Bomb threat, obscene gestures and a controversial GoFundMe: How Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial became a circus
Murder. A botched hitman plot. Mystery deaths. Millions of dollars of stolen money. Opioid addiction.
The case involving Alex Murdaugh appears to have it all when it comes to drama and plot twists.
It’s then little surprise that his murder trial now going on in Walterboro, South Carolina, has captivated the public all across America.
But it should then also come as little surprise to see the high-profile case spilling out into a spectacle far beyond the testimony jurors are hearing in the courtroom.
In a single dramatic week, the trial has been rocked by a bomb threat, apparently obscene gestures and bad behaviour from the Murdaugh family members, a controversial GoFundMe account and a Covid-19 outbreak among jurors.
Here’s how Mr Murdaugh’s murder trial has descended into a circus:
The trial was plunged into chaos on 8 February when the courthouse was suddenly evacuated due to a bomb threat.
The bomb threat came in to staff at Colleton County Courthouse just before 12.30pm ET, prompting a sudden evacuation of the entire building.
Brian Hudak, SLED computer crimes special agent, had only just sat down on the stand and begun introducing himself, when Judge Clifton Newman interjected saying he was calling a recess.
Seconds later, he clarified that the entire building needed to be evacuated.
“We have to evacuate the building at this time. We’ll be in recess until we discover what’s going on,” he said.
Mr Murdaugh was whisked off to an unknown location in a car while court staff, journalists and members of the public were rushed out of the building and its grounds.
Dozens of emergency vehicles descended on the scene and a bomb squad was called in.
By 2.30pm the threat was marked all-clear, as security began allowing people back into the courthouse for testimony to resume.
Multiple sources have since told FITS News that the threat was called in from Ridgeland, South Carolina, and came from a prison inmate.
The threat placed the purported bomb in the most secure part of the building: the judge’s chambers.
‘Flipping the bird’ and other Murdaugh bad behaviour
In another twist, Mr Murdaugh’s family members have now been warned that they will be thrown out of his murder trial after his surviving son Buster appeared to “flip the bird” at a witness.
Judge Clifton Newman has reportedly issued multiple warnings to several members of the disgraced attorney’s family about their behaviour in court, where they have put on a united front since the start of his trial.
The family members have already been moved to the back of the courtroom in Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina – and are now only one wrong move away from being booted out altogether.
Maggie and Mr Murdaugh’s surviving son Buster was caught appearing to make a rude gesture to Mark Tinsley as he took the witness stand on Thursday about a lawsuit he brought against the accused killer.
Footage from the courtroom shows Buster apparently flipping the bird as he stared down the witness.
Sources also told FITS News that when Buster was asked to move to the back of the courtroom, he allegedly kicked over a water bottle in anger.
Among some of the other bad behaviour from the powerful family which has reigned over the Hampton County justice system for the last century, Mr Murdaugh’s sister Lynn allegedly passed the disgraced attorney an undisclosed item.
When she was told to stop, Lynn – like Buster – allegedly didn’t take it well, becoming “demonstrative” with court staff.
It also prompted the court to order a drug test for Mr Murdaugh, who has previously revealed he has been addicted to opioids for the last two decades. The results of that drugs test remain unclear.
The refusal of some of the Murdaugh family members to abide by court rules in the high-profile trial is perhaps most intriguing given that the Murdaughs are notoriously familiar with the court system – coming from a long line of local prosecutors.
But, while some of the family members have sparked the ire of the judge, sources said that Mr Murdaugh’s brothers Randy and John Marvin Murdaugh had been nothing but compliant with the court and told court officials they were happy to sit anywhere in the room.
Since the start of Mr Murdaugh’s trial, the family has put on a show of support, sitting in the row directly behind the man accused of killing two of their their loved ones.
However, notably, in the hours where testimony was heard in the absence of the jury, the Murdaughs were nowhere to be seen.
They would then enter the courtroom before the jury was seated.
Outside the courthouse, it emerged that a GoFundMe has been set up for Mr Murdaugh’s mother’s caregiver “for her bravery” in testifying at his murder trial.
Mushell “Shelly” Smith gave emotional testimony on 6 February, where she cast doubts on part of Mr Murdaugh’s alibi on the night of the murders – revealing he had lied about how long he had spent at his sick mother’s house.
Breaking down in tears at points, she described how a “fidgety” Mr Murdaugh showed up at the house for a brief 20-minute visit on 7 June 2021 but later asked her to tell authorities he had been there double the length of time.
In the aftermath of the killings, he then offered to help Ms Smith both financially and with her other job and brought a mystery blue item to leave at his parents’ home, she told jurors.
On Wednesday, Ms Smith’s daughter Rachelle Buckner launched a GoFundMe campaign to “reward her for her bravery and her honesty as it was one of the hardest things she had to do”.
By Friday morning, the GoFundMe had raised more than $24,000 for Ms Smith.
The donation sparked some controversy – with legal experts warning that it could be detrimental to the prosecution’s case if the state wants to call the witness back to the stand.
This issue appeared to reach a head on 9 February when it emerged that another witness – attorney Mark Tinsley – had made a $1,000 donation to the fund.
Mr Tinsley filed a lawsuit against the Murdaughs on behalf of the family of Mallory Beach, the 19-year-old killed in a boat crash where Paul was allegedly drunk behind the wheel in 2019.
