The six-week trial of Alex Murdaugh has come to an end but discussions about the highly publicized double murders are far from over. Frederick Penney of Penney & Associates has devoted several segments of his show, Radio Law Talk, to the intricacies of the Murdaugh case, examining issues such as potential mistakes made by the prosecution that could buoy the disgraced South Carolina lawyer’s chances during the appeal.
What has happened to date
To recap a few key dates:
June 7, 2021: The guilty verdict came 20 months after the fatal shootings on June 7, 2021, which eventually led investigators to Murdaugh, a once powerful scion of a South Carolina legal dynasty that for close to 90 years ran both the regional prosecutor’s office and a successful law firm.
July 14, 2022: Murdaugh was indicted by a grand jury on double murder charges. He pleaded not guilty a few days later. Aside from the murders, he is also facing 99 charges from accusations that he embezzled at least $8.7 million from settlements obtained for dozens of clients he represented through his former law firm PMPED. The financial crimes could result in a sentence of over 700 years in prison.
March 2, 2023: After only three hours of deliberation, the jury found Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, 22, on their family’s rural estate in Islandton, South Carolina. The following day Judge Clifton Newman handed down two life sentences, to be served consecutively.
On March 9, 2023: Murdaugh’s defense attorneys filed a notice of appeal. Dick Harpootlian, who represents Murdaugh, wrote on Twitter, “No amount of vitriol or misguided attacks will stop us from pursuing due process for Alex to the fullest extent of the law.”
His partner, Jim Griffin, also remarked, “There was so much, six weeks of evidence, and there was so little evidence on the actual murders. There’re no murder weapons, there’re no bloody clothes, there’s no motive to the murder, and so we thought the jury would have to work through a lot of that.”
Can Murdaugh win an appeal?
Do they stand a chance of overturning the verdict? Mr. Penney and his guests discussed that issue and more on Radio Law Talk. Let’s highlight a few points that came up during their discussions:
1. The lack of concrete evidence tying Murdaugh to the murders
During the trial, the prosecution presented circumstantial evidence that Murdaugh had motive and opportunity to commit the murders. However, there was no direct evidence linking him to the crime, such as DNA or fingerprints, and the suggested motive — he aimed to distract and delay investigations into his growing financial problems — appeared nonsensical. If the defense believes that this lack of evidence should have resulted in an acquittal, they may argue that the verdict was not supported by the evidence.
One issue concerns the lack of movements of victims’ phones, which the prosecution used to establish a probable time of death. According to the defense, on the other hand, no such conclusion can be drawn since the phones’ status does not necessarily mean Maggie and Paul were dead. The defense also argued the timing of Maggie’s phone being turned off undercuts the prosecution’s argument; Murdaugh could have been gone from the property when the alleged murders occurred.
2. Issues with the jury deliberation
One juror interviewed after the trial claimed that the initial split was nine to three in favor of not guilty, with one person on the fence. However, 45 minutes later, the jury reached a unanimous guilty verdict. This rapid shift in opinion, without any additional evidence being presented, may be cause for concern for the defense. The fact that the judge did not allow the jurors to take notes during the trial may be another issue that could be raised on appeal.
Some legal experts have questioned the speed of the verdict and the lack of note-taking by the jurors, which may suggest that there was not enough deliberation. Griffin, who represents Murdaugh, said he was “shocked” that the jury returned a verdict so quickly.
Others argue that the jurors may have been convinced by the prosecution’s evidence and Alex Murdaugh’s own testimony during the trial. There are also concerns about potential juror misconduct, as some jurors seemed to have made up their minds early on and did not follow the instruction to reserve judgment until after all the evidence was presented. Did the jurors fully understand the concept of “beyond reasonable doubt” or were they swayed by factors other than the evidence presented?
3. Error during closing arguments
The prosecution made claims during closing arguments that the defense did not object to. For instance, the prosecution argued that Murdaugh’s invocation of his right to an attorney suggested guilt. This is an irreversible error that could be grounds for appeal based on prosecutorial misconduct.
Final word (for now)
Winning an appeal is difficult and Murdaugh faces a challenging task. He must not only prove that a mistake was made during the trial, but also demonstrate that, had the error not occurred, the verdict would have been different and he would not have been convicted. Tune into Radio Law Talk with Frederick Penney to hear continuous commentary on the case as it moves through the appeal process.
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