Defense attorneys for Alex Murdaugh “opened the door” for prosecutors to introduce evidence about his other alleged crimes because they asked friends of his slain son about his character, a South Carolina judge ruled Thursday.
In a hearing without the jury present at Murdaugh’s murder trial at the Colleton County courthouse, Judge Clifton Newman said he would permit prosecutors to introduce evidence about other alleged crimes that could be used to establish a possible motive for Murdaugh to have fatally shot his wife Maggie and son Paul at their rural hunting lodge on June 7, 2021.
“The witness was asked whether he could think of any reason … why Mr. Murdaugh would commit the crimes he's accused of committing,” Newman said. “That, in effect, turned the cross-examination of that witness from dealing with specific issues in the case to having that witness testify as a character witness for Mr. Murdaugh.”
Citing questions about whether Murdaugh had been a loving father and good provider, Newman said that “in the court’s view, that opened the door for the state to respond by asking questions as the state did.”
On Wednesday, Paul’s longtime friend Rogan Gibson testified about his relationship with the Murdaughs, whom he described as a “second family,” as well as his communications with Maggie and Paul on the night they were killed.
Prosecutors also showed the jury a Snapchat video Paul had filmed for Gibson just minutes before he was killed in which other voices can be heard in the background. Both Gibson and Will Loving, another friend of Paul’s, testified that the other voices belonged to Maggie and Alex — contradicting the defendant’s alibi that he had not been with the pair in the moments before their deaths.
But in cross-examination on Wednesday, defense attorney Jim Griffin asked Gibson whether he believed Alex and Maggie had a good relationship, and if they were loving to each other and their sons. Gibson said yes.
“Can you think of any circumstance that you can envision, knowing them as you do, where Alex would brutally murder Paul and Maggie?” Griffin also asked.
“Not that I can think of,” Gibson replied.
When cross-examining Loving, Griffin also asked how he would describe Paul’s relationship with his father.
“It was an awesome relationship,” Loving testified. “It kind of seemed like Paul was the apple of his eye.”
Prosecutors then asked whether Loving knew about Alex’s finances, the debt he was carrying, or the risk of civil discovery Alex was facing in connection with a lawsuit that had been filed against the family in connection with a fatal boat crash for which Paul had been charged with manslaughter. Loving testified he did not.
They also then asked if Loving was aware that on the morning of the killings, Alex had been confronted by staff at the law firm where he worked about $792,000 in missing funds. After the judge overruled the defense team’s objection that the question was “totally improper,” Loving said he was not aware.
In addition to the murder charges to which he has pleaded not guilty, Murdaugh is facing dozens of other charges related to alleged financial thefts from clients and the law practice where he worked as an attorney. He’s also accused of orchestrating a plan for an assassin to kill him after Paul and Maggie’s deaths so his surviving son, Buster, could receive an insurance payout.
The state has contended that Alex killed Maggie and Paul because the house of cards he had built through his financial crimes was set to collapse given his law firm had set June 7, 2021, as the deadline for him to account for missing money. “The murders served as Murdaugh’s means to shift focus away from himself and buy himself some additional time to try and prevent his financial crimes from being uncovered, which — if revealed — would have resulted in personal, legal and financial ruin,” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters wrote in a December motion.
In his ruling on Thursday, Judge Newman said the questions about Alex’s finances from the prosecution were permitted. A criminal procedure rule typically does not allow evidence about someone’s bad character to be introduced, but the judge said it was permitted here because prosecutors were trying to rebut evidence that the defense had already raised.
“The defense in the case has primarily been that the defendant has such a great character that he could not possibly have committed these offenses,” Newman said. “That's been a general thread from the opening statement throughout.”
Newman also chided Alex’s defense team for objecting on the basis that the question to Loving was “totally improper,” saying there was no legal basis for any such objection.
As the prosecution prepares to call more witnesses to ask about Alex’s alleged financial crimes, Newman said he would have further hearings to discuss which evidence may be admitted. (One such hearing began immediately on Thursday, when the judge excused the jury so that Jeanne Seckinger, the chief financial officer of Murdaugh’s former law firm, could begin giving initial testimony.)
The same rule of criminal procedure would allow evidence of other crimes to be admitted so long as it’s being used to prove motive and not as evidence of general bad character.
“My view of the evidence is that evidence of the other alleged crimes can be introduced in this case to show motive, intent, and common scheme and plan,” Newman said, adding that the state should be able to pursue its theory about motive.
In responding to Newman’s decision, Griffin disputed the judge’s view that the evidence they had sought from Gibson and Loving related to Alex’s character.
“The evidence that we presented was specifically limited to the relationship between the defendant and the victim for which he was accused of murdering,” Griffin said. “In our view, that is not a character witness. That's a factual issue relating to the relationship between the parties.”