COLLETON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – Alex Murdaugh’s defense team laid the groundwork Wednesday for him to take the stand in his double-murder trial.
Murdaugh is accused of killing his wife Margaret and youngest son Paul at their family property in June of 2021.
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Defense attorney Jim Griffin asked Judge Clifton Newman to limit the scope of the prosecution’s cross-examination of Murdaugh, noting that Murdaugh is on trial for murder, not financial crimes. Griffin brought up Murdaugh’s right against self-incrimination for the financial crimes while he is testifying about the murder. State prosecutor Creighton Waters argued that questions about the financial crimes are fair game, as they lend to Murdaugh’s credibility (or lack thereof). Judge Newman denied the request, saying some sort of blanket order limiting the scope of cross-examination was unheard of. Murdaugh is expected to take the stand Thursday, but that is subject to change.
The jury also heard Wednesday from Murdaugh’s former law partner and longtime friend, Mark Ball. Ball described Murdaugh’s betrayal of the law firm as a devastating blow both personally and professionally, but said that committing financial crimes doesn’t necessarily make someone a murderer.
Defense also called crime scene expert Ken Zercie to the stand, hoping to further their theory that SLED dropped the ball on the investigation. Zercie said that more could’ve been done and SLED failed to follow some of their own protocols, but that he does not know what limitations they may have had. He said they may have done the best they could do under the given conditions.
Three other witnesses took the stand Wednesday: an attorney representing Murdaugh in the boat crash case, a housekeeper for Murdaugh’s parents, and a cell phone forensics expert.
Court is set to resume at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
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5:15 p.m. – Court is adjourned for the day and will resume Thursday at 9:30 a.m.
4:48 p.m. – Prosecution begins cross-examination of Sturgis.
Sturgis is asked to clarify what he meant when he said GPS data on Maggie’s phone likely could’ve been preserved if the phone was stored in a Faraday Bag. Sturgis explains that iOS data is stored in a cache. He says he doesn’t know how long GPS information would’ve been stored.
Prosecution asks if Sturgis found any steps on Murdaugh’s phone between 8:09 p.m. and 9:02 p.m. Sturgis says he does not believe so.
They go through some of the activities after 8:49 p.m. on Maggie’s phone. Prosecution points out that the phone recorded things like steps and Siri activity, but Sturgis can’t say who was using the phone. Sturgis says that he doesn’t believe someone could’ve actually taken a picture within the one second of camera use that the phone recorded.
Prosecution asks if Sturgis knew what iOS Maggie had and whether he conducted tests to see what caused the screen to come on in that phone. Sturgis says no.
4:09 p.m. – Micah Sturgis is called to the stand.
He is a digital forensics expert.
Sturgis was hired by the defense but says that every piece of data he has looked at in this case was provided by the state.
He says the Rudofski timeline provided by the state is accurate for the most part. There are a few instances where information extracted from phones was not included on the timeline.
Sturgis says that most of his attention was focused on Maggie’s phone, though he also reviewed Murdaugh’s and Paul’s.
Maggie’s phone did not have GPS data from June 7, but did have GPS data from other dates. Sturgis says that he believes if her phone had been properly stored in a Faraday Bag, it would have data from June 7.
Sturgis also reviewed Maggie and Murdaugh’s steps. He explains how the phone registers steps (using an accelerometer) and how it logs them (in time increments). Sturgis says you can’t tell when each individual step was taken; you can only see the total amount of steps taken within a certain period of time. They could have all been taken at once, or they could have been dispersed throughout the time period.
Sturgis explains that an orientation change on a phone is not exactly the physical position of the phone, but a change in the orientation of what is on the screen.
He says an orientation change cannot occur if the screen is off. Motion of the phone can turn on the screen. Phones have a “raise to wake” feature in their default settings, meaning when the phone is picked up and turned upright the screen turns on. He says it takes very little motion to turn the screen on.
Sturgis says that Maggie’s phone screen was off during the times GPS has Murdaugh passing the area where Maggie’s phone was found.
Sturgis goes through, in detail, activities on Maggie’s phone between 8:49 p.m. and 9:07 p.m.
