Murdaugh trial juror removed for improper discussions outside courtroom

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One of the 12 jurors in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh was removed Thursday morning and replaced with an alternate before the defense team started its closing arguments.

Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman said the juror — identified as No. 785 — had engaged in improper conversations outside the courtroom. She denied having discussed the case when he spoke with her, but he said two other people were interviewed about their contact with the juror and they “waffled on the nature and the extent of the contact.”

The juror ultimately spoke with at least three people about the case but not extensively, Newman said he learned, although it involved “giving her opinion regarding evidence received.”

Defense lawyer Richard “Dick” Harpootlian expressed concerns about the juror’s actions and that agents with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, were present as the court investigated the situation.

“SLED has made another bad judgment in this case,” he said. “This is just a continuum of a calamity of errors.”

After explaining the situation to the courtroom, Newman brought the juror in and told her she was being dismissed.

“You have been by all accounts a great juror, smiled consistently and seemingly been attentive to the case and performed well,” he said, adding, “Thank you for your service. I’m not suggesting you intentionally did anything wrong, but in order to preserve the integrity of the process and in fairness to all the parties involved, we’re going to replace you with one of the other jurors.”

The judge asked the juror if she had any belongings she needed to take with her before leaving, and she replied she had kept a dozen eggs in a back room.

After she left, the jury was seated and the defense began its closing arguments.

Murdaugh, a once-prominent personal injury lawyer in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, is accused of murdering his wife, Margaret, and their younger son, Paul, in a plot to gain sympathy and halt scrutiny into his financial crimes.

But defense lawyer Jim Griffin attempted to poke holes in the prosecution’s case and sow doubts about Murdaugh’s alleged motive in the fatal shooting of his wife and son on the night of June 7, 2021.

Investigators had testified that Paul was struck twice by a shotgun, while Margaret was shot multiple times with an AR-style rifle. Neither weapon has been found, but agents said they matched the murder weapons using shell casings from family firearms.

Griffin argued that SLED agents bungled their handling of the investigation from the beginning, failing to adequately secure the crime scene, take footprint impressions in the outdoor kennel area where the bodies were found and preserve tire tracks that may have pointed to another suspect’s vehicle.

He also took issue with the prosecution’s timeline of the night of the slayings and that Margaret and Paul’s estimated time of death — at about 8:50 p.m. — is based on when their cellphones stopped showing activity, rather than any definitive determination.

Griffin played a video to the jury that was first presented at trial during the state’s case from Paul’s cellphone of the kennels in which three voices — belonging to Paul, Margaret and Murdaugh — could be heard talking about a dog in the minutes before 8:50 p.m.

“Four minutes later, the state would have you believe that Alex Murdaugh up and blew his son’s brains out of his head,” Griffin said.

“Nothing on that tape indicates any strife, any anger, any planning, anybody being afraid, anybody running, any scurrying,” he added.

The state initially used the video to point out that Murdaugh had been repeatedly lying to investigators claiming that he was not at the kennels and hadn’t seen his wife and son before their deaths. Instead, he had insisted he was napping and then went to visit his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.

In response to why his voice could be heard in the video, Murdaugh took the stand last week and said he lied about his location before the murders because of his drug addiction and general paranoia.

Griffin reiterated that Murdaugh has lied about his actions and his drug addiction, but called the prosecution’s motive that he killed his wife and son because he was under financial pressure and about to be exposed for swindling money from his family’s law firm an “illogical” theory.

“He slaughtered his wife and son to distract from an impending financial investigation, so he puts himself in the middle of a murder investigation and puts himself in the spotlight of a media firestorm,” Griffin told the jury.

“That is their theory of the case,” he added. “If you don’t accept that beyond a reasonable doubt, ladies and gentlemen, I submit the verdict has to be not guilty because there is no reason for him to do it, no reason whatsoever.”

The prosecution built its sprawling case on weeks of testimony and hundreds of pieces of evidence and used electronic data and video extracted from the victims’ cellphones to suggest that only Murdaugh had the motive, means and opportunity to kill his wife and son.

“He fooled Paul and Maggie, too, and they paid for it with their lives. Don’t let him fool you, too,” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters said as he wrapped up his closing arguments Wednesday after about three hours.

The prosecution started giving its rebuttal Thursday afternoon before the case goes to the jury.

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