be the main caretaker of the family, Murdaugh said, weeping, and said Paul had problems with his attention span but also had a loveable side.
In addition to an alibi and a theory over who shot Maggie and Paul, the jury heard other details of interest:
▪ At least three partners in Murdaugh’s former law firm — Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth & Detrick, or PMPED — visited the family estate the day after the killings to be with Murdaugh as SLED investigators roamed the house’s gun room, looking for guns and ammunition of the type they believed killed Maggie and Paul. The lawyers were Lee Cope, Mark Ball and Ronnie Crosby. Another lawyer, Chris Wilson, one of Murdaugh’s best friends from his University of South Carolina Law School class of 1994, was also in the house.
▪ The bullets that struck Maggie were 300 Blackout rounds, an unusually powerful bullet that can be fired from an assault rifle only after the gun has been reconfigured to handle such rounds, which have superb “stopping power,” Croft testified.
▪ Murdaugh had had at least two assault-style rifles configured by weapons maker John Bedingfield to handle the 300 Blackout rounds and gave one each to Paul and his older son, Buster, Croft said. Paul had lost his rifle, Murdaugh told investigators. Croft displayed one of the weapons that Bedingfield had configured — a futuristic, black long-barreled gun that looked capable of fierce devastation. Paul liked to use his 300 Blackout-configured gun to kill hogs, Murdaugh said in the interview.
Court will resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, with Croft, the prosecution’s 10th witness, on the stand under cross-examination.
In cross-examination, SLED agent says 2 shooters possible
At first, SLED agent Worley on Monday resisted acknowledging the possibility that two shooters carried out the brutal slayings of Maggie and Paul.
But under persistent questioning by Harpootlian, Worley acknowledged it could have happened.
Throughout Harpootlian’s cross-examination of Worley Monday, the Columbia defense attorney attacked investigators’ evidence gathering practices. In lengthy cross-examinations that lasted multiple hours, the defense attacked evidence gathering practices and continue to point to clues they say were ignored by investigators.
It was a “scintillating afternoon,” Harpootlian quipped hours earlier, before he launched into a cross-examination.
On the night of the shooting, Worley testified she recorded bullet holes in a small wooden dog house, separate from the kennels, and a quail cage inside of a hangar structure. A 300 Blackout round was recovered from bedding inside of the dog house.
On July 12, 2021, Worely said she returned to the scene and took measurements of the angle that the bullets traveled.
Focusing on these measurements, Harpootlian argued that the trajectory of the 300 Blackout rounds that struck the quail cage and the dog house proved that whoever shot Maggie with the rifle was “well to the right” of the room where Paul was killed with the shotgun.
Prosecutors have said that the evidence indicates Paul was killed at close range. Investigators recovered 12-gauge shotgun shells and wadding from inside of the feed room where Paul was shot. Worley also said that his skin also showed signs of stippling — a rippled pattern of soot that indicating proximity to the muzzle when a gun is fired.
The spot that where some of the rifle rounds were fired from were “a dozen, two dozen, three dozen yards from the feed room,” Harpootlian argued.
“It indicates movement,” Worley said.
“One explanation would be movement, correct?” Harpootlian replied. “One explanation of this data would be two shooters.”
“Sure,” Worley conceded.
Harpootlian asked if it would be reasonable to imagine that someone went there to kill Paul, while an accomplice, perhaps a lookout, was surprised by Maggie, who was then shot.
“I wasn’t there,” Worley replied.
Harpootlian responded, “I know you weren’t there. None of us were there that night. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Investigation focuses on Murdaugh
When court resumes Tuesday, Murdaugh’s alibi is likely to be the primary focus.
In a second interview conducted between Murdaugh and law enforcement officers on June 10, 2021, Murdaugh explained to investigators where he was the day of their murders
He said that he was preparing for a legal settlement and did some work on Paul’s 2019 boat crash case. He also said he rode around with the family estate on that day. He then said he had supper with his family and fell asleep while watching TV and playing with his phone. He did not mention being at the kennels.
Murdaugh said that when he discovered Paul’s body he had the “presence of mind” not to mess anything up.
“It was just so bad. They did him so bad,” Murdaugh said in the recording.
Waters asked Croft to repeat what Murdaugh said, to which Croft responded, “I did him so bad.”
(Some reporters in court heard “they,” not “I” on the recording.)
Questions about footprints
In Harpootlian’s cross-examination, the defense attorney continued questions about footprint evidence.
Harpootlian asked why a dirt print found on Maggie’s left calf wasn’t investigated as a footprint.
“It was not a naturally occurring pattern, correct?” Harpootlian asked.
“Yes,” Worley agreed, but admitted that the marks were not identified as a possible footprint on the night of the murders.
As a result, standard procedures for taking pictures of footprints were not followed, Worley said, because law enforcement did not take multiple and well lit photos directly above the print alongside a scale.
“We didn’t recognize them on the scene,” Worley admitted.
Harpootlian also asked why there appeared to be a set of Paul’s bloody footprints facing the back wall inside of the feed room where he was killed.
Prosecutors have said that Paul was first shot in the chest before being shot under his chin, killing him. Shotgun pellets were found on the back window of the feed room and there was a bullet hole in the window in the rear wall.
“How was he facing backwards to where he was shot?” Harpootlian asked, arguing there were no smearing or signs of movement.
“I can’t explain which way (Paul) was standing when he was actually shot,” Worley said.
Worley was able to clear up one mystery of the bloody footprints found near Paul.
In redirect testimony, she told assistant S.C. attorney general Savanna Goude that some of the unidentified boot prints in the feed room likely belonged to a law enforcement officer and may have come after the scene was processed.
This story may be updated.