At 8:54 p.m., Maggie’s phone registered camera use. Sturgis found that it was not the phone trying to register a face to unlock, it was someone trying to access the camera from the lock screen. He says it could’ve been accidental, but there was user interaction with the device.
At 9:04 p.m., the phone receives a call from Murdaugh. At the exact second the call comes in, the backlight goes off. Sturgis says he doesn’t know of anything other than human interaction that would cause the backlight to go off at the same time a call comes in.
4:08 p.m. – Prosecution begins cross-examination of Mixon. Meadors points out that prosecution met with Mixon a few weeks ago and talked about what she did and who she talked to the day of June 7. She didn’t tell them about the conversation she had with Murdaugh that day.
She says she can’t remember when she was reminded of the conversation.
3:57 p.m. – Barbara-Ann Mixon is called to the stand.
She is the housekeeper for Murdaugh’s parents. She says that she knows the Murdaugh family as well as she knows her own family. She considers Murdaugh one of her kids and says she loves him and Maggie as if they were her own.
Griffin asks how frequently Murdaugh would check on his mom and dad over the past 10 years. Mixon says she works at least four days a week and would see him just about every day.
She spoke to Maggie just hours before the murders. Mixon said Maggie planned to make dinner for Murdaugh’s parents and Mixon’s family. Maggie had to hang up because one of the boys called her and said she would call Mixon back. Maggie never called back.
Mixon said she called Murdaugh at some point that day — records show shortly before 4:00 p.m. — because his mom was “agitated” after his father was taken to the hospital. She asked Murdaugh to come check on her.
Griffin asks how Mixon learned about Maggie and Paul. She says that two police officers came to her house and told her. She asked if she could go out there and was told no.
Griffin asks if in the days after the murders, Mixon saw a blue tarp anywhere in the house. She says she has never seen a blue tarp in the house.
3:40 p.m. – The jury is sent to the jury room for a break.
2:56 p.m. – Prosecution begins cross-examination of Zercie.
Prosecutor John Meadors asks Zercie what documents were made available to him. Zercie lists some documents, but acknowledges he has not read every document related to this case.
Zercie says that he got some of the documents two to three months ago, and some he received today. Meadors asks if Zercie has been taking notes. He says that he has some handwritten notes and the documents are on his computer.
Meadors asks if Zercie has worn booties on every crime scene he’s ever worked. Zercie says that they have not always been part of the protocol, but as they became part of the protocol he incorporated them.
Meadors asks if Zercie has made mistakes before. Zercie says he has, as has everyone in the room.
Meadors asks if Zercie is being paid to come in and say that the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office and SLED did a bad job. Zercie says that he is not sure what limitations the agencies had that may have impacted their work. In some areas, they did fine. In some areas, things were missed.
Zercie says that he has never been to the crime scene. Meadors calls that into question as well.
Meadors asks how much Zercie is being paid. He says the base fee is $350 per hour, plus airfare.
Meadors introduces photos and imprints taken of both Murdaugh and Paul’s shoes. Zercie says it is a good practice.
Meadors asks if Zercie disagrees with Worley’s report. Zercie says that he agrees, especially with the comments Worley made about the limitations that were placed on her analysis. He concedes that she tried, but the photos that were taken made it difficult, if not impossible, to come to a definitive conclusion.
2:22 p.m. – Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian resumes questioning Zercie.
A video of the crime scene is shown in court. Screens are covered because the video is under seal due to its graphic nature. The video shows Paul’s body covered by a sheet and an officer stepping inside the feed room.
Harpootlian asks if the officer should’ve been wearing “booties” or shoe covers to prevent contaminating the crime scene. Zercie says that is standard operating procedure.
Zercie says that under certain circumstances he may use a sheet to cover a body, but under these circumstances, he would’ve preferred something non-absorbant like a tarp. That way, the rain would not be absorbed and any evidence on Paul’s body would not be absorbed. Zercie said that whatever they used, they should’ve saved it, properly stored it, and processed it for trace evidence. There is no record that the sheet covering Paul was saved or processed.
