A defense expert in the double murder trial of disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh testified Monday that he thinks two different shooters killed Murdaugh’s wife and son.
While the idea has hovered over the trial because two different weapons were used and no evidence has been presented suggesting either victim tried to defend themselves, crime scene expert Tim Palmbach was the first witness to suggest the two-killer theory in testimony.
Investigators have said 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh was shot four or five times with a rifle, while 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh was killed by two shotgun blasts near kennels on the family’s sprawling Colleton County property on June 7, 2021.
Also on Monday, one of Murdaugh’s brothers ended the defense’s case saying he promised his nephew he’d find his killer and he hasn’t yet.
Murdaugh, 54, is charged with murder in the deaths of his wife and son. He faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted
Palmbach testified that the likelihood of two shooters was mostly common sense. All evidence so far has indicted the two people killed were shot close to the same time. They stopped using their cellphones within seconds of each other. Both victims appeared to be surprised, with their hands down and no evidence either of them tried to come to the other’s aid or was running away.
The second, fatal shotgun blast to Paul Murdaugh’s head was at close range, meaning blood, skull fragments, other matter and possibly pellets would have been launched back at the shooter, Palmbach said.
That shooter ”minimally was stunned — probably blood and material in his eyes and maybe have been injured and would have taken some degree of time to recover,” Palmbach said.
In addition, carrying two long guns would have been cumbersome and awkward given that the rifle used to kill Maggie Murdaugh could have had a clip carrying 20 to 30 bullets. “You can’t handle and shoot both of them,” he said.
An important part of Alex Murdaugh’s defense is to show that investigators failed to thoroughly collect crime scene evidence and to sow doubt about expert testimony for the prosecution stating that authorities did everything possible to find the killer.
The defense also used Monday’s testimony to point out that neither weapon used in the shootings has been found, that state agents at the scene didn’t look for footprints or fingerprints and that no evidence of blood, brain matter or other material from the killings were found on Alex Murdaugh or his clothes.
The shooter “would have been literally covered in all that material,” Palmbach said.
There were only 16 minutes between the time the victims stopped using their cellphones and when Alex Murdaugh left his house about 1,100 feet (335 meters) from the crime scene to visit his ailing mother. He called 911 when he found the bodies shortly after returning home.
In cross-examination, prosecutors focused on Palmbach’s analysis that the fatal shotgun blast was fired from above Paul Murdaugh’s head, even though hair, blood and other material was found on the ceiling above in a storage closet the family called the feed room.
Palmbach said the force of gases from the shotgun blast was like a bomb inside the enclosed skull, sending particles out of the same hole the shot created.
Alex Murdaugh cried several times during the graphic testimony. Monitors the courtroom audience can use to see evidence were covered as they have been whenever crime scene and autopsy photos are shown.
Murdaugh’s brother, John Marvin Murdaugh, was the last defense witness. He testified that state agents told him they had a shirt covered in blood that proved his brother was the killer.
That evidence has not been presented at trial, although Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers said in pretrial motions that a state agent claimed to find blood. Later tests disproved the assertion and testing destroyed the garment before the defense could see it.
State agents released the crime scene less than 12 hours after the killings, John Marvin Murdaugh said. When he went to look around that morning, he saw blood, brains and a piece of Paul Murdaugh’s skull. He said he felt compelled to clean.
“No mother or father or aunt or uncle should ever have to see or do what I had that day,” he said.
He also spoke to his dead nephew that day, telling the court: “In my mind and out loud I told Paul I loved him. I promised him I’d find out who did this to him.”
“Have you found out?” defense attorney Jim Griffin asked.
“I have not,” he replied.
Also on Monday, Judge Clifton Newman agreed to let the jury visit the family property and see the crime scene. The visit was scheduled for when prosecutors finish their reply case, likely on Wednesday.
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian told the judge it’s important for the jury to travel to the Middaugh property to see “how small the feed room is ” and “where the feed room is compared to Maggie’s body.”
Prosecutors said they didn’t want the jury to visit because in the 20 months since the killings, trees planted between the Murdaugh home — where Alex Murdaugh has said he was napping during the murders — and the kennels where the crime occurred have grown taller and thicker.
Newman said he usually allows a visit if either side requests one. The jury, lawyers, Newman, and police and security personnel will be allowed on the trip.
The judge agreed with Harpootlian’s request for Colleton County deputies to provide additional security on the property, which is under contract to be sold for $3.9 million.
The defense lawyer said over the weekend that several trespassers were found taking selfies outside the feed room where Paul Murdaugh died.
“It’s the most distasteful thing we’ve ever seen,” Harpootlian said.