The judge in Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial on Monday ruled to allow the state to present evidence of the now-disbarred South Carolina attorney’s alleged financial crimes, which the prosecution contends were about to be revealed and provided him a motive to kill his wife and son.
The decision came after days of testimony from witnesses who were heard without the jury present as Judge Clifton Newman weighed the admissibility of the evidence of the alleged schemes, for which Murdaugh faces 99 charges separate from the murder case.
“I find that the jury is entitled to consider whether the apparent desperation of Mr. Murdaugh, because of his dire financial situation, threat of being exposed for committing the crimes for which he was later charged with, resulted in the commission of the alleged crimes,” Newman said.
Prosecutors indicated in pretrial filings they believed Murdaugh killed his wife, Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh and his 22-year-old son Paul Murdaugh to distract attention from those alleged crimes, which the state asserts were about to come to light when they were killed on June 7, 2021.
Newman’s ruling is a blow to the defense, who fought the admissibility of the evidence in the murder case, claiming the fraud cases are irrelevant to the question of Murdaugh’s guilt in the murders of his wife and son.
While proving motive is not necessary, “the state must prove malice, and evidence of motive may be used to prove it,” Newman said in explaining his decision.
“In this case, since the identity of the perpetrator is a critical element that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, evidence of motive may be used in an attempt to meet that burden,” he said, adding the evidence was “so intimately connected” with the explanation of the state’s theory of the case “that proof of it is essential to complete the story.”
Over the last several days, the state called a parade of witnesses who testified in camera, or outside the jury’s presence, about the allegations against Murdaugh and the state of his finances when his wife and son were fatally shot on the family’s property in Islandton, South Carolina, known as Moselle.
That included testimony Monday from attorney Mark Tinsley, who was suing Murdaugh at the time of the killings on behalf of the family of Mallory Beach, the 19-year-old killed when a boat – owned by Murdaugh and allegedly driven by Paul Murdaugh – crashed in February 2019.
At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh was facing charges of boating under the influence causing great bodily harm and causing death. He had pleaded not guilty, and court records show the charges were dropped after his death.
Tinsley was seeking a settlement in the civil case but had been told by Murdaugh’s defense attorneys he was broke and could only “cobble together a million dollars” for a settlement. Tinsley didn’t believe that, he said, testifying he knew Murdaugh was handling a lot of cases.
“I know that he’s actively making money, and you just can’t possibly be broke, not the way he was making money,” he said. “Beyond that, I mean my clients have known Alex and his family forever, and so their perspective is that there’s generational wealth as well.”
Tinsley offered a payment plan, he said, but the defense objected and Tinsley filed a motion to compel that, were the judge to rule in Tinsley’s favor, would have forced Murdaugh to reveal his accounts, he testified.
A hearing on that matter and others was scheduled for June 10, 2021 – three days after the murders – Tinsley said Monday. But it was delayed when Maggie and Paul were killed, something the attorney framed as a deathblow to his civil case against Murdaugh, telling the court, “I recognized that the case against Alex, if he were a victim of some vigilante, would in fact be over.”
“When you’re asking for a money judgment, people have to be motivated to give you that money judgment,” Tinsley said. “If you represent Attila the Hun versus some sweet old grandmother, nobody’s gonna give Attila the Hun money, but they would give money to some sweet grandmother.”
“So if Alex had been victimized by a vigilante, nobody would have brought a verdict back against Alex … so I would have ended the case against Alex,” he said.
The prosecution has pointed to June 10, 2021, as a “day of reckoning,” when the hearing might lead to Murdaugh’s alleged misdeeds being exposed. But in their cross-examination of Tinsley Monday, Murdaugh’s attorneys sought to undermine that argument, suggesting June 10, 2021, did not herald that reckoning.
The motion to compel just one of a “pile of motions” that would be heard that day ahead of a potential trial that might be weeks or months down the road, defense attorney Phillip Barber said.
“The gist of this is that there was perhaps going to be this Judgment Day, I think is the term the state used,” Barber said. “But that was going to be trial, right? That was going to be the verdict. That was going to be Judgment Day.
Tinsley disagreed: “That’s the Judgment Day … and there were a lot of threads that were being pulled and it was subject to unraveling at any moment.”
Prosecutor Creighton Waters drove his point home in his re-direct, asking Tinsley, “If the hearing takes place on June 10, 2021, what is the net effect of everything that could happen at that point?”
“The discovery,” Tinsley said, “of everything he’s done.”
After the judge’s ruling the jury heard from Mushell Smith, a caregiver for Alex Murdaugh’s mother, who testified she saw Murdaugh at his parents’ home in Almeda the night of the killings.
That evening, Murdaugh called the house phone, told Smith he was outside and to let him in, said Smith, who was at times emotional during her testimony. Murdaugh then went into the room with his mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, sat on the bed, looked at his phone and left about 20 minutes later, Smith testified. Asked to describe his behavior, Smith said Murdaugh was “fidgety.”
Murdaugh’s father passed away days later, and following the funeral, the family hosted a meal at the Almeda home, she said. During the gathering, Murdaugh came into his mother’s room and spoke to Smith, she said, telling her, “I was here 30 to 40 minutes” the night of the murders.
The conversation upset Smith, she testified, adding she called her brother afterward to tell him about it.
The next day, Smith said, Murdaugh asked her about her upcoming wedding, commented that it would be expensive and offered to help. Murdaugh had never before asked her about her wedding, Smith said.
Three days after the funeral, Murdaugh showed up at the house again, Smith said, this time around 6:30 a.m., which was unusually early. But unlike his last unannounced visit, Murdaugh did not call the house phone to let Smith know he’d arrived. Instead, he knocked on the exterior wall by the bedroom window, she said.
When she let him inside, Murdaugh was carrying something in his arms, Smith said, describing it as a blue tarp. He said nothing to her, Smith said, and went upstairs. He left soon after, she said, and while Smith later saw the blue item unfolded on a chair in a room upstairs, it was gone when she returned the next day.
Under cross examination by defense attorney Jim Griffin, Smith told the court Murdaugh did not have blood on his clothes, shoes or in his hair when she saw him the night of the killings, also conceding that his “fidgety” behavior was normal for Murdaugh. She also acknowledged that Murdaugh’s offer to help with her wedding was something a “good person” would do.
Additionally, Smith conceded she did not mention the blue, tarp-like item in her interview with state investigators, on June 16, 2021. It wasn’t until she had been in a car accident in September that she mentioned the tarp to a police officer working the wreck. The officer apparently reported Smith said Murdaugh had come over the night of the murders with a blue tarp that looked like it had a gun wrapped inside, but Smith insisted she did not say that.
“So, you didn’t tell (the officer) that he came over and you couldn’t tell, but stated, ‘It looked like a rifle,’” Griffin asked.
“No, I said it looked like he was holding something, I did not say it was a rifle,” Smith said.
“And if (the officer) wrote a report saying that, he was incorrect?”
“Yes,” Smith said.”