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Guns, cell phone video and a fight over potential witnesses wrap up week two of Murdaugh trial

Alex Murdaugh being brought to Colleton County Courthouse to stand trial for the murders of his wife and son. Feb. 2, 2023
Andrew J. Whitaker
The Post and Courier/Pool
Alex Murdaugh is brought into the Colleton County Courthouse to stand trial for the murders of his wife and son. Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

The second week of Alex Murdaugh's murder trial tracks family's final moments through cell phones while friends identify the 54-year old's voice at crime scene.

Walterboro, S.C. – A sea of umbrellas engulfs the entrance to the Colleton County Courthouse as people wait for hours to get in. Out back, a towering and once prominent attorney is quickly escorted by armed guards from a black van.

Alex Murdaugh can’t escape the glare of cameras that surround him or a man wielding a white cross with the word, “repent” in red.

Man holds cross that says "Repent" outside Colleton County Courthouse
awhitaker@postandcourier.com/Andrew J. Whitaker
The Post and Courier
Stan Mitchell holds cross reading "Repent" as Alex Murdaugh walks into the courtroom in his double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

The second week of the 54-year-old’s double murder trial wrapped up Friday with the disbarred attorney from a well-connected family confronted by video, missing phone calls, family friends and people he’s accused of swindling.

What’s more, the state is fighting for the judge to allow evidence of Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes to explain why he murdered his wife and son before calling police to report the blood bath the night of June 7, 2021.

Murdaugh told police he was nowhere near the crime scene before the murders. Instead, he's said, he took a nap at the family's home and then visited his mother who has Alzheimer’s disease.

But new video seems to shatter that alibi. Prosecutors say it was taken from the cell phone of Murdaugh’s son, Paul, just minutes before he and his mother Maggie were shot to death. It shows a dog, and three distinct voices can be heard.

Video and childhood friends

To help identify those voices, prosecutor Creighton Waters called on Paul’s childhood friend, Rogan Gibson. It’s believed Gibson was the last person to talk to Paul.

Paul Murdaugh's childhood friend Rogan Gibson testifies in Alex Murdaugh's double murder trial.
awhitaker@postandcourier.com/Andrew J. Whitaker
The Post and Courier
Rogan Gibson points to Alex Murdaugh after saying he was sure it was him in video from Paul Murdaugh’s phone in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Wednesday, Feb. 01, 2023.

Gibson testified the two were close and he had nicknames for the family, calling Paul’s mother Maggie “Miss Maggie” and Alex Murdaugh “Big Red”. The Murdaughs were boarding his chocolate lab Cash at the kennel on their Moselle property and Paul was supposed to send video of the dog, only Gibson never got it.

Waters played the video in court.

“Did you recognize the voices of your second family,” Waters asked.

“I did,” Gibson answered.

“And what voice did you hear,” Waters continued.

“Paul’s, Miss Maggie and Mr. Alex,” Gibson said.

As Gibson left the witness stand, he and Murdaugh exchanged glances.

Another friend of Paul’s, Will Loving, testified he too recognized the voice as that of Alex Murdaugh. He said he got a Snapchat from Paul with his father not long before the murders.

The short clip played for jurors shows Murdaugh wearing a blue shirt and long pants about an hour before his loved ones shooting deaths. Police body cam video from the crime scene has him wearing what’s been described by investigators as a “clean” white t-shirt and shorts.

Loving did not look at Murdaugh as he walked past him.

Cell phones and “prolific” users

Also testifying this week, Lt. Britt Dove from SLED’s computer crimes center. He extracted and analyzed information from Paul, Maggie and Alex Murdaugh’s cell phones. The prosecution has described the family as “prolific” phone users.

Lt. Dove testified Paul stopped answering text messages around 8:48 pm the night of the murders while in the middle of conversations with friends. He said records show Paul was otherwise quick to respond, until he stopped responding altogether.

Maggie Murdaugh's cell phone found about a half mile from Moselle property
awhitaker@postandcourier.com/Andrew J. Whitaker
The Post and Courier
Evidence of Maggie Murdaugh's cell phone shown in Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse on Thursday, February 2, 2023.

As for Maggie, Lt. Dove said she last read a text message at 8:48 pm as well before her phone locked until the following afternoon. Investigators have testified they found it along the roadside about a half mile from the Moselle property.

Lt. Dove also testified the camera on Maggie’s phone activated around 8:54 pm but only for a second, which he said is consistent with it trying to recognize a face to unlock. But it did not.

He said the phone did show several orientation changes as if someone had picked it up. The final change was recorded at 9:06pm. Seconds later an incoming call from Alex Murdaugh is recorded but not answered.

