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Jury selection in Alex Murdaugh double murder trial trudges on after day 1 of questions

WALTERBORO — Potential jurors filed out of the Colleton County Courthouse in a slow trickle, avoiding jury duty because they couldn’t miss work, hadn’t arranged childcare or had recently served on other juries.

Others weren’t so lucky, unable to claim any of the exemptions that Judge Clifton Newman had offered them. But then the veteran judge asked a question that applied to everyone in the first wave of jurors.

Had anyone heard or read anything about the Alex Murdaugh double murder case? All 42 prospective jurors stood.

The moment was one of many in the first day of Murdaugh’s trial that spoke to the immense influence Murdaugh’s family wielded for a century in this corner of South Carolina’s Lowcountry and the intense intrigue generated by the former Hampton lawyer’s precipitous fall from grace.

Other signs South Carolina’s long-awaited “trial of the century” had descended on Walterboro: a crush of reporters from every conceivable outlet, food trucks parked outside to sate the masses and a list of potential witnesses so long it took the judge 12 minutes to read.

The trial began with jury selection, a process that is expected to wrap up on Jan. 24.

Newman screened more than 200 potential jurors on the trial’s first day, winnowing toward a tally of 12 — plus six alternates — who will ultimately be tasked with deciding whether Murdaugh, 54, fatally shot his wife Maggie and youngest son Paul in June 2021 at the family's Colleton County hunting estate. The state has alleged he did so to engender sympathy and distract attention from a web of financial crimes that were in danger of coming to light. 

Murdaugh’s myriad connections throughout the lightly populated county along with the case’s high-profile nature posed a unique challenge.

One possible juror said he was friends with Paul Murdaugh and his brother, Buster, who could be called as a witness. Another said he recently shot skeet with one of Alex Murdaugh’s brothers. Another still said she was friends with one of the victims of the 2019 fatal boat crash that first brought public scrutiny to the Murdaugh family, in which Paul Murdaugh was allegedly boating under the influence.

Newman began the painstaking and often repetitive process of questioning prospective jurors around 10:30 a.m., interviewing the first slate about any conflicts and connections they might have with the case.

Throughout the day, Murdaugh alternately appeared to stare blankly through the courtroom, chewing on his glasses as his eyes wandered across the panels of jurors, and to engage with his attorneys, reviewing juror questionnaires with them. Returning from lunch in a black blazer and white shirt with no tie, he carried in a folder of documents.

The first time the judge described the murder charges against him, Murdaugh looked forward without reacting. When Newman repeated the description for later groups, Murdaugh shook his head slightly.

Newman first weeded out people from the group based on general exemptions like physical ailments, childcare duties or school. He then asked those remaining more specific questions about the case, like whether they had an opinion on Murdaugh’s guilt or innocence and whether they knew any of the case’s potential witnesses — a list of more than 250 people.

The potential witnesses disclosed Jan. 23 include Murdaugh’s alleged accomplices such as distant cousin Curtis Smith and former banker Russell Laffitte; those he allegedly stole from; his family members, including his brothers and sister; his former law partners; and the attorneys whose lawsuits helped hasten his demise.

It also included a litany of law enforcement officers, including dozens from the State Law Enforcement Division as well as representatives of the S.C. Highway Patrol, sheriff's departments in at least three counties, the FBI, and even the U.S. Secret Service.

Seating a jury in the Murdaugh case was bound to be a challenge. With a deluge of news coverage and several cable TV documentaries detailing the grisly murders, a jury pool anywhere was liable to have been familiar with the case. In Colleton County, of the 117 people who were asked throughout the day, 97 said they were familiar with the killings.

But local connections posed an extra layer of challenges: One woman’s fiancé was among the first officers at the murder scene. Another said she ran the post office that delivered Murdaugh’s mail. One worked for the fire rescue squad that responded to the shooting, and another works on the property where Murdaugh’s defense team is staying.

And while most people said they knew about the case from the news and social media, many offered that they'd gotten information by local word of mouth.

As Newman winnowed the jury list, Murdaugh's lawyers were busy preparing for the next phase of the case: pretrial motions.

The defense team on Jan. 23 filed three motions seeking to suppress testimony from three of the state's potential expert witnesses.

Two of those motions ask Newman to block prosecutors from introducing high-impact blood spatter as evidence against Murdaugh.

The reported presence of spatter stains on the white T-shirt Murdaugh wore on the night of slayings was thought to be a damning element of the state's case against the former attorney.

ADD Colleton Countymurdaughtrialmurder

Creighton Waters for the state and Dick Harpootlian for the defense speak with Judge Clifton Newman as jury selection begins the in Alex Murdaugh murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse on Monday, January 23, 2023. Joshua Boucher/The State/Pool

Such tiny blood stains can only result from being nearby as someone is shot and their blood is discharged into the air and onto nearby surfaces, experts say. If Murdaugh had spatter stains on his shirt, it would have meant he either fired the shots that killed his relatives or was standing by as someone else did.

But Murdaugh's attorneys have raised still-unanswered questions about the validity of the state's blood spatter analysis and the outside expert, retired Oklahoma police officer Tom Bevel, who created it.

Murdaugh's lawyers say Bevel's blood spatter report, as well as follow-up analysis by another expert, are bogus because Murdaugh's shirt tested negative for human blood. They say Bevel initially couldn't find spatter on Murdaugh's shirt before changing his mind weeks later after multiple meetings with SLED.

Murdaugh's lawyers have asked the judge to exclude Bevel as a witness in the case. They also now ask that the judge exclude another potential blood spatter witness, Kenneth Kinsey, a deputy with the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Department.

According to Murdaugh's team, prosecutors recognized the problems with Bevel's report and decided to bring in Kinsey to introduce the same findings.

The problem, they say, is that Kinsey relied on Bevel's report rather than conducting his own tests. And even after reviewing the materials, Kinsey wrote that he couldn't render an expert opinion on the presence of blood spatter, Murdaugh's lawyers said.

Kinsey's testimony "is not relevant, fails to assist the trier of fact, and will only result in confusion of the pertinent issues being presented to the jury," Murdaugh's lawyers wrote.

The Murdaugh team’s third motion seeks to suppress a forensic analyst who opined that at least one of the firearms seized from the Moselle property was used in the slayings.

That’s significant because, until now, it was thought that state investigators had not recovered either of the weapons used in the slayings.

Paul Greer, the analyst in question, indicated that testing of the guns seized from the Murdaugh home indicated that one of them, a .300 Blackout rifle, could have been the weapon that killed Maggie Murdaugh.

Greer found that tool marks on the cartridges near her body matched the marks inside the gun.

But Murdaugh’s attorneys say such analysis is not accepted science and can’t be used to determine the murder weapon with certainty.

If the judge won't outright exclude Greer's testimony, Murdaugh's lawyers want an evidentiary hearing to argue over the merits of his forensic analysis.

Newman is expected to consider and rule on this issue and other pre-trial motions after the jury is seated but before opening arguments begin, likely later this week.

The judge told the jury pool to be ready to return late Jan. 24 or the morning of Jan. 25, when the final panel will be seated.

Call Jocelyn Grzeszczak at 843-323-9175. Follow her on Twitter at @jocgrz.

Watchdog and Public Service reporter

Thad Moore is a reporter on The Post and Courier’s Watchdog and Public Service team and a graduate of the University of South Carolina. To share tips securely, reach Moore via ProtonMail at thadmoore@protonmail.com or on Signal at 843-214-6576.

Projects reporter

Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. The USC Honors College graduate was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year for his reporting on South Carolina's nuclear fiasco and abuses within the state's electric cooperatives.

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