SC judge in Murdaugh murder trial allows jury to hear alleged financial crime motive
Normally, separate crimes a defendant has only been accused of, but not yet convicted, cannot be cited in another court case against them. But Newman ruled there is an "exception exists show motive, identity, existence of a common scheme or plan."
"It is necessary to the presentation of the full case," Newman ruled, "Especially as the state is relying heavily on circumstantial evidence."
Prosecutors contend it was mounting debts, financial pressure and the possibility his alleged financial crimes could be found out, that motivated Murdaugh to commit the murders as a distraction.
"This was a white-collar case that ended in two murders," lead prosecutor Creighton Waters said at a December pre-trial hearing.
For days, Newman has listened to witnesses away from the jury to decide what can be heard by the jury. Many of those who testified have been personally connected in one way or another with the alleged financial schemes in which Murdaugh is accused of stealing millions of dollars from his former law firm and clients.
The ruling is a blow to the defense who have strenuously objected to the inclusion of this evidence. Defense attorney Jim Griffin -- a veteran white-collar defense attorney who has largely taken the lead on on the financial crimes during the trial -- previously argued that inclusion of the crimes advances an illogical theory of motive.
"It's all just a theory," Griffin said last week. "There's no facts."
Its inclusion also violates South Carolina rules of evidence, Griffin said. In his ruling delivered from the bench, Monday, Newman disagreed, adding that he saw no contradiction with the rules of evidence and emphasized the context was important for the jury.
"It is more probative and prejudicial," Newman said.
Mallory Beach family lawyer testifies
Early Monday, the attorney suing Murdaugh over the death of a young woman in a boating accident testified that he thought he would have to drop the case after Murdaugh's wife and son were murdered.
Mark Tinsley, a lawyer who represented the family of Mallory Beach, took the stand Monday morning without the jury present.
Beach was killed in a 2019 boating accident. Murdaugh's youngest son, Paul, was reportedly driving the boat after a night of drinking. The family recently settled part of a wrongful death lawsuit with Buster Murdaugh, Murdaugh's surviving son.
Tinsley sued Murdaugh personally over the boat wreck and was seeking knowledge of his financial situation after Murdaugh claimed he would be unable to pay the kind of money the Beach family was seeking.
"When you practice law and go to a (court) roster meeting, if there are 50 cases on the roster in Hampton County, 50 or 60% are Alex's," Tinsley testified Monday. "I know he's making money. He can't possibly be broke."
Pushing for a court to allow him access to Murdaugh's finances was a plan to force a settlement in the case, Tinsley said.
"He doesn't want me to have access to his accounts, to see how much money he is making and actually has, so let's enter into an agreement and settle the case," Tinsley said. "If you're a good plaintiff's lawyer, everything you do in a case is to put pressure on the other side."
In reality, prosecutors contend that Murdaugh was in dire financial straits. Following Newman's order, the jury will likely now hear from witnesses such as Palmetto State Bank president, Jan Malinowski, who testified last week without the jury present about Murdaugh's financial situation.
On June 7, 2021, the day of the murder, Murdaugh had nearly exhausted a $1 million line of credit and had multiple mortgages on his proprties. Despite a seven-figure a year law practice, he had little more than $70,000 spread across several Palmetto State Bank accounts, Malinowski testified.
A hearing that could have forced Murdaugh to open his books, potentially revealing this precarious financial situation was scheduled for June 10, 2021, three days after the murders.
After Paul and Maggie were shot at the Murdaugh family's rural Colleton County estate on June 7, 2021, Tinsley said he considered the possibility they were killed as revenge for the death of 19-year-old Beach.
"If it seemed like this was retaliation, a jury wouldn't return a verdict against Alex," Tinsley said. "I would have dropped the case."
Defense attorney Phil Barber pushed Tinsley Monday on whether he was anywhere close to gaining access to Murdaugh's financial information as part of the lawsuit.
Barber took the position that Murdaugh would not have been compelled to open his books as a result of that week's hearing. Tinsley responded by dramatically retrieving an order from his breast pocket signed by the judge in the case from Oct. 7, 2021 that he claimed would have allowed him access to the documents. Barber disagreed with this interpretation of the judge's order.
In cross-examination, at times tense, Barber contradicted Tinsley's position that he was on the verge of discovering any financial misdeeds.
"It would have been apparent to me what Alex was doing," Tinsley replied. "There were a number of threads being pulled that were coming together."
The move to target Murdaugh personally angered Murdaugh and others in the legal community, which boiled over into what Tinsley described Monday as an act of intimidation. At an annual trial lawyers conference on Hilton Head Island in 2019, Tinsley said Murdaugh tried to "bully" him out of seeking compensation for Beach's family.
"Alex sees me (at the conference), and he comes across the room, gets up close in my face and says, 'Hey Bo, what's this I've been hearing about what you're saying, I thought we were friends?'" Tinsley testified.
"I said, 'Alex, we are friends. But if you don't think I can't burn your house down and that I'm not doing everything, if you think I'm not going to do everything, you're wrong, you need to settle this case,'" Tinsley said.
Jury to learn about Murdaugh's financial problems
Allowing the jury to hear about Murdaugh's alleged financial misdeeds could be damaging to the defense, even if the details are unrelated to the charge he faces of murdering his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, in June 2021.
Newman's order has opened the floodgates to financial testimony. Evidence the court could hear includes that:
Murdaugh was some $4.2 million in debt to Palmetto State Bank and hundreds of thousands of dollars overdrawn on his account by summer 2021.
The CFO of Murdaugh's former law firm confronted Murdaugh about missing money owed to the firm hours before his wife and son were killed.
Murdaugh diverted funds intended for his law firm to a Bank of America account that he created, which operated under the name Forge, the same name of a legitimate structured settlement company that his firm did business with.
Some witnesses have offered deeply personal testimony of betrayal that the jury may now hear.
Murdaugh's former friend and law school roommate, Chris Wilson, testified that he gave Murdaugh almost $200,000 of his own money to cover for hefty fees from a settlement that Murdaugh convinced Wilson to send to him instead of his law firm. Michael Satterfield, the son of the Murdaughs' late housekeeper Gloria Satterfield, testified that Murdaugh stole millions of dollars in insurance money that was owed to Satterfield's family after she died in a fall at the Murdaughs' house.
Island Packet reporter Blake Douglas contributed to this report.
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Mallory Beach attorney testified he considered dropping lawsuit after Murdaugh murders
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