As for Alex Murdaugh's cell phone, Lt. Dove testified he found a gap in his calls from June 4 through June 7th indicating they were possibly deleted. He found Murdaugh also stopped opening text messages after 8:30 and did not respond again until the following afternoon. That, he said, was not typical.

“It was generally within an hour’s time that texts were read,” Lt. Dove said.

Family guns

In opening arguments, Waters revealed ballistics evidence would show a “family weapon” was used to kill Maggie. His team laid out several firearms seized from the gunroom of the family’s Moselle home. They included a .12-gauge shotgun and a .300 Blackout assault style rifle, like those that took the lives of Paul and Maggie.

rifles murdaugh bought sons.jpg
Joshua Boucher/jboucher@thestate.com
The State
Two AR-15 style rifles made by John Bedingham, a gun builder and cousin of Alex Murdaugh, for Murdaugh are shown as evidence during Murdaugh’s trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Tuesday, January 31, 2023.

While the prosecution conceded the murder weapons have not been found, they provided testimony that Murdaugh did have a .300 Blackout assault style rifle made for Paul that can no longer be found. Paul’s friend, Will Loving, recalled trying to sight a .300 Blackout with him near the entrance to the family home. Investigators said they found similar bullet casings there and around Maggie’s body.

SLED ballistics expert, Paul Greer, testified those casings had matching tool markings indicating they were cycled through the same .300 Blackout assault style rifle collected at the home. But on cross examination, Greer could not say if they were fired by the same weapon.

“I’m unable to determine if they were fired by that firearm or a firearm with similar characteristics,” Greer said.

Alleged Financial Crimes

Much of the week’s testimony was shared with Judge Clifton Newman without the jury present as he decides what, if any, of Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes are relevant to the murders. The prosecution argues charges Murdaugh embezzled nearly $9 million dollars from former clients and colleagues is important to proving he was desperately trying not to be found out when he murdered his loved ones as a distraction and to gain sympathy.

Murdaugh’s long-time housekeeper and nanny died in 2018 in a slip and fall incident at the family home. Her son, Tony, testified Murdaugh encouraged him to pursue a wrongful death claim, explaining his insurance carrier might shell out as much as $100,000 to he and his brother.

It wasn’t until years later Satterfield learned a settlement been reached for more than $4 million and his family had not received a dime. He testified he confronted Murdaugh in June of 2021, around the time of the murders.

“Did he get your permission to steal your money?” Creighton Waters asked.

“No,” Satterfield replied.

Alex Murdaugh's best friend Chris Wilson testifies without a jury present about Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes
awhitaker@postandcourier.com/Andrew J. Whitaker
The Post and Courier
Chris Wilson, trial attorney, tears up while questioned by prosecutor Creighton Waters during a hearing in the middle of the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Thursday, Feb. 02, 2023.

Also testifying without the jury present, Chris Wilson, who says he “was” one of Murdaugh’s best friends. The two worked on a personal injury case in 2021 in which Wilson was charged with distributing fees to other attorneys in the case including Murdaugh.

Wilson says his friend of 30 years convinced him he was structuring the money in such a way Murdaugh needed him to make out several personal checks for $792,000 rather than send the money directly to Murdaugh’s law firm. Wilson said he wasn’t familiar with the structure but trusted his long-time friend who in the end he testified left him hanging for $192,000.

Wilson broke down in tears when asked about his relationship with Murdaugh.

“I don’t know how I feel now.”

The Defense

The defense has voiced strong opposition to the admission of any evidence regarding Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes. They’ve called it unfairly prejudicial and argued it will only further delay the trial.

Defense attorney Jim Griffin tells judge why he's opposed to alleged financial crimes admitted in Murdaugh murder trial
The State, Pool
Alex Murdaugh’s attorney Jim Griffin speaks to the judge overseeing Murdaugh’s double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2023. The 54-year-old attorney is standing trial on two counts of murder in the shootings of his wife and son at their Colleton County home and hunting lodge on June 7, 2021.

"They've got a whole lot more evidence about financial misconduct than they do about evidence of guilt in a murder case,” defense attorney Jim Griffin told the court. “And that’s what this is all about.”

They emphasized in front of jurors the murder weapons have not been found and they continued to question the integrity of the crime scene. Did police contaminate it with a bloody footprint near Paul’s body? Did they check the drains of sinks and showers of Murdaugh’s home for signs of blood or find bloody clothing anywhere? And is it possible a police diagram of the area of the murders makes it plausible two gunman were involved?

The defense did not address the video in which the prosecution and two of Paul’s friends identify Murdaugh’s voice at the kennels with Maggie and Paul just minutes before they were killed. Instead, attorneys asked the men about Murdaugh’s relationship with Paul and Maggie which they described as loving and called Paul “the apple” of his father’s eye.

The trial continues Monday with more in-cam testimony expected in the morning.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.