Prosecutors end rebuttal after calling 6 witnesses in Alex Murdaugh's murder trial

Alex Murdaugh accused of killing Maggie, Paul Murdaugh

ByEric Levenson, Alta Spells, Dianne Gallagher and Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, March 1, 2023
Prosecutors end rebuttal in Alex Murdaugh's murder trial
During the Alex Murdaugh trial Tuesday, prosecutors called more witnesses after the defense rested.

COLLETON COUNTY, S.C. -- State prosecutors rested their rebuttal case Tuesday after calling six witnesses to contradict parts of Alex Murdaugh's defense as the disgraced attorney's double murder trial neared its end, CNN reported.

Kenneth Kinsey, a crime scene forensics expert, was the final rebuttal witness and criticized the methodology of a defense expert who said the shooter had to have been between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-4 in height. (Alex Murdaugh is 6-foot-4.) Kinsey said there were too many variables to determine the shooter's height with any certainty, calling the analysis "unscientific."

Kinsey also criticized another defense expert's theory that there were two shooters, saying the analysis that led to that determination was "preposterous." He was questioned by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, his first time questioning a witness in the case.

Other rebuttal witnesses included two attorneys who worked with Murdaugh, a local sheriff and the pathologist who conducted the autopsies.

On Wednesday morning, the jury will visit Murdaugh's sprawling property in Islandton known as Moselle, where the bodies of Murdaugh's wife, Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh, and son Paul Murdaugh were found on June 7, 2021.

Closing arguments will follow afterward.

The rebuttal comes more than a month into the murder trial of Murdaugh, the 54-year-old disbarred personal injury attorney and member of a dynastic family in South Carolina's Lowcountry, where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather served as the local prosecutor consecutively from 1920 to 2006.

The prosecution rested its case two weeks ago after calling 61 witnesses, and the defense rested its case Monday following testimony from 14 witnesses.

The most important witness was Murdaugh himself. Under oath, he admitted he had lied to police about his whereabouts on the night of the murders and that he had in fact been at the dog kennels, near where his wife and son were found dead, shortly before the killings. He blamed his lies on "paranoid thinking" stemming from his addiction to painkillers.

"I don't think I was capable of reason, and I lied about being down there, and I'm so sorry that I did," Murdaugh said.

Prosecutors have argued he killed his wife and son to gain sympathy and distract from financial misconduct allegations that the state says were about to come to light before the fatal shootings. Murdaugh indeed confessed to a decade of defrauding his legal partners and clients -- yet denied killing his family.

"If I was under the pressure that they're talking about here, I can promise you I would hurt myself before I would hurt one of them, without a doubt," Murdaugh said on the stand Friday.

He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two weapons charges in the killings. He is separately facing 99 charges related to alleged financial crimes that will be adjudicated later.

Pathologist rejects defense theory

Six people testified as rebuttal witnesses on Tuesday to push back on some defense witnesses.

Ronnie Crosby, an attorney who worked with Murdaugh and testified for the prosecution three weeks ago, spoke about what Murdaugh was like in court.

"He was a theatrical-type presence in the courtroom and he could get very emotional during closing arguments in front of a jury," Crosby testified Tuesday.

Dr. Ellen Riemer, a pathologist who conducted the autopsies of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh, returned to the stand to reject a defense expert's assertion that Paul died from a shotgun contact wound to his head.

She reiterated her conclusion that Paul died from a blast to his left shoulder that entered his neck and exited his skull.

The method of death is relevant to the defense's two-shooter theory. A defense crime scene expert argued Monday a shotgun contact wound to the head causes the skull to violently explode, which would have temporarily stunned or even injured the shooter. The expert said it was unlikely that the same shooter would have been able to recover and kill Maggie in such a short amount of time.

Thomas C. Smalls, who until recently was sheriff of Hampton County, testified Tuesday that he had never had a discussion with Murdaugh about installing blue police lights in Murdaugh's personal vehicle.

The testimony contradicted Murdaugh's assertion last week that he got permission from Smalls to install blue lights in his vehicle. The prosecution used the blue lights to try to show Murdaugh had used his connections with police for his own benefit.

On cross-examination, Smalls said he did not know if someone else in his department may have approved the lights and said he had no knowledge at all that Murdaugh had blue lights in his vehicle.

Smalls also said Murdaugh had not reported any threats related to the boat case, in which a 19-year-old woman was killed when a boat driven by Paul Murdaugh crashed. Murdaugh has testified he believes the killings of his wife and son were in some way related to threats the family had received in that case.

Timeline of killings and Murdaugh's whereabouts under scrutiny

In their case, prosecutors sought to poke holes in Murdaugh's account of the night of the killings, using cell phone data, video and other evidence to suggest he tried to manufacture an alibi.

In the absence of direct evidence connecting Murdaugh to the killings -- no murder weapon, bloody clothing or eyewitnesses -- key arguments in his trial have revolved around the timeline of events and Murdaugh's whereabouts the night of June 7, 2021.

In particular, prosecutors used video filmed at the dog kennels shortly before authorities say the killings took place to show Murdaugh was at the scene just minutes before the fatal shootings. Multiple witnesses testified that Murdaugh's voice can be heard in the background of the video, which was filmed on Paul's phone starting at 8:44 p.m. In his testimony, Murdaugh admitted he was indeed there and had lied about it.

Murdaugh testified last week that he went down to the kennels at Maggie's request, but then returned to the house and laid down on a couch. When he got up, he said, he drove to visit his ailing mother at her home in nearby Almeda, before returning to his property later that night. Police say he called 911 at 10:07 p.m. to report finding the bodies.

The defense has painted Murdaugh as a loving father and husband being wrongfully accused of the killings after what it says has been a mishandled investigation and crime scene.

Among the witnesses called by Murdaugh's attorneys were his former legal partner who testified the scene was not properly secured, and a forensics expert who said his analysis suggests two shooters carried out the killings.

The defense has further tried to establish that Maggie and Paul's time of death could have fallen in a much longer time window than prosecutors have presented.

Last week, Colleton County Coroner Richard Harvey testified that he estimated the time of death to be around 9 p.m. -- just minutes after Murdaugh's voice was captured on the video -- based in part on armpit checks he conducted to feel how warm the bodies were.

However, when asked by the defense if the pair could have been shot anytime between 8 or 10 p.m., Harvey said yes.

A forensic pathologist, Jonathan Eisenstat, testified Monday that armpit temperature checks are "just not a valid method to try to make a determination of time of death," calling the technique "just a guess."

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