Judge denies defense motions in Murdaugh murder case

Published: Oct. 20, 2022 at 9:21 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 20, 2022 at 4:22 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A state circuit court judge mostly sided with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Thursday, denying motions filed by the defense team of former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh.

Murdaugh is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife, Maggie, and their youngest son, Paul, who were shot to death at the family’s hunting property in rural Colleton County more than a year ago.

The defense issued three motions focusing on evidence prosecutors have failed to provide specific pieces of discovery, a legal term referring here to evidence they plan to use against Murdaugh, as the law requires. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office released a response Wednesday arguing the motions were “without merit” and that the state has already “provided discovery far in excess of what is technically required.”

“Due to the complexity of this case, it is essential that the defendant be given adequate discovery rights to ensure that he is fully prepared to extend the charges against him,” Judge Clifton Newman said.

Murdaugh’s attorneys hoped to convince Newman to force the state to hand over more than a dozen pieces of evidence, but Newman denied the motion to compel the state to do so, saying the state is making a good faith effort in doing just that.

“The parties have been in touch with each other and I do not find any lack of diligence on the part of the state in complying with discovery,” he said.

Among the items on the defense’s list were notes from the Murdaugh autopsies and cell phone data, which Murdaugh’s attorneys call a “major part” of the state’s case but argue that the state is being difficult in turning over the data they plan to use by providing too much data; the defense argued when they received two data dumps Wednesday that totaled a half-terabyte, the files consisted of folders within folders within folders.

“Cellphone data or data from cellphone locations that would be – I think they put in a motion earlier – compelling proof of his guilt, that motion you heard a month ago. Where is it?” Murdaugh attorney Dick Harpootlian said. “We have experts that we have hired that are waiting for that data to vet it.”

“They have all the cellphone data and to some extent, they are claiming that they have all the underlying data but they don’t want to analyze it themselves,” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters said. “Mr. Harpoolian says, ‘Well, we don’t think it says what the state thinks it says.’ Well, that’s what a trial is for.”

There are two reports that are being generated from the cellphone data: one by the FBI and the other from the State Law Enforcement Division. Waters said the state says will turn that evidence over to the defense when the final reports are done.

Murdaugh’s lawyers said they are 90 days away from the trial and they need all evidence as soon as possible.

But Newman denied a defense request for subpoena powers. Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said he might seek another hearing next week if the defense had still not received evidence.

“The court will not issue a blanket order. It would be unprecedented as far as this court is aware of,” Newman said. “The court will address any requests for discovery subpoena in a case-by-case, incident-by-incident basis.”

State may perform further DNA testing

But there was a conversation about the state performing additional DNA testing in the case. The defense said there is evidence of possibly unidentified DNA found underneath Maggie Murdaugh’s fingernails. Neither of the victims’ clothing were tested, something the defense team wants done so they can compare the results against DNA of Curtis “Eddie” Smith.

Smith is charged in an alleged murder-for-hire plot, accused of conspiring with Murdaugh to defraud an insurance company. Last week, Murdaugh’s defense team pointed the finger at Smith as possibly being involved in the killings, arguing that he failed a polygraph test given by state agents.

“We don’t want to have to come back years from now with the Innocence Project, where they’re testing DNA of Paul and Maggie’s clothing and cross-checking it with Curtis Eddie Smith or anybody else,” defense attorney Jim Griffin said.

Newman said he would not compel the state to test the evidence, but Waters said he is open to a conversation about it.

But Waters called the defense’s focus on Smith “desperate.”

“This motion is more about trying to prejudice the public about this polygraph with Curtis Eddie Smith, which is, as I explained in my response, they totally mistake what that means and what a polygraph is,” Waters said at the hearing. “It’s very telling your honor that they wish to make this case about Eddie Smith.”

Murdaugh himself spoke at the hearing, asking if it would be possible that he could avoid attending every single hearing in person and stay at the Richland County Detention Center to help his team review evidence.

Motions focused on evidence the defense said it has not received from prosecutors

The first defense motion sought details of the polygraph test given to Smith. The state contends that the results of the polygraph test and interview were given to the defense on the first day that murder discovery was authorized in August.

A second motion, filed Monday, asked the state for 15 pieces of evidence the defense claims they still do not have. The state says several of the pieces of the requested evidence have already been provided with additional pieces being provided as they become available.

A final motion filed Tuesday asked for a request for Murdaugh’s alibi to be stricken. In court documents, Murdaugh’s defense team said prosecutors demanded a written notice of Murdaugh’s intention to offer an alibi defense, further requesting Murdaugh provide “the specific place or places [Murdaugh] claims to have been at the time of the alleged offense and the names and addresses of the witnesses upon he intends to rely on to establish such an alibi.”

But, the defense argued, prosecutors never provided them with critical details as required. The defense also provided a copy of a letter sent to the attorney general’s office on Sept. 19 stating that Murdaugh would not respond to the request until those details were provided.

Prosecutors point to the indictments against Murdaugh as clearly alleging that Maggie and Paul were killed June 7, 2021, in Colleton County and that a 911 call was made by Alex at 10:06 p.m.

“The fact that Maggie and Paul were killed at Moselle on June 7, 2021, might be one of the most well-known facts in the state,” the state said.

The state claims they have turned over 206 gigabytes of data representing “thousands of pages” and an additional 470 gigabytes of information on an external hard drive to the defense.

“The State began to provide discovery only relevant to the murders of Maggie and Paul by 11:24 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, which was the first morning after Judge Newman’s clerk sent the signed protective order to us at 5:47 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022,” the state said in a filing.

The state says the discovery was in addition to discovery provided related to the State Grand Jury.

The state also says they had a conversation with the defense last Thursday about discovery issues.

“This was a pleasant and reasonable conversation, but — of course, as usual — at no time during this conversation did counsel mention the defense was going to file an aggressive and misleading motion to compel just one day later,” the state said.

Murdaugh’s murder trial is expected to begin in January.

Waters promised that additional reports the state is waiting to receive will be turned over as soon as they are available.