By JEFFREY COLLINS
Jurors at Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial in South Carolina will get to hear evidence about what crime scene technicians discovered when they tested a rain jacket found three months after his wife and son were killed, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The decision was the second win for prosecutors in as many days. Judge Clifton Newman on Monday allowed prosecutors to call witnesses who are expected to testify that Murdaugh was stealing money from his law firm and clients and committing other financial crimes long before the killings.
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.
Defense attorneys asked the judge to prevent further testimony about the raincoat after the caretaker for Murdaugh’s ailing mother testified that she saw him bring a “blue something, looked like a tarp” into his mother’s home nine days after the killings.
State agents got a search warrant four months after the killings and found a tarp but also a blue rain jacket. Prosecutors said in their opening statement that the inside of the jacket was covered in gunshot residue left behind when a weapon is fired.
Defense attorneys said prosecutors didn’t connect the jacket to Murdaugh through the caretaker’s confusing testimony and that it would be unfair and harmful to his case to let state agents testify about what the testing on the jacket found.
Newman said Tuesday that it should be up to the jury to decide.
The defense did an “effective job in cross-examination in raising questions as to the credibility of the witness. And that is the exact job the jury has to do — weigh the credibility of the witness,” the judge said.
But Newman’s decisions could also help the defense. If Murdaugh is found guilty, the decisions could be brought up on appeal.
The extra witnesses will extend a trial that reached its 12th day on Tuesday with no end to the prosecution’s case in sight. During jury selection, jurors were told that the case could last three weeks.
Issues with the long trial were starting to crop up. One alternate was dismissed Tuesday after he had to go to the emergency room. Another juror told the judge Monday that he wasn’t sure if he could continue next week, but he later said he made arrangements with his job.
“As time passes, attrition kicks in,” Newman said. “We’ve done well so far.”
Tuesday’s testimony started with Jeanne Seckinger, who is the office manager and chief financial officer for the law firm Murdaugh’s family founded more than a century ago.
Murdaugh took money from legal settlements that was supposed to go to clients by routing it to a fake company that he created and that had a similar name to the company the law firm had intended to send it to, Seckinger said. The real company would have then dispensed the money to the firm’s clients. The companies’ similar names helped Murdaugh avoid detection, she testified.
Seckinger said she confronted Murdaugh about almost $800,000 in missing law firm fees on the day of the killings. But during the conversation, Murdaugh found out doctors had told his father he would die within days. Seckinger said all the grief ended the investigation into the missing fees until things settled down.
After an extensive investigation, the firm determined that Murdaugh took more than $5 million from clients, and it is in the process of paying them everything they were owed, Seckinger said.
For nearly two hours, Seckinger went over dozens of checks Murdaugh sent to his fake company. Prosecutor Creighton Waters would ask the client’s name, the amount and the endorsing signature. Then he asked why the law firm had to pay the money back.
“Alex had stolen it,” Seckinger said again and again.
On cross-examination, she agreed with defense attorney Jim Griffin that Murdaugh faces criminal charges for each client.
Griffin also asked Seckinger if it was true that Murdaugh started stealing in 2011, “Some 10 years before the murders of Maggie and Paul?”
“That’s correct. He managed to fool a lot of people, myself included,” Seckinger said.
Seckinger also said that at the time Murdaugh’s son and wife were killed, no clients had complained of missing money.
Among those expected to testify later this week is a witness who will talk about how Murdaugh secured $4 million in settlements for the family of the Murdaughs’ longtime housekeeper who had died in a fall. Murdaugh allegedly kept the money for himself.
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