Colleagues and caregivers detail dark side of Alex Murdaugh during week three of double murder trial
Looking back, colleagues see a "different" Alex Murdaugh as two caregivers testify the former attorney tried to choreograph stories in the days following his wife and son's murders.
Walterboro, S.C.- Women played a powerful role for the prosecution this week in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh as they painted a portrait of a once prominent attorney as someone perhaps no one ever really knew.
Their testimony raised eyebrows in a gallery filled primarily with women and a jury dominated by females.
A ruling by Judge Clifton Newman Monday opened the doors for women like Murdaugh’s former paralegal and the chief financial officer for the family law firm to tell jurors how they discovered the 54-year-old was allegedly stealing millions from former colleagues, clients and friends.
Judge Newman described the crimes as so "intimately connected and explanatory", they’re vital for context and essential to telling a "complete story". This despite protests from defense attorneys who argued the accusations are prejudicial.
Prosecutors contend the allegations are critical to proving motive; Murdaugh murdered his wife and son June 7, 2021, to distract from a secret life that was about to be disclosed and generate sympathy.
Paralegal Annette Griswold described her boss as a “Tasmanian devil” who showed up late for work and was all over the place. When she first discovered missing settlement fees from a case in early 2021, she thought Murdaugh had simply lost or misplaced them. She testified she repeatedly asked about the vanishing funds but got nowhere.
Griswold said something just felt off at a law firm built on trust. But she worried, what if she was wrong? Griswold quietly reported her suspicions to the chief financial officer.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Murdaugh’s wife Maggie and son Paul were found shot to death in a grisly scene at the family’s rural estate. He had discovered the bodies and called police.
Nothing more was said about the missing money as Griswold and others at the tight knit law group went into “mamma bear' mode, worried and protective of Murdaugh. The family had reportedly received threats following a 2019 alcohol involved boat crash in which Paul had been charged.
But months after the murders, Griswold says she was getting a file in her boss’s office when a check “floated like a feather to the ground”. It hit hard.
“I was hurt. I was angry. I was beside myself,” Griswold testified. “He’d been lying the whole time.”
“That feeling in the back of mind was correct. He did take those funds.”
Jeanne Seckinger, the firm’s chief financial officer, testified she’s frequently reflected on her time with Murdaugh, a man she met in high school.
“I don’t think I ever really knew him,” Seckinger testified. “I don’t think anybody knows him.”
She said Murdaugh was successful, not because of his work ethic, but because he knows how to manipulate people and get them to like him.
Seckinger recalled for jurors confronting Murdaugh the day of the murders about the missing settlement money Griswold had reported. She said she went upstairs to Murdaugh’s office, and he gave her a dirty look; one she’d never seen from him before.
Seckinger testified he asked, “What do you need now?” She closed the door and told him she believed he’d received the missing money and needed proof he hadn’t. Seckinger said Murdaugh assured her the fees were still coming.
Then, the phone rang. Murdaugh said he'd learned his father was dying. Seckinger backed off and instead expressed her sympathy as a friend.
By the time Griswold turned over that “floating check” months later, Seckinger told jurors she’d already begun an internal audit and was in the process of discovering a dizzying fraud and embezzlement scheme that left her feeling sick.
Corroborating caregivers’ stories?
Women who worked for the Murdaugh family as caregivers also shared their suspicions about the now disbarred attorney in the days surrounding the murders.
Blanca Simpson was a housekeeper, doing all the family’s laundry, running errands and cooking meals. In fact, she prepared the family’s final supper together, cube steak and gravy with white rice and green beans.
Simpson testified she’d spoken to Maggie by phone and text the day of the murders and told jurors it didn’t sound like she wanted to go home. Simpson said Maggie preferred to stay at the family’s Edisto beach house, but her husband wanted she and Paul to have dinner with him.
She said the day after the murders, Murdaugh asked her to fix up the home the way Maggie like it, adding Simpson "knew her best". She immediately noticed the kitchen had been cleaned up, which was not typical, and pots filled with dinner from the night before were put in the refrigerator with the tops on.
She testified there was a pool of water, khaki pants and a towel on the floor near the master bedroom shower. A white t-shirt appeared to have tumbled in the closet as if it had been pulled from a neat stack of similar shirts in Murdaugh's closet.
Murdaugh was said to have been wearing what's been described as a "clean, white t-shirt" when investigators arrived at the crime scene.
Simpson also shared a conversation she’d had with Maggie in the months before the killings. She said Maggie told her she was anxious about a lingering civil lawsuit against her husband following the fatal boat crash.
“She felt like Alex wasn’t being truthful to her with exactly what was going on with that lawsuit,” Simpson testified. “She said he doesn’t always tell me everything.”
And then there was the conversation Simpson testified she had with Murdaugh two months after the murders. She said he paced back and forth as he told her he’d worn a Vineyard Vines shirt the day Paul and Maggie were killed.
Simpson testified that wasn’t true. She did the family’s laundry.
“I felt confused at first,” Simpson testified. “I know what he was wearing the day he left the house.”
“I didn’t know whether he was trying to get me to say… if I was to be asked… that was the shirt he was wearing that day.”
Simpson also told jurors how she'd been asked to clean out Maggie's Mercedes following the murders only to find her wedding ring beneath the driver's seat. Nothing more was said about the intimate piece of jewelry.
The woman who cared for Murdaugh’s ailing mother the night of the murders shared a similar story with jurors as well.
Shelly Smith was visibly nervous as she took the witness stand. She testified Murdaugh came by his mother's home between 8:30 and 9:30 pm to see his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and was sleeping at the time. She told jurors he was there for only 20 minutes.
Smith testified that days after the murders she and Murdaugh had a conversation in which he told her, “I was here 30-40 minutes” referring to his visit with his mother that night. Smith said she felt so uncomfortable she immediately called her brother who works in law enforcement. She broke down in tears as she recalled the moment.
Smith then testified she didn’t see Murdaugh for several days, but when she did it was early, around 6:30 am. He’d never visited his mother’s home at that hour before. She said he was carrying what looked like a blue tarp, bunched up as if there was something inside.
Prosecutors entered a blue rain jacket into evidence. They found it wadded up in the back of a closet at Murdaugh's mother's home. A forensic analyst testified the inside of the jacket tested positive for large amounts of gunshot powder residue.
Men who know Murdaugh testified as well, including his best friend who was left hanging for nearly $200,000, the son of the late housekeeper Murdaugh has confessed to stealing millions from, and the attorney behind the boat crash lawsuit who said a June 10th hearing in which Murdaugh would have been forced to disclose his finances was cancelled because of the murders.
Defense attorneys fought hard to keep much of this week’s testimony from being heard by jurors. They called it hearsay and prejudicial, at one point, motioning for a mistrial which the judge denied.
Murdaugh’s attorneys say it’s ludicrous their client would “butcher” his wife and son as a distraction from his alleged financial crimes. They’re expected to start presenting their case late next week.
The trial, interrupted by a bomb threat Wednesday to the judge's chambers, was anticipated to end this week. It's now expected to proceed through the end of February, maybe longer.