Paul and Maggie’s clothes also should’ve been collected, properly stored, and processed for trace evidence, according to Zercie.
Zercie says that since there was no emergency (both of the victims were known to be dead), investigators could’ve slowed down and processed the scene at a more detailed level.
Harpootlian shows a photograph of the feed room floor from SLED agent Worley’s report. Worley indicated that some bloody footprints in the room were consistent with Paul’s shoes and with the shoes of a law enforcement officer.
Zercie says that he would’ve processed that scene more thoroughly. He would’ve worn booties or built a bridge over the footprints and taken a sample of blood to test and ensure it was Paul’s. He also says that they should have checked more thoroughly for fingerprints using alternate light sources or chemical staining that might pick up prints that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
Harpootlian presents a photo of shoe tracks taken by solicitor Duffy Stone. One set appeared to be similar to the flip-flops that Maggie was wearing. Zercie said that he was not made aware of a comparable match to the other set of prints.
Harpootlian asks about the SLED operation manual and its accreditations. He said SLED’s manual seemed very thorough and included detailed instructions. SLED is certified by a well-recognized organization.
Zercie says that in some cases, it does not appear SLED followed its own procedures in the Murdaugh investigation. He says there was much more work that could’ve been done.
Harpootlian flat-out asks if SLED did a terrible job here. Zercie says that he doesn’t know what SLED’s limitations were, so he’s hesitant to give an opinion. Harpootlian asks if at minimum, did SLED do an adequate job to show the absence of other evidence. Zercie says he doesn’t believe so. Harpootlian asks if perhaps evidence that was missed could have been exculpatory.
12:57 p.m. – Court is breaking for lunch and will return at 2:15 p.m.
12:31 p.m. – Defense calls Ken Zercie to the stand.
Zercie is a forensic expert with a special focus on fingerprints, footwear/tire track analysis, and photographing crime scenes.
Zercie has a PowerPoint on some of the things that can be done with physical evidence at a crime scene and at the laboratory. The slides in the presentation are examples of other scenes and were not taken from Moselle.
He gives a detailed analysis of what standards must be met for crime scene photos, specifically, photos of tracks and footwear impressions.
12:21 p.m. – Waters begins cross-examination. He confirms that Cooke said the reason for the motion to compel was to worry the defendant.
Waters asks if Cooke was there when Murdaugh confronted Tinsley at a trial lawyers conference. Cooke says no.
Waters asks if Cooke knew that Murdaugh was broke and had misappropriated funds. Cooke says no.
12:05 p.m. – Dawes Cooke is called to the stand.
Cooke is a lawyer out of Charleston. He is part of the team defending Murdaugh in the boat accident case. Cooke joined the case in December 2020.
Cooke says that when he joined the case, he wasn’t really aware of Murdaugh’s financial situation. They were focused on a potential venue change and other portions of the case at that point.
According to Cooke, the motion to compel financial records filed by Mark Tinsley was not a major concern. They figured the focus of upcoming hearings would be the more pressing issues. Cooke says they didn’t take it lightly, but they didn’t see it as an “existential threat” to Murdaugh.
Cooke says that in the hearing scheduled for June 10, 2021, he did not expect Murdaugh to have to give over financial documents.
12:00 p.m. – In redirect, Griffin points out that Ball immediately thought Murdaugh killed himself after he was fired. He asks if it ever crossed Ball’s mind that Murdaugh would kill a family member. Ball says that he is angry about what Murdaugh did to the law firm, angry that Murdaugh stole from his friends and family and clients, angry that Murdaugh lied, and angry that he didn’t know his friend. However, Ball says that those actions don’t mean he believes Murdaugh killed his wife and son.
11:25 p.m. – Court is back in session. Waters questions Ball about Jeannie Seckinger’s inquiry into Murdaugh’s finances.
Ball had to reach out to most of the clients from whom Murdaugh stole and explain the situation. He called one as recently as two or three weeks ago.
Waters asks Ball to list some of the financial victims. Several were people with whom Murdaugh had friendships or personal relationships, including an injured Highway Patrol trooper and a neighbor/business partner who was dying of colon cancer.
