WALTERBORO, S.C. — A judge has ruled that prosecutors can call witnesses to testify how Alex Murdaugh allegedly stole money as part of the double murder trial for the disbarred South Carolina attorney as long as they can show it is convincing evidence and linked to the killings.
Murdaugh, 54, is standing trial in the shootings of his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, on June 7, 2021, at their Colleton County home. He faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
Judge Clifton Newman on Thursday heard from witnesses outside the presence of the jury to decide whether they can give evidence in the case.
First up was Jeanne Seckinger, who has worked her way up to office manager and chief financial officer in 24 years with the law firm founded more than a century ago by Murdaugh’s family. Seckinger testified that Murdaugh sometimes kept entire fees required by rules to be shared with the firm.
“That would be stealing,” Seckinger said.
Murdaugh also took money to be paid in lawsuit settlements to clients in wrongful death or accident cases, Seckinger said. Instead of depositing money with a company called Forge Consulting for safekeeping for the clients, Murdaugh created Murdaugh d/b/a Forge” to keep the money for himself, according to bank statements the law firm found in his office, Seckinger said.
In all, the firm determined Murdaugh diverted more than $2.8 million this way. The law firm paid everyone back, Seckinger said.
Under cross examination, Seckinger said the scheme had been going on since 2015 without being detected.
Seckinger also testified that Murdaugh spoke to her about trying to have his fees and other payments diverted to his wife’s accounts because he was worried about a wrongful death lawsuit filed against him, his son and others over a 2019 fatal boat crash where Paul Murdaugh was charged with felony boating under the influence. A hearing in the case was postponed after the killings.
Seckinger has yet to testify before the jury.
Instead, jurors heard Thursday afternoon from an investigator about how he found Maggie Murdaugh's cellphone on the side of the road near her property with help from her family.
A second investigator testified about unlocking the phone and, under cross-examination, said she was “observant” in looking for any evidence of blood but didn't find any as she searched for guns and ammunition in the home the day after the killing.
Newman said he is inclined to allow the evidence of financial misdeeds because it can complete the story of why the crimes were committed with immediate context.
Prosecutors said the evidence is key to their case. They said Murdaugh killed his wife and son because Murdaugh was confronted earlier in the day about $782,000 in fees that should be in his law firms account but could not be found.
Murdaugh planned the killings to gain sympathy and buy time so he could find a way to cover up the missing money as he had numerous times before in the past decade or so, prosecutors said.
“He was burning through cash like crazy and he was out of options,” prosecutor Creighton Waters argued Thursday. “He constantly had to achieve more more money to avoid the reckoning that was happening.”
Murdaugh's lawyers said prosecutors are trying to smear Murdaugh with bad behavior not related to the killings to bolster their weak case.
“They’ve got a whole lot more evidence about financial misconduct than they do about evidence of guilt in a murder case. And that’s what this is all about,” defense lawyer Jim Griffin said.
The defense called it absurd and ridiculous to think that Murdaugh would believe having his family brutally killed would do anything but bring scrutiny into every nook and cranny of his life.
And it did.
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Along with the two murder charges, Murdaugh faces about 100 more counts with most of the charges coming before his murder indictment in July 2022.
The accusations range from money laundering, to stealing millions from clients and the family law firm andtax evasion. State agents said Murdaugh's tax returns show he made nearly $14 million as a lawyer over nine years, but also stole nearly $7 million from his law firm at the same time.
Also testifying Thursday away from jurors was attorney Chris Wilson, who met Murdaugh in law school. He said they were best friends and worked with Murdaugh on several cases. In one of those cases, Murdaugh asked his friend to send his share of his fees to him directly instead of to the family firm.
Wilson said it was different, but he trusted his friend. Wilson said he even loaned Murdaugh $182,000 because his friend couldn't come up with the $782,000 he had to pay back to his firm.
Murdaugh's firm called Wilson on Sept. 3, 2021, and told them how Murduagh used his trust to steal money. Wilson said they met the next day and Murdaugh told him he was sorry, he had been addicted to drugs to 20 years and screwed up a lot of people's lives.
“I was so mad. I had loved the guy for so long, and I probably still loved him a little bit. But I was so mad. I don’t remember how it ended. I just left,” Wilson said.
Later that day, Murdaugh was shot on the side of a road, the bullet grazing his head. Prosecutors charged him with fraud, saying he arranged his own shooting hoping to be killed so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy.
"When the hounds are at the door, when Hannibal is at the gates for Alex Murdaugh, violence happens," Waters said. “The same thing that happened on the side of the road happened on June 7.”