BLOG: Day 16: 2 Murdaugh jurors dismissed because of COVID

Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 3:00 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 13, 2023 at 9:01 PM EST
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WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - The fourth week of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial began with word from the judge that two jurors tested positive for COVID-19.

Judge Clifton Newman said the other jurors were tested Monday morning and will be retested Wednesday.

Murdaugh is standing trial for the June 7, 2021, killings of his wife, Maggie; and their youngest son, Paul. He is also facing almost 100 separate financial charges the prosecution argues was a motive for the deadly shootings.

Both Murdaugh defense attorney Dick Harpootlian and prosecutor Creighton Waters raised concerns about the rest of the jury testing positive and suggested the possibility of a delay in the trial for a couple of days to protect the health of the other jurors. Both told Newman they do not want a mistrial.

Newman said the trial would continue and two of the alternates will replace the two jurors who were dismissed. That leaves three alternate jurors on standby.

Jurors heard from two forensics experts from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division about swabs and cuttings taken from the crime scene, Murdaugh’s clothing, his Chevy Suburban and the controversial blue raincoat.

SLED Agent Rachel Nguyen tested several items for potential blood. She said she tested the casings and shells recovered from the crime scene for touch DNA. She also tested the swabs taken from a camouflage shotgun and Murdaugh’s SUV for the possibility of blood.

Nguyen said all the swabs from Murdaugh’s SUV tested negative for blood except the swab taken from the steering wheel.

Nguyen tested the shirt and shorts recovered from Murdaugh and the blue raincoat located at Murdaugh’s parents’ house.

The raincoat tested negative for blood before being processed for DNA in an effort to identify the jacket’s owner.

The defense has argued that the raincoat has no connection to Murdaugh since it was found at his parents’ home and not at Moselle. Prosecutors have argued the raincoat may have contained at least one of the murder weapons after Murdaugh showed up at his parents’ home carrying a blue tarp or the raincoat based on earlier testimony.

SLED Forensic Scientist Sara Zapata testified Monday that she was unable to create a DNA profile from the raincoat.

Zapata also testified testing on the shirt came back negative for human blood. DNA analysis from the shirt found profiles that were likely from Alex Murdaugh and Maggie Murdaugh.

Analysis of the steering wheel was also found to likely be a mixture of DNA from Alex and Maggie Murdaugh.

Over the past three weeks, jurors have so far heard dozens of witnesses who have offered wide-ranging, though disjointed, testimony on the crime scene as well as the financial schemes.

Jurors have heard from the investigators who found the bodies of Murdaugh’s wife and son, and technicians who found gunshot residue, cracked open cellphones to get videos and tested dozens of ammunition casings.

They’ve heard from betrayed law firm employees, heartbroken friends of Murdaugh and his family, and a man whose insurance settlement was stolen after his mother, the Murdaughs’ housekeeper, died in a fall at their home.

READ THE RECAP: Here’s what happened in week three of the Alex Murdaugh murder trial

Much of the week’s testimony focused on whether Murdaugh stole money from his family’s law firm and clients. Prosecutors contend Murdaugh thought he was about to get caught stealing and killed his wife and son to buy time to cover up the money trail.

The office manager from the family law firm said Murdaugh stole millions in fees and client settlements. A law school buddy said Murdaugh took advantage of his trust and left him to pay $192,000 to keep his client trust fund balanced. The son of the Murdaughs’ housekeeper and nanny who died in a fall testified Murdaugh promised to get them a hefty insurance settlement for the death but kept more than $4 million collected for himself.

The defense objected to each witness, saying there was no evidence linking the killings to financial misdeeds.

“This is piling on. This is more trying to prejudice the jury into believing somehow someone who steals a bunch of money in any way whatever would commit a murder,” Murdaugh lawyer Dick Harpootlian said.

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

This week, the caretaker of Murdaugh’s mother testified about a blue jacket Murdaugh might have held when he visited but then other witnesses testified about financial crimes before the state forensic scientist who tested the jacket for blood and gunshot residue took the stand.

Long, tedious testimony has focused on cellphone data between Paul Murdaugh’s friends.

Some intriguing evidence has been introduced but never explained to jurors, who do not have notebooks to keep track of testimony.

A crime scene technician put into evidence a receipt with a $1,021.10 item from Gucci circled, but it hasn’t been brought up since. An FBI technician gave the times Murdaugh’s SUV was shifted into and out of park the night of the killings without interpretation.

Judge Clifton Newman made a ruling on the financial evidence the state is trying to use to prove motive Monday.

“I find jury entitled to consider whether the apparent desperation of Mr. Murdaugh because of his dire financial situation, threat of being exposed from committing the crimes for which later charged with resulted in commission of alleged crimes,” Newman said.

Murdaugh has adamantly denied killing his wife and son. His lawyers said he was visiting his ailing mother the night of the murders and police wrongly focused on him from the start.

Within weeks of the killings, state agents wanted data from the SUV Alex Murdaugh drove to visit his mother the night of the killings and from Paul Murdaugh’s cellphone.

But both devices were encrypted and impossible to crack in 2021.

Advancements in hacking allowed agents to get into Paul Murdaugh’s iPhone data last year and they found one of the key pieces of evidence so far — a video he took of a dog at the family’s kennels about five minutes before investigators said the killings took place. Several witnesses have said all three Murdaughs can be heard in the video taken near where the bodies were found.

Alex Murdaugh told police both right after the bodies were found and again a few days later he was never at the kennels.

The defense hopes to start its case in middle of next week and had planned a week of testimony but is rethinking that because of the trial’s length.