Waters points out that when Ball when back to the scene the morning of June 8 and was looking through the feed room, he got blood on his sleeves.
Ball says that when he got the call about Murdaugh being shot on September 4, his first thought was that Murdaugh killed himself. When he was told Murdaugh was shot, he didn’t believe it.
11:07 a.m. – The jury is sent to the jury room for a 10-minute recess.
10:32 a.m. – State prosecutor Creighton Waters begins cross-examination of Ball. Waters asks if Murdaugh was good at hiding who he really was. Ball says that he trusted Murdaugh for the 34 years they knew each other, but obviously, he didn’t know him as well as he thought.
Ball again confirms that it is Paul, Maggie, and Murdaugh in the kennel video.
He said the night of the murders, he spoke to Murdaugh about what he thought might have happened. He was concerned for Murdaugh and concerned for the law firm because they didn’t know if it was a disgruntled client.
Ball says that Murdaugh didn’t mention going down to the kennels that night. He said Murdaugh gave him and others the same version of events at least three times over the next few days.
Ball says that other aspects of Murdaugh’s story changed — like whether he checked Paul or Maggie first — but attributed that to the trauma of the situation and didn’t think much of it.
Waters asks about the reaction of the law firm. He says that the law firm shut down and rallied behind Murdaugh, but was also on heightened alert because everyone was worried for their own safety. Ball says he called SLED after the statement about no threat to the public came out. He said that he was told SLED didn’t know of any specific threats, but gave him some precautions the law firm could take.
Ball says that Murdaugh wasn’t actively calling clients trying to figure out if anyone had heard anything or to get a lead, but he says that he isn’t sure how one is supposed to react in the situation. Waters presses Ball, asking if Murdaugh showed any concern for his and Buster’s safety after the murders. Ball says that on July 4, Murdaugh brought a pistol to a party, which he found odd.
Waters asks about the Murdaugh family legacy. Ball says that the family was known to be powerful and help people out. He says he thought that the family legacy was important to Murdaugh.
Waters asks about Murdaugh as a lawyer. Ball says he was a very good lawyer and he got results for his clients. He says Murdaugh could look at a set of facts and decide where to go and where not to go. He could talk to anyone. Waters points out that Murdaugh was a good liar too. Ball says that Murdaugh was very cunning.
Ball says that Murdaugh was not a very good rule follower. He says that he would charge personal things to company credit cards and misuse funds, but they didn’t know the extent of it.
Ball asks about Jeanne Seckinger’s confrontation with Murdaugh on June 7, 2021. He says he didn’t know she was doing that until after. Waters asks if this time was different because Murdaugh didn’t have the money to pay it back. Ball again says he didn’t know that at the time, but he knows now. The whole world knows now, he says.
Waters asks if anyone at the law firm was concerned about the missing funds after the murders. Ball says they consciously put that problem on hold.
9:45 a.m. – Mark Ball is called to the stand.
Ball is a lawyer at Parker Law Group, formerly PMPED. He was a partner and friend of Murdaugh. Ball says he has known Murdaugh for over 30 years. Their wives are friends and their children have grown up together.
He recalls the night of June 7, 2021. He says another partner tried to call him, but he missed the call so he called his wife. They went over to Moselle immediately and arrived around 10:50 p.m. He said when you live in the middle of nowhere and you get a call that your law partner’s wife and child have been shot, you go.
Griffin asks if any roadblocks or barriers were up to stop traffic from coming in. Ball says no. He said that he brought up the need for roadblocks with Colleton County Fire Rescue Chief, Barry McRoy and Sheriff Buddy Hill. He also told a deputy coming in that the sheriff wanted it blocked off. Ball says the entrance was never blocked off and cars kept “piling in.”
Ball says that law enforcement and first responders were walking through the crime scene. He also saw water dripping off the roof of the kennels onto Paul’s body. He says it upset him for two reasons. First, he says you don’t want water contaminating the crime scene. Second, he says Paul was “a good young man” and it was disrespectful; Ball says “frankly, it just pissed me off.” Ball says they eventually put a tent over Maggie’s body, but not Paul’s.
