The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)
Alex Murdaugh trial reveals a sloppy investigation
WALTERBORO, S.C. >> The fourth week of Alex Murdaugh’s double-murder trial began with a cheerful pathologist explaining the gruesome ins and outs of bullets and pellets as they ravaged the bodies of 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh and her 22-year-old son, Paul. And it pivoted midweek during a devastating defense cross-examination that poked holes in the state police’s murder investigation.
On Monday, pathologist Ellen Riemer of the Medical University of South Carolina expertly walked jurors through grisly photos of Paul and Maggie’s wounds. Some jury members sunk in their seats, and at least one woman seemed to struggle to remain in her chair. The killer would have been about three feet away when he blew off Paul’s head with a shotgun, Riemer said, and would have been covered in blood and other biological material.
The week’s blockbuster, however, was prosecution witness David Owen, the lead investigator from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), who was expected to weave all the evidence into a narrative that would help jurors clearly see that Murdaugh had committed the murders on June 7, 2021. Owen seemed thorough and thoroughly competent as he presented evidence, timelines and Murdaugh’s inconsistencies through three interviews.
Defense attorney Jim Griffin then conducted a cross- examination. In point after point, Griffin dismantled SLED’s investigation and eviscerated poor Owen, who, once released from the witness stand, fled the courtroom red-faced and upset.
Among the several flaws that Griffin pointed out: Investigators didn’t bother to search Murdaugh’s mother’s house, where Murdaugh is thought to have stashed the murder weapons — a shotgun and a .300 Blackout semiautomatic rifle — until three months after the killings. SLED also took no DNA samples from either victim’s clothing. Most egregious, Owen incorrectly told the grand jury that blood spatter had been found on the T-shirt Murdaugh was wearing the night of the murders. In fact, none had been found.
Murdaugh was the only suspect almost from the start because, as Owen claimed, there was no evidence to suggest anyone else had been at the family’s hunting compound that night. All DNA collected from the scene belonged to family members and close friends, he said, even though there was a small amount under Maggie Murdaugh’s fingernail.
Testimony and cross-examination revealed that SLED dropped so many balls that Murdaugh, conceivably, might not have been indicted. Investigators apparently failed to consider any other potential suspects, including members of a local drug gang known as the Cowboys, with whom, according to Griffin, Murdaugh conducted business to the tune of $50,000 a week. Murdaugh, a confessed opioid addict, according to his legal team, has also been charged with drug trafficking and money laundering.
The state has maintained throughout the trial that Murdaugh’s motive in the murders was to create a distraction from his serial financial crimes in which he allegedly bilked clients of his personal injury law practice of more than $8 million over a decade — a total of 99 charges yet to be litigated. This theory seems, frankly, silly. Who kills their spouse and child as a “distraction”?
The defense’s biggest hurdle is the big lie Murdaugh told about his whereabouts on the day of the murders. He wasn’t napping on the couch at the Moselle house before leaving for his mother’s house at precisely 9:06 p.m. He was at the dog kennels — the scene of the crime — with Maggie and Paul just minutes before the murders, according to a video found on Paul’s cellphone.
Confronted with the video in his third interview on Aug. 11, 2021, Murdaugh had little to say. Owen noted Murdaugh’s “distinct voice” and asked whether he could think of anyone else whose voice was so similar to his that he could have been mistakenly identified. Murdaugh could not.