'Does that mean that I am a suspect?' Investigator asks Alex Murdaugh if he killed his wife, son

ByDakin Andone and Dianne Gallagher, CNN
Thursday, February 16, 2023
Alex Murdaugh murders trial
Alex Murdaugh murders trialState authorities reopening the investigation into Stephen Smith's death after saying they found new evidence while looking into the Murdaugh murders.

The jury in Alex Murdaugh's double murder trial saw footage Wednesday from a crucial interview he had with state investigators where he was asked for the first time if he killed his wife and son.

The interview on August 11, 2021, was the third Murdaugh had with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which was investigating the murders of his wife, Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh, and grown son, Paul Murdaugh, two months earlier, according to testimony Wednesday by SLED agent Lt. David Owen.

The interview was about to end when Owen told Murdaugh he had "a few more questions."

"Did you kill Maggie?" Owen asked, according to the footage played in court.

"No," Murdaugh said. "Did I kill my wife? No, David."

"Do you know who did?"

"No, I do not know who did," Murdaugh said.

"Did you kill Paul?"

"No, I did not kill Paul," Murdaugh said.

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"Do you know who did?"

"No, sir, I do not know who did," Murdaugh said. "Do you think I killed Maggie?"

"I have to go where the evidence and the facts take me," Owen said.

"I understand that. And you think I killed Paul?"

"I have to go where the evidence and the facts take me," Owen said again. "And I don't have anything that points to anybody else at this time."

"So does that mean that I am a suspect?"

Owen told Murdaugh he was "still in this," adding, "I have to put my beliefs aside, and go with the facts."

Owen's testimony Wednesday comes as the state nears the end of its case, in which prosecutors contend Murdaugh killed his wife and son to distract from a mountain of alleged financial crimes he had committed and to stave off a "day of reckoning" when those crimes might come to light.

The defense maintains Murdaugh -- who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two weapons charges in the killings -- was a loving father and husband who called 911 the night of the killings after he found his wife and son shot at the family's estate in Islandton, South Carolina, a property known as Moselle.

At the time of the August 11, 2021, interview, Murdaugh was "the only known suspect" in the murders, Owen testified Wednesday.

The case was transferred that same day from the local solicitor to the Attorney General's Office, which has been prosecuting the case due to the Murdaugh family's long ties with the local solicitor: Three generations of Murdaughs served as the 14th Circuit Solicitor over about 87 years.

Murdaugh's statements during the August 2021 interview were voluntary, Owen testified Wednesday. Murdaugh wanted to ask SLED agents questions about the investigation, Owen said, and the agent told him he wanted to ask Murdaugh some questions, too. Murdaugh indicated he was comfortable answering the agents' questions.

Footage shows Murdaugh confronted with inconsistencies

Murdaugh claimed to law enforcement he last saw Maggie and Paul earlier in the evening of the murders. They ate dinner together before Murdaugh took a nap and then drove to Almeda to visit his mother. He discovered the bodies of his wife and son, he said, when he returned home and called 911 at 10:07 p.m.

The footage played in court Wednesday showed SLED agents confronting Murdaugh about evidence that appeared to contradict his earlier statements to law enforcement.

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It was the first time, Owen testified, that Murdaugh was confronted with the fact that Paul's friend, Rogan Gibson, said he heard Murdaugh's voice in the background of a phone call he had with Paul that night, shortly before the murders took place.

"You were heard in the background, and that was prior to 9 p.m. ... Was it you?" Owen asked Murdaugh, per the footage shown in court Tuesday.

"At nine o'clock? No, sir," Murdaugh said, "not if my times are right."

"Who do you think it could have been?"

"I have no idea."

"And Rogan's been around your family for pretty much all his life," Owen said, something Murdaugh agreed with. "And he recognizes your voice, and you have a distinct voice. Can you think of anybody else that has a voice similar to yours that he may have misinterpreted?"

"No, sir."

Months later, investigators discovered a video on Paul's phone that he filmed immediately after that call, at 8:44 p.m. in the area of the family's dog kennels, near where the bodies were found. Multiple witnesses at trial have identified Murdaugh's voice, along with Maggie's and Paul's, in that video, contradicting Murdaugh's statements to investigators he had not gone to the kennels before finding the bodies.

