Alex Murdaugh’s defense called his surviving son to the stand Tuesday to poke holes in evidence prosecutors have presented in the disgraced South Carolina attorney’s double murder trial.
Buster Murdaugh answered questions in a matter-of-fact tone, ranging from how he found out about the killings to how his brother would steal his ID and use it to buy alcohol while underage to how his dad coached his baseball teams as a kid.
During his testimony, Buster Murdaugh explained points that prosecutors emphasized as potentially sinister during the trial’s first four weeks, like Alex Murdaugh parking behind his mother’s home or not using his cellphone for an hour the night of the killings.
Buster Murdaugh said he was around his father almost all the time in the 10 days after the killings, and described him as devastated and confused, living and sleeping anywhere other than where his wife and son were killed.
Murdaugh, 54, is standing trial in the murders of his wife Maggie, 52, who was killed by four or five rifle shots; and their 22-year-old son Paul, who died from two shotgun blasts on June 7, 2021, near kennels on their sprawling property in Colleton County. Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison if he is convicted.
Buster Murdaugh was one of the most anticipated witnesses. He has been in the audience behind his father every day of the trial. Alex Murdaugh smiled at him as he took the stand.
He testified that cell service at the family’s Colleton County home was spotty and that his father sometimes misplaced his phone. Prosecutors have suggested Alex Murdaugh left the device behind so it wouldn’t be where the killings took place.
Buster Murdaugh also said the family frequently parked near his grandparent’s back door in Hampton, which is where Alex Murdaugh parked when he visited his ailing mother the night his wife and son were killed. Investigators have suggested he parked behind the house to get rid of evidence that has never been found, like both guns or bloody clothing.
After visiting his mother the night of the murders, Alex Murdaugh returned home, called 911 and reported that he had found the bodies of his wife and son.
There were no tears from Buster Murdaugh on Tuesday. He talked about getting a phone call from his dad on June 7, 2021, who asked if he was sitting down and then told him his brother and mother had been shot.
“He was destroyed. He was heartbroken. I walked through the door, I saw him and I gave him a hug,” Buster Murdaugh said.
He also testified that his father took a lot of showers during the hot, steamy South Carolina summers, a point apparently meant to address testimony from a housekeeper who found a damp towel the morning after the killings.
Buster Murdaugh also testified that guns were left around the property “with the safety on” and that he never loaded one shell of larger buckshot and a second shell of smaller birdshot in his shotguns. That combination killed Paul Murdaugh, investigators said.
Neither gun used in the killings has been found. A state agent testified last week he incorrectly told the grand jury which indicted Alex Murdaugh that several shotguns were found on the property loaded the way the weapon was that killed Paul Murdaugh.
Another agent testified that bullet casings found around the Murdaugh property had markings similar to those that held the ammunition killing Maggie Murdaugh.
Prosecutor John Meadors asked gentle questions of Buster Murdaugh in his cross examination, clarifying and emphasizing a few discrepancies in the testimony. He didn’t ask him if he thought his father was the killer.
After Buster Murdaugh testified, the defense called a forensic engineer who said that bullet casing locations and the angles of two shots fired at Maggie Murdaugh show the shooter was about 5-foot-2 (1.57 meters) tall or else holding the gun below their kneecap. Alex Murdaugh is 6-foot-4.
“It’s just trigonometry,” Mike Sutton said.
During cross examination, prosecutors asked why Sutton didn’t use the same ammunition believed to be used in the killings to test whether shots could be heard from 1,150 feet (350 meters) away, where Alex Murdaugh told police he was napping in the house when investigators think his wife and son were shot elsewhere on the property.
Prosecutors asked Sutton if he considered whether a shooter could have been kneeling. They also asked if he considered whether bullets or pellets could have ricocheted. Sutton said he depended on reports and photos from state agents for that information.
“What if any opinion do you have as to whether that person could be Alex Murdaugh shooting?” defense lawyer Dick Harpootlian asked.
“It can’t be,” Sutton replied.
The defense started its case Friday with Colleton County Coroner Richard Harvey, who testified he estimated the time of death for Murdaugh’s wife and son at around 9 p.m., give or take an hour. He made the estimate based on the warmth felt when he put his hand under the victims’ armpits.
The prosecution had suggested the death happened at 8:50 p.m., based on when the victims stopped using their cellphones.
Also on Tuesday, another person was dismissed from the jury because of an unspecified illness. That leaves two alternates.
Before testimony began, Judge Clifton Newman admonished defense attorney Jim Griffin for tweeting a Washington Post opinion piece, repeating the headline “Alex Murdaugh trial reveals a sloppy investigation.”
Newman said it at least violated the spirit of a rule that lawyers involved in a case shouldn’t criticize witnesses or other attorneys.
“I understand your honor,” Griffin said. “I will not retweet anything or tweet anything until this trial is over.”