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Legal experts say this video is key to Alex Murdaugh trial

Murdaugh Killings
Posted at 2:57 PM, Mar 02, 2023

With Alex Murdaugh's murder trial nearing its end, legal experts who have participated in some of America's most high-profile cases joined CNN Wednesday night to examine key questions that have loomed over the proceeding, including whether Murdaugh's admission of lying to investigators could help or hurt his case.

Murdaugh, a once-prominent attorney in South Carolina's Lowcountry, is accused of fatally shooting his wife, Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh, and son Paul Murdaugh on the family's expansive hunting estate on June 7, 2021.

After hearing weeks of witness testimony, jurors will continue hearing closing arguments Thursday before they deliberate over whether Murdaugh is guilty of two counts of murder and two weapons charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

"It comes down to two things that every single prosecutor has to contend with. I'm talking motive and opportunity," said CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates, who anchored the televised panel discussion. Here are key takeaways from the legal experts' discussion of the case:

Murdaugh's lie to investigators could undermine his credibility with jurors

In his two-day testimony last week, Murdaugh admitted he lied to investigators when he told them he hadn't been to his estate's dog kennels on the evening of the killings until he reported finding the bodies there. That admission came after multiple witnesses for the prosecution identified his voice in a video taken on Paul's phone at or near the kennels at 8:44 p.m. -- shortly before, prosecutors contend, the killings happened.

Murdaugh testified he lied because of "paranoid thinking" stemming from his opioid addiction. During Wednesday's panel discussion, attorney Glenda Hatchett said that his admission might have come too late.

"I think the fact that he waited until there was testimony in this courtroom from multiple people, and then said, 'Oh, yes, I was there and I was paranoid,' really, I think, creates a credibility gap," said Hatchett, who has represented the family of Philando Castile, a Black man fatally shot by police in 2016.

"Once you have that credibility gap, I think that it also can taint your other testimony, whether you're credible or not," Hatchett, also a former chief presiding juvenile court judge in Georgia's Fulton County, said.

Prosecutors have tried to paint Murdaugh as a dishonest and disgraced attorney who killed his wife and son to draw attention from investigations into financial misconduct allegations against him. In his testimony, Murdaugh repeatedly denied carrying out the killings but admitted to stealing millions of dollars from his former clients and law firm.

'This kennel video is the most important piece of evidence'

Prosecutors have tried to overcome a lack of direct evidence -- such as eyewitnesses -- linking Murdaugh to the killings. They have built their case in large part using video, photos, and cell phone and location data to try to convince the jury that Murdaugh is lying about his actions that night.

"The prosecution, to get their conviction, has got to do away with -- to exclude -- every reasonable hypothesis of innocence," said criminal defense lawyer Mark O'Mara, who represented the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Prosecutors have hinged their case on the video recorded around the kennels on Paul's phone.

"I think this kennel video is the most important piece of evidence in this case for the prosecution because it explodes the big lie," said Loni Coombs, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor. "I'm talking about the big lie of his alibi, where he (initially) said, 'I was not there at the crime scene.'"

Murdaugh maintains Maggie and Paul were alive when he left the kennels to return the house, and that he eventually drove to visit his mother in a nearby town. He found the bodies near the kennels after returning, he said; authorities say he called 911 after 10 p.m. Prosecutors, however, have argued he carried out the killings and then tried to create an alibi by leaving the property. They also point to videos showing he changed clothes sometime between when he was with Paul that day and when he called 911 -- though the defense has suggested the changewasn't unusual for him.

The "big question" for jurors, Coates said, is "did Murdaugh have time to commit murder, get rid of the guns, clean himself up, leave and return in about an hour and 17 minutes? Or is there a reasonable doubt?"

Murdaugh's claim that he was taking 2,000 milligrams of opioids a day is medically possible

During his testimony last week, Murdaugh said he had a decades-long addiction to opiate painkillers, and that it contributed to "paranoid thinking" that led him to lie to investigators. He testified he took more than 2,000 milligrams a day of oxycodone in the months before Maggie's and Paul's deaths.

"As my addiction evolved over time, I would get in these situations or circumstances where I would get paranoid thinking," Murdaugh said on the stand. "On June the 7th, I wasn't thinking clearly. I don't think I was capable of reason. And I lied about being down there."

Patients typically start at 10 to 20 milligrams a few times a day, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta said Wednesday night. While 2,000 milligrams sound astronomical in comparison, taking that much daily is possible, he said.

"People can gradually build up increasing tolerance to these drugs, these opioids. This is not unheard of," Gupta said. "Over time, people can increasingly escalate the dose." It is "tough to know" what the impact of opioid addiction would have on a specific person's behavior, Gupta added.

Murdaugh, who says he is now drug-free, testified he took the high doses in part to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal, which can include vomiting, dizziness, depression and confusion.

"People can start to develop significant tolerance to the point where they're no longer taking the medication to get high, to develop euphoria, but rather just to feel normal and not have withdrawal," Gupta said.