The footage played Wednesday also showed the agents confront Murdaugh about another piece of footage filmed by Paul the night of the killings: A Snapchat video showing Murdaugh looking at a sapling on the family's property. In it, Murdaugh is seen wearing pants and a blue shirt. But later, he was wearing shorts and a white T-shirt.

"There's a video on Paul's phone of you and him on the farm that night. You're wearing khaki pants and a dress shirt ... When I met you that night, you were in shorts and a T-shirt," Owen said. "At what point in the evening did you change clothes?"

"I'm not sure," Murdaugh said. "What time of day was that? I would have thought I would have already changed."

Testimony in recent days similarly undermined statements Murdaugh made to SLED during the August 2021 interview -- namely, that Maggie decided to go to Moselle the night of the killings because she was worried about him and his father, whose health was deteriorating.

Two witnesses disagree: On Tuesday, Maggie's sister testified it was Murdaugh who wanted Maggie to come to Moselle. Maggie was staying in the family's Edisto Beach property and did not want to go to Islandton, Marian Proctor said, recalling a conversation they had the day of the murders.

Proctor encouraged Maggie to go, she said, breaking down in court.

Blanca Simpson, a family housekeeper, similarly testified last week that Maggie told her the day of the murders that Alex had asked both Maggie and Paul to come to Moselle that night.

Defense focuses on Murdaugh's clothes in Snapchat video

During cross-examination, defense attorney Jim Griffin noted that investigators had the Snapchat video in July, but did not ask Murdaugh about the whereabouts of the blue shirt and pants he was seen wearing in that footage. Owen testified that he never asked Murdaugh for those clothes.

"And the reason you didn't, (was because) you weren't concerned about those clothes. Your investigation had been focused since early June on the T-shirt he was wearing, the shorts he was wearing and shoes he was wearing at the time he called 911," Griffin said.

"Yes," Owen replied.

Owen testified that he had told a county grand jury that an expert found multiple particles of blood spatter on the front of the T-shirt, and it was sent to a lab for testing. The test, however, found no blood on the shirt.

"Y'all completely overlooked the fact that when you did a HemaTrace test to confirm whether there's blood, it came up negative. Wasn't that overlooked?" asked Griffin.

"I had never seen that report," responded Owen, who admitted he did not see it until November 2022, just months before the trial began.

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"Whoever killed Maggie and Paul would likely have biological material on them from the blasts that killed the two victims, right?," Griffin asked Owen.

"They would have some, yes," Owen answered.

Griffin established that Murdaugh's mother's property in Almeda was not searched until months after the killings, in September 2021. No weapons were found on that property, Owen testified.

Owen also testified that nearby waterways and the route from Moselle to Almeda was "driven several times," but not walked over.

Defense floats money dispute with drug gangs as possible cause of killings

At one point Wednesday, Judge Clifton Newman ruled against allowing testimony about a roadside shooting that injured Murdaugh in September 2021. Authorities have alleged that Murdaugh arranged for another man, Curtis Edward Smith, to shoot him so his surviving son could obtain millions of dollars in life insurance.

But the judge later Wednesday decided to allow that testimony after Smith was brought up during Owen's cross-examination.

Griffin seemed to suggest the killings could have been related to a money dispute with a drug gang, telling the court that Murdaugh was buying $50,000 worth of drugs each week from Smith. Owen agreed, testifying that he has been told the same.

Griffin said Smith owed a lot of money to a drug gang, and Owen testified that he was told the gang was not worried about the money because it knew it was going to get paid.

Owen testified that Smith was brought into the investigation on September 4, 2021, the day of the roadside incident. Before that, Murdaugh had never mentioned his involvement with Smith in relation to Maggie's and Paul's killings, according to Owen.

"Prior to that day, had Alex Murdaugh ever mentioned to you Curtis Edward Smith or anyone else that might have been involved in his son's or his wife's murder?" prosecutor John Meadors asked.

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"No, sir," responded Owen.

Asked if a cell phone analysis had been performed to see if any of the drug gang members were in the area the night of the killings, Owen said drug gang members typically use burner phones, and he didn't have their phone numbers. But state investigators performed an analysis around Moselle and had identified only first responders as coming to the scene, Owen said.

The defense attorney also asked Owen if any DNA analysis had been done to match a small amount of unknown male DNA found under Maggie Murdaugh's fingernail. Owen said no.

The drug investigation is ongoing, Owen testified.

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