Ball says that when he saw Murdaugh, Murdaugh “went to pieces.” He said that Murdaugh repeated, “look what they did, look what they did.” Balls said he didn’t think much of it until he was on the way home, then he realized it was an odd comment.
Ball says that when SLED got there, everyone was eventually asked to leave the crime scene and go to the house. Ball asked if that was okay. His first concern was safety. He said it was a big farm and he didn’t know if the killer was at the house. His second concern was whether the house was part of the crime scene and whether it had been processed.
Sheriff Hill asked Ball if he had any ideas about who would want to do this. Ball said not really. Sheriff Hill asked if Paul had received any threats, and Ball said he had received several connected to the boat case.
Ball says that when they entered the house, there was food still on the stove. He and a few others cleaned up the kitchen. He was there when SLED collected Murdaugh’s clothes.
Griffin asks if Ball’s clothes were dry that night. Ball said they weren’t wet, but they were uncomfortably damp.
They left around 3:30 a.m., he estimates.
The next morning, Ball went back over. By that time, the scene had been released, but there were still SLED agents there.
Ball said that it was “still a pretty raw scene.” He said there were birdshot pellets in the feed room. He asked someone he thought was a SLED agent about it and the agent told him they collected everything they need.
In the feed room, Ball says he also saw a piece of Paul’s skull about the size of a baseball. There were also still large bloodstains around the area. Ball said he was infuriated.
Ball said Murdaugh’s brothers tried to clean up the scene, but couldn’t. They asked Ball if he could help find someone to do it and he contacted the coroner’s office to try and find a company that cleans up crime scenes.
Ball took photos of CB Rowe’s vehicle, which he didn’t know belonged to Rowe at the time. He said that he thought the truck was odd because he didn’t recognize it and it had a jug of Clorox in the bed.
He says he also saw a cooler with around a dozen beer cans scattered around it out near the kennels and shed.
Griffin asks Ball if he was asked by SLED to identify the voices on the kennel video. Ball says he was. He identified Paul, Maggie, and Murdaugh.
Griffin asks if Ball can identify what Murdaugh said in the “I/they did him so bad” video. The video is played in court. Ball says to him, it sounds like “they.” He says that would also be consistent with what Murdaugh said to him the night of the murders.
Griffin asks what Murdaugh’s priority was in the boat case. Ball says Paul’s criminal charges were much more pressing than the civil charges against Murdaugh and Buster.
After Murdaugh was forced to resign from PMPED, Ball says he looked in Murdaugh’s office and found paperwork that looked like it was connected to the boating case. It had debts and assets listed, similar to a net worth statement, but not in the same form.
Ball collected Maggie’s jewelry from the coroner after the murders. He says that her diamond bracelet was in pieces.
Griffin asks about Murdaugh’s relationship with his family. Ball says that the person he thought he knew appeared to love his family very much. Ball says after September 3 he’s not sure he knows Murdaugh anymore, but from everything he saw, Murdaugh was devoted to his family.
Ball says Paul has been demonized and it’s not fair. He says that Paul acted out sometimes and he even brought it up to Murdaugh once, but Paul was always very respectful and was a good kid.
He says the law firm was like a family. Unfortunately, he says Murdaugh betrayed that when he stole the money.
9:35 a.m. – Court is in session.
Defense attorney Jim Griffin asks Judge Clifton Newman for an order ruling that should Alex Murdaugh himself take the stand, the prosecution be prohibited from questioning him about financial crimes. Griffin says that the defense will not ask about the financial crimes in direct examination, so the prosecution should not ask about them in cross-examination.
State prosecutor Creighton Waters argues that the matters are relevant and within the scope of cross-examination. He says when a defendant takes the stand, he waives his right against self-incrimination.
Judge Newman said that he would not issue an order limiting the scope of cross-examination. He said that objections should be made in real-time, not based on advanced rulings by the court.
Griffin asks if Murdaugh will be allowed to plead the fifth during the interview if they bring up the financial crimes. Judge Newman says that he is not going to give advice on what Murdaugh can say. He says he will take a look at the cases both prosecution and defense have provided as precedents.
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