He testified how the lawsuit was putting Mr Murdaugh’s finances under increased scrutiny at the time of the murders.
Mr Murdaugh’s finances would later be exposed – and he is now facing around 100 charges from multiple indictments for stealing almost $8.5m from law firm clients dating back to 2011.
The defence brought up Mr Tinsley’s donation in court and asked the judge to strike his testimony because of it.
Defence attorney Phil Barber told the judge that he “made a financial payment to a witness in the middle of a trial ... as a reward for her honesty”.
Judge Clifton Newman denied the motion, but called the issue “good fodder for cross-examination” – paving the way for a potential sparring match between Mr Tinsley and the defence attorneys.
But, despite the suggestion, the defence chose not to raise the issue under cross-examination and in fact declined to ask Mr Tinsley any questions. This came after a contentious back and forth between the defence and Mr Tinsley in the shadow trial.
Jurors wiped out by Covid, sickness
On Monday 13 February, the double murder trial was disrupted yet again as two jurors tested positive for Covid-19.
Judge Clifton Newman made the bombshell announcement at the start of the weeks’ proceedings, revealing that one juror was asymptomatic while the other had a cough and sore throat.
Following the revelation, the defence raised concerns that others could be infected but may not be testing positive yet – something which could threaten to derail the trial altogether if more jurors test positive in the coming days.
Defence attorney Dick Harpootlian asked Judge Newman for a delay to the trial, saying that – while it would be costly to the defence – it could prevent a bigger problem down the line.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters agreed with the defence in asking for a delay for a few days, saying that neither side wants to see a mistrial declared because they are suddenly left without 12 jurors – a real possibility given that only three out of the original six juror alternates now remain.
Despite the concerns raised, Judge Newman declined to postpone the trial.
Instead, he recommended that jurors – and others in court – wear masks going forwards and said that the remaining jurors will be tested again on Wednesday.
Jurors 441 and 326 were then selected from the alternates and seated to replace the two jurors who tested positive.
On Wednesday morning (15 February), Judge Newman said that all remaining jurors were still testing negative.
On Tuesday (21 February), Judge Newman announced that a juror was sick and had to attend a doctor’s appointment.
The judge said he planned to replace the juror with an alternate. The juror in question was already an alternate herself.
If she is replaced then there will be only two alternates left (there were six at the start of the trial).
Defence attorney’s daring ‘tempting’ quip at prosecution
On 21 February, defence attorney Dick Harpootlian caused a stir at his murder trial as he cracked a joke while appearing to put a gun at the prosecution table.
Mr Harpootlian made his daring joke during testimony by Mike Sutton, a forensic engineering expert witness for the defence.
“It’s tempting,” Mr Harpootlian remarked as he held a gun indirectly pointed at the state’s table. The .300 Blackout rifle belonged to Buster, and has been used at the trial for demonstrative purposes as it is similar to the one believed to have been used in the murder of the defendant’s wife Maggie.
“I don’t know how to do this without pointing it out at anybody,” Mr Harpootlian added as the courtroom erupted with laughter.
Mr Murdaugh could be seen grinning from the defence table during the rare moment of levity in a trial that has been marked by graphic descriptions of the murders.
Viewers following the trial online were less amused by the quip, dozens of them taking to Twitter to question whether they’d heard correctly.
Judge compares Murdaugh’s attorney to Kyrie Irving
At the start of day 19 of the disgraced legal scion’s trial on Tuesday (21 February), Judge Clifton Newman questioned Mr Murdaugh’s attorney Jim Griffin about one of his tweets about the case.
On Saturday, Mr Griffin shared a link to a The Washington Post op-ed titled: “Alex Murdaugh trial reveals a sloppy investigation.”
Before jurors entered the courtroom on Tuesday, Judge Newman brought up the post, saying that he had received emails “concerning a social media post by Mr Griffin commenting on witness testimony and the quality of the investigation by the state”.
The judge said that the post then appeared on his own Twitter feed that morning.
“Mr Griffin is this part of your defence strategy?” the judge asked, eliciting a laugh from the gallery and an awkward pause from the attorney.
“Your honour, all I did was retweet an article that was published in The Washington Post. I didn’t put any comment or make any statement. I just retweeted an article that was in the newspaper,” Mr Griffin responded.
At this point, the judge compared Mr Griffin to NBA star Kyrie Irving who was suspended from the Brooklyn Nets last year for retweeting an antisemitic post.
“We had a professional basketball player who retweeted an article that resulted in him being suspended from the NBA for about 10 days and cost him about $10m in salary, so retweeting is the same as – to some – as if [it’s] your tweet,” he said.
Mr Irving was embroiled in controversy in late October when he tweeted a link to Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, a documentary which peddles several antisemitic conspiracy theories and falsehoods. The post sparked an instant backlash and he was suspended without pay from the Nets.
After making the comparison, the judge then elicited some laughs when he said he was “not a Twitter friend” of Mr Griffin’s but had still come across the post.
Judge Newman told Mr Griffin that his actions go “against the spirit of the law and does not pass the feel test”.
Mr Griffin conceded, saying that: “I will not retweet anything or tweet anything until the trial is over.”