COVID could create crisis in Alex Murdaugh murder trial

The trial started with six alternate jurors, but is now down to three.

A pathologist detailed the close range shots that killed Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son as prosecutors on Monday started winding up their case in the disgraced South Carolina attorney’s double murder trial.

But the future of the trial could be in jeopardy. Two jurors were dismissed Monday morning after contracting COVID-19, leaving just three alternates available as the trial’s fourth week started. Both sides suggested delaying the trial in case the coronavirus might be spreading though the jury and others in court, but Judge Clifton Newman decided to continue.

You are reading: COVID could create crisis in Alex Murdaugh murder trial

“At the moment, we are going to encourage everyone here to mask up for your own protection as well as the protection of these proceedings and each other,” Newman told the courtroom, which has been packed with more than 200 people for the past two weeks.

Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murdering his wife, 52-year-old Maggie, and their 22-year-old son Paul near kennels at the family’s Colleton County home on June 7, 2021. Prosecutors have said he killed his family in order to buy time to cover up other crimes for which he is accused, including stealing money from clients and insurance fraud.

Alex Murdaugh has adamantly denied killing his wife and son.

Pathologist Dr. Ellen Riemer gave some of the most graphic testimony of the trial Monday as she detailed what she found during the autopsies of the victims.

Paul Mudaugh was shot twice with a shotgun. The first wound skirted his chest with pellets. The second shot was to his head and was so violent it left his skull nearly empty, Riemer said.

Maggie Murdaugh was hit by four or five bullets. The first two wounds happened as she faced the shooter and weren’t fatal, but a bullet did hit her kidney, the pathologist said.

“She had projectiles, ammunition going through her left kidney, you can imagine that was a very painful wound and could have cause her to fold over in pain.,” Riemer said.

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While bent over facing away from the shooter, the fatal shot then went into and out of her chest and into her face. “It basically destroyed her brain,” Riemer said.

While the pathologist stood in front of the jury, drawing on diagrams and detailing her autopsy photographs, Alex Murdaugh sat at the defence table, distraught or crying at times. He fidgeted with a yellow highlighter and the disbarred attorney seemed so distracted that it took him several seconds to stand when the bailiff said “All rise!” as the judge left the bench at the end of the day.

The defence will start its cross examination of Riemer on Tuesday.

Earlier Monday, state agents testified about DNA.

Genetic material from all three Murdaughs were found on the shirt Alex Murdaugh was wearing when he found the bodies after returning home from visiting his ailing mother. State Law Enforcement Division agent Sara Zapata testified

But Zapata said it wasn’t blood and the defence said it isn’t unusual for people who spend time together to get their DNA on clothes and other items and Alex Murdaugh said he checked on the bodies after he found them.

DNA was also found under Maggie Murdaugh’s fingernails and it didn’t match her husband or son, Zapata said on cross examination.

Further testing wasn’t done on the DNA, including sending it to a nationwide database to see if there was a match, the agent said.

DNA tests didn’t find genetic material from anyone tested on a blue raincoat found at the house of Alex Murdaugh’s mother, Zapata said. Earlier testimony said the inside lining of the coat had a large amount of gunshot residue inside.

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DNA from a number of people who volunteered samples — other workers on the Murdaugh property, the family of a teen killed in a crash by a boat driven by Paul Murdaugh and other family members of Alex Murdaugh — was not found on items from the crime scene, Zapata said.

Monday marked the 13th day of testimony with prosecutors still presenting their case.

The dangers of a long trial seemed even more evident with the COVID-19 news. Along with the two jurors, the clerk of court also has the virus, the judge said.

Newman said jurors agreed to wear masks. He rejected suggestions from both the defence and prosecutors to delay the trial until that second round of tests Wednesday, reduce the over 200 people allowed to attend the trial each day or order everyone in the courtroom to wear masks other than testifying witnesses and questioning attorneys.

Jurors will be tested again Wednesday, the judge said.

“My only concern is we don’t create train wreck with this jury,” said defence attorney Dick Harpootlian, who immediately began wearing a mask.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters said he agreed with the defence that delaying the trial for a few days to make sure the virus isn’t spreading is much better than losing so many jurors there has to be a mistrial and three weeks of work is gone. He also suggested limiting the number of people inside the large, century-old courtroom. The trial is being livestreamed and shown on television.

“A little less numbers might be warranted. None of us want to limit anything, but we’re in different paradigm. Both of us have a concern about getting this thing to the end without COVID causing it to fall apart,” Waters said.

The judge said he would keep all options in mind, but for now the trial will continue without any changes.

“We just have to take precautions as we all do as we navigate through life during this period of time,” Newman said.

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